BETT 2017

BETT is always a really good couple of days of CPD combined with an opportunity to browse through the latest technology products aimed at education.  This year I also had the opportunity to share some of Bolton School Boys’ Division’s approach to technology as well as our approach to e-safety.  Being joined on stage by a parent and student was also good, and Monty, 11 was a real credit to Portable Network Graphics image-30F7D9B952C6-1.pngthe school.

Furthermore, the sharing of practice by other teachers was also once again a highlight of the two days.   Whether that was from fellow ADEs on the Showbie stand, in the Apple Solutions village or on the main stage, it is always inspiring to hear from fellow teachers.

Other highlights included:

Meeting the Explain Everything team to discuss the future of classic and also to explore their new features

Finally seeing what the ‘cultish’ Night Zookeeper was all about.  I was really blown away by how great the app and resources were for encouraging a love of reading and writing.  I almost wish I taught Primary!

Discussing research with UCL, and hopefully making some contacts there to help partner with our Learning Development Group.

Seeing the Vitruali-Tee in action, a great product for learning about human anatomy.

And, I should mention the fantastic @YourHRLawyer who were friendly, funny and offered some good HR advice for schools.

However, I was also disappointed in some other aspects of the products on display, especially some of the VR solutions.  I really do believe that VR/360 have great potential in education.  My classes have already shown how being immersed into a rainforest actually helps them learn and remember the content, and  360 films such as Clouds over Sidra are really powerful prompts for writing as they develop empathy, allowing students to understand what it is like to be there.  The problem with VR in the classroom is that it is either too expensive or it requires students to use their phones, which for many schools is not ideal (although we have worked around this at school).  At least 3 solutions were at BETT, which had headsets complete with a built in device, so eliminating the need for the phones.  The problem was however, the content.  Too much of the content was just a direct replacement and didn’t take advantage of the potential of VR to immerse people into an environment.  For example, viewing a 3D geometric shape in VR does nothing better than just holding a physical cube/sphere.  so why do it in VR?  The majority of these solutions also only worked with the proprietary content, so students cant see any VR or 360 content they create with cameras or in CoSpaces, and you are then forced to maintain a yearly subscription.  I really hope to see this content change and improve, and for these solutions to open up and allow student created content.

My other main disappointment was still the proliferation of interactive screens.  For me, these are rarely used well and offer little in the classroom.  A decent screen/projector and an iPad loaded with Explain Everything can do all of the things, and more, that an interactive screen can do.  Plus its a fraction of the cost.

However, I will be back next year, and I hope that we start to see more emerging technologies that are more open to teachers creating and sharing their own content.  However, the real value in the show will always be the other teachers sharing and showcasing their ideas.  After all, technology is useless unless it is in the hands of skilled practitioners.

The Educational Potential of VR

Virtual reality (VR) has been around for a long time now, but undoubtedly Google’s cheap cardboard viewers that work with any modern smartphone have made this technology more available than ever.  This is a huge development for education, as it has opened the market up and content in both 360 and VR is being added daily.  Youtube has a 360 channel, and new content is making it possible to go anywhere, experience anything whenever you desire.  For a geography teacher, this is an amazing development… from the comfort of your classroom you can transport students to the Amazon, to the Favelas in Rio or even experience life in a refugee camp through this excellent immersive film:

Clouds over Sidra

The whole world is now available to not just see, but to experience too. So why use VR and 360 films instead of the usual video?  Put simply, the ability to look for yourself and not be shown where to look creates the feeling of being there.  This immersive experience is incredibly powerful for students, and has the potential, when used well, to create long term memories and they are therefore good learning experiences.  This is not confined to the humanities, the sciences are also set to benefit from VR – Curioscope’s Virtuali-Tee shirt is going to transform ways in which we can learn about the human body.

The starting point for the use of VR in Bolton School Boys’ Division was the excellent Google Expeditions day, which we were luck enough to be chosen for.  Every student in years 7-9 had the opportunity to experience an aspect of either the Geography, Classics or Biology curriculum using the excellent expeditions app and the Cardboard viewers (Google brought everything – viewers, phones and their own network). The process works in a simple way, the teacher uses a tablet to ‘guide’ students around the virtual world.  By pressing the screen on their device teachers can show students where to look and therefore teach them as though they are there.  If we were to refer this back to the TEEP pedagogical model, this would be used as part of the ‘Present New Information’ phase.  But my question was, as it always is: How much can this actually help students learn?  And is it really helping them learn?

The year 8 boys experienced a virtual expedition to the Amazon Rainforest, but prior to this I tested their existing knowledge.  The majority 90% had never studied rainforests before so the content was going to be completely new.   After they had experienced the VR simulation, they were surveyed to assess how much they felt they learnt and how much they enjoyed the experience.  Unsurprisingly, because it is new, the questions about engagement were very positive (Ave 4.3 with 5 being a strongly agree response and a SD of only 0.7).  However, engagement is a poor proxy for actual learning so it was important to see how much they felt they had learnt.  Again the scores came out positive, with a low SD and a mean of just under 4 (3.96).  A quick run through of Cronbach’s Alpha shows that positive response to all questions was reliable (strong correlation of 0.94) with little variation in response across all questions.

One of the more interesting responses was about VR helping students to co-construct knowledge together.  You would think that being in your own headset, basically on your own, would create an isolated experience.  However, observations of the actual experience showed that students would guide each other where to look, therefore creating that feeling of being there together which was reflected in their response to that question.  However, none of these questions alone demonstrate actual learning.  As I said earlier, in order to assess learning students were tested for prior knowledge and I then run the test again two weeks after the session to see if any of the new knowledge had stayed in.  The questions that were asked specifically referred to the Rio Negro area of the Amazon, looking at low level responses of description and then higher level  responses focussing on explanation.  I was pleased to see that the same sample of boys who took the first test could all answer the lower level response where previously they couldn’t.  Even more pleasing was that 88% could explain about nutrient leaching in the higher level responses.  Clear evidence that students had learnt new information form the process, although admittedly, from a small sample size.

So what next?  I can see VR being a really useful addition to a teachers’ toolbox, a really powerful way of presenting new information to students.  But for us at Bolton School, we also want to create our own content… more of that in another blog!

ADE 2016 – Global Institute

At the end of July, I was lucky enough to spend a week with some of the most inspiring teachers and leaders in the world as we learnt from and shared with each other in Berlin.  The five days were busy, with early mornings and late nights, but I came away with so many new and inspiring ideas.  The highlights of the week for me were:

1) The Showcases

Similar to a Teachmeet format, but with much stricter time restrictions, ADEs from across the world had 3 minutes to showcase the difference they were making.  Every showcase was outstanding, and they highlighted how technology can, when used in the right way make a real difference to learning.

2) VR and 360 filming

One of the showcases, by Sarah Jones, sparked an interest in VR and 360, an area that I have only really started to look into with a Google cardboard viewer.  In fact, when my office partner came in one morning to find me using the viewer, he suggested I shouldn’t leave the office with it for the sake of my reputation!  However, it is clear that this is a growing area, with immersive experiences that can be used to bring learning to life, creating empathy and understanding.  If you want to find out about life in a refugee camp,for example, VR/360 can take you there by removing the barrier of the screen.

For more of an expert’s view,  Sarah’s TED talk can be viewed here:

I am keen to learn more, and hopefully start some filming in school.  Ideally, I would love the boys to start creating their own content, but first I will need to learn more myself.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to visit Sarah at Coventry University next term to start the ball rolling.

3) Pedagogy Toolkit

This year we were asked to suggest projects and interests to see if other ADEs would be interested in working together on it.  My project, to create a Multi-touch book that highlights how technology can unlock key pedagogical practices that are proven to improve outcomes was selected for collaboration in Berlin.  Seven teachers, from 4 different countries will now be writing this book alongside myself, and we hope this will be published to the iBook Store in the new year.  This promises to be a really good resource for explaining the ‘why’ in using tech in the classroom.

4) The expert labs and workshops

This year, we had advanced sessions available, and I was able to learn a lot more about video editing, creating HTML widgets for multi-touch books, music creation in Garageband as well as advanced presentation techniques.  These workshops were amazing, and have really helped to develop my skills.

5) The collaboration

This year, a room was set aside fro ADEs to collaborate.  This is by far the most important aspect of Institute as you get to discuss ideas, plan projects and learn from people all over the world.  Institute is inspiring beacuse of the people you meet, and the discussions you have.  I look forward to these continuing into the new school year.


Engaging Parents through SMS Messages

Just over a year ago, I packaged several boxes of exam papers and sent them off to Belfast to end Pleckgate High school’s contribution to the Education Endowment Foundation backed research project that was being conducted by Harvard University and the University of Bristol.  The results were released on Friday and have shown promising impacts for a low cost, especially in English and Maths.  As an unintended consequence, the messages also seemed to have increased attendance.  On the down side, the interventions showed no gains in attainment in Science, which was perhaps a little surprising.  The summary of results are in the table below:

EEF summary table


We were selected to participate in this research project as I had used SMS messages in a similar way in my school in London, primarily in relation to missing homework.  This, plus a willingness to participate in research backed by the EEF meant that this was a very interesting and exciting project for us.  Put another way, given that our results had dropped in previous years and this intervention was paid for by the EEF with a researcher taking care of all the SMS messages, this seemed very low risk, especially as I had seen such positive results using SMS messages in a school in London.

The Process

Once we were selected, we were allocated year 11 to receive the SMS interventions, which was our preferred year group as we were needing to rapidly raise results. I then had to work with the Heads of English, Maths and Science to get them to engage in the process.  Thankfully, there was little for them to do, as most systems were automated.  The three types of intervention were SMS reminders of upcoming tests (5days and 1 day before) as well as the results, missing homework and conversational prompts.  These prompts were an interesting idea, as it encouraged parents to have conversations with their children about recent learning.  The prompts took the form: “This week we have been learning about Space.  Ask your son/daughter why no-one can hear you scream in Space”  with the italics part filled in by subject teachers in a google form.  From a personal perspective, this was the hardest part to get staff to do as they wanted to know if it was having an impact.  Thankfully, we had a lot of interesting feedback on Parents’ Evenings that told us parents were engaging with the process.

The Results

The headline results show that Maths and English results are boosted by a month, but interestingly the data also shows that this was not significantly greater in families with English as an Additional Language (See table below) or those on Pupil premium, both of which were large groups within our year 11 cohort.  This would suggest that, whilst this is a worthwhile intervention, it needs to be for the whole cohort, not just any groups that as school may be targeting.   This would not for example, be a good use of Pupil premium money if it was only to be spent on those students.

EEF 2.1


The study was an enjoyable experience, and one that contributed to Pleckgate’s success in 2015.  In 2015, 5+A*-C results increased to the highest level ever, as did levels of progress in Maths and English.  When taking starting points, Pleckgate was the 5th best school in the country and was awarded a Beacon of Success by the DFE.  Of course, this was down to the hard work of our teaching staff, and this was just one small part of an intervention strategy that begun years beforehand.  However, the study shows promise, and only £6.55 per student per year, it is an inexpensive intervention for Maths and English.

This was also my first EEF backed RCT research project, and now I am keen to develop more, although EEF funding is probably unlikely.  Watch this space…

Teaching and Learning Leeds

Teachers are busy people, lots to do with little time, so it was a genuine pleasure to spend my Saturday with over 300 fellow teachers who came to Leeds to learn and share together.  I was presenting about using technology to unlock pedagogical practices, but this also allowed me to see some other great sessions from inspiring teachers.  My key take-away points from this are as follows.

  1. Be aware of your own cognitive biases; accept the possibility you may be seeing things wrong even if you think you are sure you are right.  This is the first time I had seen David Didau, but I have read his excellent book about this topic.  Although we do differ in our views on the role of technology in the classroom, I enjoyed meeting the man and discussing some of the data madness over lunch.  I really like the idea of a left-handed intervention policy!
  2. Cargo cult data and psychometrics were discussed by Jack Marwood, an influential primary teacher and statistician.  All exam results in all subjects have large standard deviations (9-19%), so comparing results over time is a flawed approach.  For example, a dip in results, or a rise, could be statistically insignificant, and over time results will simply regress to the mean.  This session also discussed the Halo effect, and how this influences OFSTED inspectors when making judgements.  Thankfully, the incoming Chief Inspector is aware of statistical variations as part of her previous role as chair of OFQUAL, so hopefully the over-reliance on data as a tool for judgement by OFSTED will have had its day.
  3. Iesha Small discussed leadership, and how communication is key.  She discussed the fact that communication is also what you do, not just what you say.  She also reflected on the advantages of introvert traits in leaders, in that they listen and think more carefully before they act.  A great session, I really enjoyed listening to her speak, and the brilliant quotes from books that she based her presentation on was a refreshing change from powerpoint slideshows.

My session focussed on the correct use of technology in the classroom, and how you should plan whether or not to use technology on the pedagogical aims rather than on the task itself.  We looked at meta-cognition, questioning, feedback and low stakes testing and even had time to get hands on with Socrative and Getkahoot.  A copy of my Presentation can be accessed via the drive link below

Well done to Anne Williams for organising a great event, hopefully i’ll be back next year.

What does Brexit mean for UK Schools?

On June 23rd, Britain decided it wanted to leave the EU, by a slim margin of 52 % vs 48%.  The following days have seen deep divisions emerge in society, with friends, neighbours and colleagues falling out over the decision.  The effect on the economy was almost instant, the pound fell to its lowest level since 1985 and over £125 billion wiped off the UK stock markets in a single day.  But what will this mean for schools in the UK?

‘Fundamental British Values’

Ofsted and the DFE have had a real push on the promotion of Fundamental British Values in UK schools in the last few years.  One of these values is tolerance of others and their beliefs, and I believe that in the short term this is going to be an area that schools, especially those in areas of high immigration, are going to need to focus.  Already we have had reports of primary schools with signs telling Polish people (children) to go home, and children of immigrants being in tears in school.  I won’t post links as I do not want to spread the hate here, but @postrefracism is recording the incidents if you want to check for yourself.

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, and racism was a big problem then, and  I am proud that we now live in a much more tolerant country.  Schools will need to continue to promote the value of tolerance to prevent any slide back towards where society was in the 1970s, as well as being watchful, as ever, for students who may feel isolated and scared after the decision to leave the EU.

School Budgets

The falling value of the pound could impact on some schools ability to fund certain projects.  For example, ICT hardware is often linked to the dollar, so overnight costs will have rocketed.  This may mean some schools may not be able to afford to go ahead with upgrades to their networks, as school budgets have been frozen at a time of rising staffing costs.  Price changes due to a crashing pound may be too much for some schools to cope with, and projects may not go ahead.   This at a time where a government report published on the 15th June that showed how out of date ICT equipment in schools is helping fuel a digital skills crisis that is costing the UK economy £63 billion pounds a year.  As other countries drive further ahead with digital skills, a generation of our students risk being left behind.

Foreign Trips

What next for European visits and exchanges?  Schools are already cutting back on trips due to the difficulties of releasing staff and a mass of paperwork.  Most schools start planning visits abroad at least 12 months in advance, but two years is also very common.  The uncertainty over visas, healthcare, costs etc.may mean some trips just wont get planned.  In the short term (i.e those trips already planned), it won’t make a difference as all existing arrangements stand, but the uncertainty for the future will mean it is too risky, difficult and time consuming for some schools to bother.  I am sure that in future, travel will become easier again, but how many children will miss out on opportunities in the mean time? We will probably never know.

Im sure many other problems will emerge as the dust settles and new deals are forged, but how many young people will be adversely affected in the mean time?

The Great ‘Edtech’ debate (again)

Once again the battle lines have been drawn on twitter …. those who think Edtech has no value and those that think it does.  I stayed out of the debate, I don’t think these protracted debates where we try and convince each other that they are wrong ever works.  Everyone has their own confirmation bias, and 140 characters is never going to change those views.

David Didau (@learningspy) is one of the most respected educational tweeters out there, and is a clever, insightful man.   His book on education (‘What if everything you knew about education was wrong’) is a great read and I would recommend it to everyone.  A few days ago, he took  exception to an article published in the Guardian about 20 uses of a tablet, and I have to say he was right to do so.  The list of uses was largely uninspired, and ignore the real potential that technology can have for education.

I have to start by saying I hate the term ‘Edtech’, there is simply technology, and any new technology is always treated with suspicion and scepticism. I remember, as a head of department, having to write to governors to grant me extra budget to get a data projector installed into my classroom.  My colleagues thought I was mad,and questioned why I would want such a thing.  But it made my subject come alive, and meant that I could dispose of my OHP, video player and Slide projector.   This technology is now pretty standard in schools, but at the time it was something new and revolutionary.  Tablets are also rapidly becoming commonplace in school, and it is fair to say lots of people are not convinced of the benefits.  David Didau’s blog was titled ‘Give me one good reason to use a tablet in the classroom’, so here are some good reasons:

  1. Tablets are great for AfL.  Without tablets, a teacher can ask one question at a time. Once the first student has answered a question you will never know if the rest of the class knew the answer or not.  With tablets and a simple app like Socrative, the whole class can be asked at once with instant feedback to the teacher.  These questions act as hinge points determining the direction of the learning from that moment.  The technology makes this a lot easier and instantaneous. Without tablets or another form of computer, the teacher has to take work in to mark before determining the future direction.  Tablets enable this to be done within lessons rather than between.
  2. Tablets make feedback much easier, richer and more detailed.  And we all know how feedback impacts on learning.   I use an app called Showbie for feedback as it allows me to pin voice notes to each section of a students work.  Students still write essays/extended answers in their books, but a quick photo and that can be uploaded to me, and I can read, giving detailed feedback as I go.  This makes the feedback much more personalised, its a lot more detailed and the students can get the feedback much quicker.  For example, before tablets I would take work in on say a Monday and then the student may not get it back until the next lesson on a Friday.  Now, the students hand work in, they get feedback often on the same day and they can then redraft this before the next lesson.  See below as an example.  In this case the student handed work in, got it back with feedback and resubmitted it before I had even see them for a lesson that week.  This would never have happened before students had tablets.  Plus, it takes me half the amount of time to give three times more feedback – win:win for all concerned.Feedback
  3. In my subject we have a lot of physical processes that traditionally drawn by students and they are told to memorise them.  However, many of these processes are quite abstract and things like Glaciation are hard to visualise.  Using tablets, students can make animated models which can then be compared to the theoretical framework.  Students can then see each others via AppleTV or online in an app like Seesaw, and give feedback.  Again, great for AfL.
  4. GIS.  GIS is part of the national curriculum, one of the fastest growing industries globally and is also part of GCSE and A Level specs.  Tablets enable the GIS to be used as part of a series of lessons when it is relevant, rather than taught as a separate unit whenever a computer suite might become available.
  5. Exploring the world.  The ease which students can access map, satellite images from anywhere we are studying makes tablets pretty handy.  Does Brighton fit the Burgess model?  Get on Google Earth/Maps and you can investigate it.  Plus, they are fantastic for the rare occasions that you can get students out to do fieldwork.

I could talk about how tablets can be used in MFL or any number of subjects, but that should be for other people to do.  I could also point to cost savings in teacher time, photocopying (in excess of £10,000 reduction in costs) but for me the real gains are in learning.  11% gain in headline results in my previous school since tablets were introduced for every student.

Of course, this won’t change David’s mind, that has already been made up but I will enjoy the continuing debate nonetheless.