Getting Boys to Write

The National Literacy trust has revealed that, based on its own research, boys are half as likely to enjoy writing as girls and almost a third never or rarely write outside of class.  So working in a boys’ school, it’s a fair assumption that there are more than a couple of reluctant writers in my classes.  Which, given the importance of extended case study writing in geography exams, can become a problem.  The challenge is thus twofold, getting students to memorise the case study information and then getting them to practise writing the information concisely.

Several years ago, two of my students decided to make songs of all their A level case studies and publish them to youtube.  Whilst never troubling the charts with their work, they did manage to achieve good A-level results.  This got me thinking, could music be used to help memorisation and also encourage writing in boys.  Before the i-Pad, this kind of activity would have been difficult, but the built-in recording and editing in Garageband makes this a relatively simple process.

The task that was set was to either produce a rap about the Haiti or Japanese Earthquake, or one that compares them.  They had to write 3 verses and a chorus, and record it over a Creative Commons approved backing track.  The written aspects of this are challenging for 13-year-olds, as they have to consider not only the geographical details, but also write using rhyming couplets and rhythm.  Effectively they were writing poetry in disguise, and they were enjoying doing so.  Here is an example of the finished work:

People often ask whether using technology can help develop writing skills, and I would argue that it can, but it needs to be planned carefully.  In this example, the technology has been the catalyst, a motivating influence that helped the boys consider rhythm in writing as well as creating a device that enable students to remember the crucial details needed for the case study answers. I mean, who doesn’t remember the words from songs they listened to when they were young!

The role of technology in the classroom

There has been a lot of sensationalist headlines in the UK press recently regarding the role of technology in the classroom, which has once again brought the topic of tablets back to the public’s attention.  Articles such as this, from the Sunday Times, have very sensationalist headlines:

Ban Tablets says ‘Tsar’

However, Tom Bennett, the government advisor on behaviour has clarified his position in his blog (Tom Bennett), which has a more balanced view where he recognises that technology can have a positive educational impact when used in the right way.   I don’t disagree with Tom, technology can be distracting, but so can many other things.  In the 20+ years that I have been teaching I have seen students distracted by paper (who doesn’t remember making paper aeroplanes?), pens (graffitti anyone?), open windows and most recently books being read under the table in another lesson.  We obviously don’t advocate banning all those things!  The truth is, students are easily distracted, but technology, used the right way can have the opposite effect.  When students are busy making film, or demonstrating learning via animation they are more focussed, more engaged and most importantly,  learning.

At Pleckgate we banned personal mobile devices in the classroom, but gave students an iPad that the school owned and controlled.  These devices were filtered, in and out of school; all social media was blocked and the app store removed so that students could not download games.  We also gave teachers the control needed to lock devices, control what websites they can go on, and monitored their use.  The MDM (mobile device management) profiles on devices gave us that control, and basically made it impossible for students to personalise the devices with their own apps.  A tough policy on use of devices also made it clear that any mis-use, or deleting profiles (not an issue now DEP is in UK) and they would lose their device.  However, the key for the success at Pleckgate was not about the devices at all.  We always said the device was there as a tool to aid teachers, we did not advocate everything had to be done on them.  The school embraced the TEEP model for improving teaching and learning, and the iPad development plan was matched into this to ensure the focus was on pedagogy not technology.  We always maintained that the technology was an enabler for improving/diversifying pedagogical practices proven to work (Meta-cognition, feedback, collaboration, homework etc.) all proven to improve outcomes by the EEF.

Here is an example of how the iPad programme was mapped into the plan to improve learning and teaching and the TEEP (which is now also being researched as a successful intervention by the EEF).  Ipad Development Plan.  An example of a lesson where technology really made a difference to learning was in geography.  In this lesson, students made stop motion animation videos to demonstrate how physical landforms were made.  Without the technology, students would have drawn some diagrams and added labels, but this is easy to copy and do without thinking. By re-creating the physical steps students  had to really understand the processes and they were therefore able to re-call this information much more clearly, as was evidenced by written exam answers ( and yes, the students did still answer an exam question, essay style, with a pen).

The introduction of iPads, combined with all the other interventions, helped our last year 11s achieve the highest results in the school’s history.  Did the iPads do that on their own, of course not.  So if you are planning a 1:1 roll out, do not do so without careful planning, and do not rush deployment.  You must make decisions on many things, including levels of control, but most importantly how the iPads fit into a wider plan to improve learning and teaching.

ADE Class of 2015

Quite some time ago I applied to join the Apple Distinguished Educator programme, a scheme where international teachers who are innovative with Apple technology, and secure good outcomes in their classrooms, join together to share good practice.  The application process was quite tough and included a long written section that identifies how you are using technology to transform and innovate learning, and a video that shows this in action. I never really considered myself ‘creative’, so the video aspect was daunting, especially as I am a busy deputy headteacher with numerous responsibilities and little time.  In the end, I was pleased with the final product, despite the inconsistency with sound levels and music, as it got across what we have achieved at Pleckgate.  This is my video:

I feel extremely lucky to be selected as an Apple Distinguished educator for the class of 2015, and I am now looking forward to the Institute where I can develop my skills further, grow my network of innovative teachers, and get the best CPD possible.  However, for me, the most important thing I have gained from this process so far is the ability to reflect on the journey we have undertaken, as well as build a really good PLN of fellow ADE hopefuls.

So, to celebrate this reflection, I thought I’d share 5 key things to consider when planning a 1:1 roll out.

1) Start with a clear vision, and make that vision about the pedagogy.  The technology has to be second.  I would look at the vision for planning, teaching and assessment and then plan how the technology will enhance, modify and re-define those processes.

2) Work closely with your ICT network team.  You have to plan for concurrency as well as coverage, and time spent getting the infrastructure needed to support 1:1 right will lead to a smoother roll out and greater staff confidence in the classroom.

3) Get the staff ready first.  Ensure they understand the vision and then give them time to plan.  This is something I wish we had done more at Pleckgate.  So for example, if you want iTunes U as the planning part of learning, ensure staff have the time to sit together and actually set that up before the students get their iPads.  It will ensure a smoother roll out and higher engagement from the staff and students.

4) Have a plan for Apple IDs.  The Apple ID is essential for students as it allows them to enrol on courses, receive apps etc.   Originally we asked students to set their own, but this created problems as they could download games, which isn’t a major problem so long as you manage the behaviour. The bigger problem was when they forgot their passwords, as it could take over a day for them to re-set, than go home and check their personal e-mail etc.  We therefore decided we would manage the appleIDs, which student devices are locked to.  This means we can update apps over the air, restrict the downloading of games etc. and also ensure each student can enrol on courses quickly, with no extra fuss.  This approach isn’t for every school, but we found this has helped us gain better confidence from our staff and our parents.

5) Identify your digital champions (staff) and your digital leaders (students).  These groups can identify the innovative approaches to teaching and learning, and if it is done well, this is easy as staff are free to experiment and innovate.  I wish we’d used the digital leaders more at Pleckgate, as they are a great resource that can really help transform learning.

There are lots of other important steps, including getting parents fully on board, but I feel that these 5 steps are something to consider first.  The most important being that 1:1 is about pedagogy and learning; make sure that stays at the heart of your vision.

Developing Oracy through iPad presentation tools

Having just helped lead Pleckgate out of Special Measures in just over 12 months, it’s fair to say we have had our fair share of Ofsted inspections.  One consistent theme that always comes through is that our students’ verbal or oracy skills are weak.  This is not necessarily surprising given the EAL profile of our students, but it is a key area for improvement as students cannot write what they cannot say.  As a result, one of the most common uses of the iPads in our classrooms is to prepare presentations which helps address this key area. So, I’ve put together an introduction to three of the top apps for making presentations.



Keynote is Apple’s presentation software that now comes free with newer iPads and Macs.  It is a really simple, intuitive programme that works brilliantly on the iPads.  It is simple to use, for example it’s much simpler to align and position images/objects than in Powerpoint and it’s much more multimedia friendly.  Plus it has some excellent transitions and animations (Magic Move is nice), and it’s simple to export into other apps in a variety of formats.  The key drawback for developing Oracy and verbal skills is that it is almost too engaging… students love to create animations and visuals, and forget about the presentation part, and therefore revert to simply reading back the written information in the slides.  A good way round this is to get them to open it in Explain Everything so that they are forced to think of the presentation aspects too.

Adobe Voice

Adobe voice

I was introduced to this app just recently, and I was immediately taken with its simplicity.  Insert simple creative commons licensed images, choose from a limited licensed pool of music and record your voice to tell a story.  The limited options mean students only focus on the verbal aspects of the presentation which means its great for developing oracy in students.  Students can also create great stories in a matter of minutes.  The downsides are also its strengths, the lack of customisation means that this is an occasional app rather than a frequent flyer.

Haiku Deck

Haiku deck

Haiku Deck is similar to Keynote and Powerpoint, but it constrains the user into set templates and styles which makes it harder to overwhelm the audience with too much text.  This forces students to focus on what they are saying, and the ‘Deck’ is just there as a visual reference point… as it should be.  One downside that has been reported by some teachers online is the nature of the images and that they are not always appropriate for younger students.  Definitely something to look out for.

Whichever presentation tool you use, it really comes down to the teacher focussing students on the essentials for good presentations.  As with all good lessons, teachers need  to share clear outcomes and objectives that are agreed from the outset so that students are clear what is expected.  If these foundations are put in place then any of these apps will help develop students’ oracy skills.

‘Creativity is about liberating human energy’ Howard Gardner

When I was younger I thought creativity was only for certain types of people; the eccentrics, the mavericks and the talented.  In fact my secondary school exaggerated this view by putting all the musicians in their own tutor group, and only a select few were ever allowed in.  I was never allowed in, despite my flirtations with music in a punk band called Death by Yoghurt.  And I do use the term music loosely in this context.

In fact, I went through my early adult years thinking of myself as a rational scientist, and lacking the skills to be creative. That is, until I became a teacher.  Faced with students who didn’t really seem to care that much about glaciation or maps, I had to find creative ways of getting them to learn, often without them realising.  In fact, my lessons are devoted to the creative process of ‘developing ideas that are original and of value’ (Robinson 2001). I want students to make videos, I want them making songs about their work, I want them to question everything and therefore engage with the learning process in a dynamic way that enables them to learn effectively.  I like students to have choice in the classroom, or at least the opportunity to express their thoughts in different ways, whether that is up to them or decided by the teacher. I think Ken Robinson has some great ideas about education and creativity, and his TED talks are worth a look if you’ve not seen them before.  This is also a nice summary.

Recently, I was lucky to be invited into a classroom by Mrs Sholicar, an English teacher at Pleckgate.  Her year 8 class was completing some display work on Gothic literature, a tried and tested approach to inspiring creativity in students.  However, in this lesson, the students were using their iPads to completely redefine  what display work is. Firstly students were writing biographical details about selected authors (an important literacy skill), then using a green screen app (Do Ink Green screen) to record this biographical detail in front of key images relating to the author’s life and work.  These videos were than edited together in iMovie.  Students designed posters and used these as trigger images to create augmented reality displays using Aurasma.  The end result is displays that literally come to life with students talking eloquently about the subject matter when scanned with the iPads.

The lesson was a joy to be part of, even as an outsider, as students were independent, showing enjoyment for discovering things for themselves, problem solving, working well as teams, trying to be unique and owning their learning.  An excellent way of using creativity to engage students in writing, and an innovative way of using and displaying student work.

“Good learning starts with questions, not answers.” Guy Claxton

Did you know?

  • Teachers ask up to two questions every minute, up to 400 in a day, around 70,000 a year, or two to three million in the course of a career
  • Questioning accounts for up to a third of all teaching time, second only to the time devoted to explanation

Questions serve many purposes. They can help pupils to reflect, develop thinking skills, encourage discussion and stimulate new ideas. Questions allow teachers to determine how much a class understands and enable them to pitch lessons at an appropriate level, and plan the next stages in learning.

But, when observing lessons, I often see questions rushed, and on average teachers’ questions are answered in a second or less (not my observations, research completed by London G&T).  I often use the pose – pause – pounce – bounce method for questions, and have done so for many years now, but the issue is still that once the first student is ‘pounced’ on, they have altered the thinking of their classmates, and the subsequent ‘bounces’ don’t always create the debate I would hope for.

So when we went 1:1, it was with great excitement that we made our first core app – Socrative.  For those that don’t know, Socrative is a questioning app that enables teachers to get responses from the whole class.  It works as 2 different apps – the teacher version where questions are planned and posed, and the student one where they receive and answer the questions.

soc teachersoc student

Each teacher has an online classroom where questions are either pre-planned or where they can be run as and when the teacher feels alongside other resources such as a Keynote or Powerpoint presentation.  Students simply enter the code for their teachers classroom, and then the teacher decides when to ask questions.  A good tip here is to get students to write your class code/name in the front cover of their books so that they can log in quickly each time you want to use it.

The immediate beauty of this is that you are finding out responses from all students, rather than one student at a time.  It allows you to really understand the learning and progress that has happened during that lesson, and to then plan next steps accordingly. One lesson I observed, the teacher ran a quiz as a plenary and they observed the responses coming in live.  It was obvious that 90% class all had misunderstood one point, and the teacher was able to plan and re-shape the lesson accordingly.  In another lesson, I actually observed the teacher export the quiz results at the end, and than use that as a discussion point with the class, helping them to understand mistakes and develop that all important meta-cognition.  The other beauty is that quizzes can be pre -made with the answers built in, and shared to other staff to save teacher time and effort.  Some good examples of quizzes for Science and Maths can be found here: – Science – Maths and Others

However, in my previous post, I discussed the SAMR model, and in some cases I have seen the Socrative quizzes simply being used as a substitute for a worksheet.  Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, it does have the danger of switching students off if overused in this way.

The real power of Socrative for me however, is when staff use it as an exit ticket to tell the teacher what, and how much they have learnt and progressed in that lesson.  Socrative has its own pre-made exit ticket:

1) How well did you understand today’s material? (Multiple Choice)
2)What did you learn today? (Open Response)
3) Please answer your teacher’s question (Your opportunity to ask and capture any question you’d like)

But it is easy to make your own, some of my favourites are Tweet it (Students summarise learning as a tweet of 140 characters) or Keep-Grow-Change.  Dead easy to do, quick to set up, and fantastic ways of reviewing learning.

The other advantage of Socrative is that it works on any Internet enabled device, laptops, mobile phones, so it can be easily used in any classroom. Why not give it a try!