(A guest post from Susan Roberts, Deputy Headteacher at the Stephen Perse Foundation Junior School)
In my school I am in the privileged position of being able to lead curriculum change. Over the past four years I have been at the forefront of designing and implementing an integrated approach to learning with an emphasis on developing the skills of curiosity, collaboration, critical thinking, reflectiveness and creativity. At around the same time we also made the decision to embed IT in the curriculum rather than teach it as a standalone subject. This had the effect of forcing me to find ways to incorporate meaningful digital activities within the different subjects I taught. Although I experienced some success with this, the breakthrough didn’t really happen until the school purchased a class set of iPads, 3 years ago, and I began to experiment with different apps.
At first, I have to admit I was not the greatest fan of the iPad. Aside from its obvious advantages, like the battery life and the time gained from not having to get the class to ‘log on’, it seemed like an expensive gimmick. However, after experimenting with iMovie, I began to see some of its potential and I was hooked. I soon found that many of the content-free apps, such as iMovie, Keynote and PuppetPals provided me with a medium through which I could teach in an inspiring and innovative way.
Three years on, the school now has one iPad between two children and the opportunities to use the technology in a creative way have multiplied. The iPad is a valuable and powerful resource which has changed my approach to teaching and learning. My lessons are now more dynamic, with greater opportunities for the children to make decisions and choices for themselves. The pupils are often scattered around the school working in small groups to develop creative ways to record, present, evaluate and explain. My role as a teacher has also changed as I have become a facilitator and guide, providing quality control and advice. I have been able to introduce longer integrated projects combining different subjects and skills where the iPad is a key tool in the process. The iPad has been invaluable in enabling me to make the curriculum change I wanted. I can now say the skills of curiosity, collaboration, critical thinking, reflectiveness and creativity are being practised on a daily basis through this technology.
However, it is the ease with which you can create on the iPad that has had the most impact in my classroom. The controls are so intuitive that very little time, if any once an app has been introduced, is spent teaching the children how to use the technology. This means that tasks that would have seemed too complicated or time consuming in the past are now possible.
Comic strips are a good example of this, as with pencil and paper they take an inordinate amount of time to draw, colour and add speech bubbles and very little learning is contained within them. However, on the iPad a comic strip takes minutes to put together and as a result I have used them to write stories, report on school trips, present theories, track the journey of a raindrop and display the properties of 3D shapes. As the creation of the comic is so easy the History, Geography or Maths learning becomes the central aspect of the activity which is the way it should be.
Creating movies is a similar example. Although I had made movies with my pupils in the past, I spent much of my time helping them access the features of the software rather than developing the quality of the content, which had put me off. iMovie is such a simple, yet powerful app it can be used by any age group to make professional quality films. My class have made ‘Dragons’ Den’ style pitches for fruit juice cocktails, TV adverts for their own boxes of chocolate truffles and presentations as travel agents on their ideal holidays to Orlando.
As their confidence has grown they are now able to combine work produced in other apps within their iMovies to add to the effect. They have used Morfo Booth to bring historical characters to life; Thomas Edison explaining how he invented the lightbulb or Henry VIII arguing with one of his wives. PuppetPals has enabled us to develop the art of storytelling and the children have created backdrops, characters and scripts with enthusiasm. Tellagami has provided a way to produce documentaries allowing the children to report on more serious issues such as coastal erosion, damage to rainforests and the water treatment process. These and other content-free apps that make up my core toolkit have enabled me to keep the learning focused on the skills I want the children to develop rather than on the technology.
In my experience all children are engaged by technology and in spite of regular use, my pupils are always excited if they need an iPad for a lesson. However, it has become obvious over time that the level of engagement is not just with the technology but rather with the content they are learning. It is not uncommon to see pupils doing more research so they can make a section of their presentation completely accurate. They are keen to take their learning further to improve their work and will often stay willingly into their breaktimes in order to finish what they are doing. The water treatment process is not a particularly inspiring topic, especially on a worksheet but when my class had to make an iMovie to teach others about how water gets from the reservoir to our taps they enthusiastically researched and created long after they would have given up with a pencil and paper exercise. Not only that, as a result they know the material inside out and will remember it, which is an added benefit for assessments.
My learners have increased their willingness to take risks with their learning. They are happy to experiment with different features and different apps and want to develop their creativity. They are making movies and presentations with increasing complexity, combining work in several different apps to add depth to their knowledge and they are much more likely to find solutions independently to the problems they encounter rather than seeking teacher support. They have improved their ability to work in groups and really understand the meaning of being collaborative and are now giving and taking, sharing ideas and compromising with ease. Finally, their editing skills have developed and they are more willing to spend time being precise and paying attention to the detail of their work as they understand the importance of getting it right.
This type of learning environment more closely resembles the workplaces these children will be part of in the future. Skills like being able to work independently through a series of smaller tasks in order to complete a project and being able to make their own decisions about direction and creativity can never be learnt too early. The children are learning to offer and take constructive criticism about their digital projects as they are assessed by their peers and myself. They are discovering the skills needed to collaborate on a project, using the best bits of everyone’s ideas to make the final product a success. All these skills will be invaluable as they enter the workplace. The iPad has enabled me to ensure the learning my pupils engage in is relevant and appropriate for the futures they will experience.
So, could I teach without the iPad now? Well, the answer to that is ‘Of course!’ But why would I want to? Surely the aim of a teacher is to provide learning experiences that best help the pupils to engage with, understand, process, apply and remember knowledge and skills. With such a powerful tool readily available in my classroom to do just this, it would be absurd not to make the most of its potential.