Over the past six months our school has handed out just shy of five hundred iPads to pupils across two year groups and teaching staff. The mere logistics of physically handing them out were challenging enough, and lessons were learnt, but our most important lessons have come from where it really matters, and that is ensuring that tablet devices are successfully embedded into our teaching and learning practices. These are the top five lessons we have learnt thus far:
1 – Eleven-year-olds are very different to sixteen-year-olds
It sounds rather obvious, doesn’t it? Ah, hindsight is such a wonderful thing!
Although we plan to be fully 1-to1 within the next few months, we decided to stage the implementation and hand out the tablets – iPads in our case – to two year groups, Year 7 and Year 12 (staff had received theirs the previous academic year). For clarification, Year 7 are 11-12 year olds and Year 12 are 16-17 year olds.
When our students join us in Year 7 it’s kind of a big deal. They have just left primary education and many of them are still wondering whether to use pens or pencils. We decided to hand out iPads to the girls in Year 7 on their induction day, which is the day when they are bombarded with all kinds of useful but overwhelming information about their new school. We did because we though it was easier to fit the hand out into a day when there were no lessons – just induction. What was logistically the easiest option was the not the best option for our students. We won’t be doing that again.
In the following days we quickly realised that handing out iPads on the first day was too much for 11 year olds and that they needed to settle into their new school’s systems – new timetable, new subjects, new locations, having a variety of teachers and, yes, writing with a pen – for a couple of weeks before we gave them an iPad and explained to them how they’re expected to use them. Children this young may be comfortable with the use of technology, but don’t expect them to remember their usernames and passwords for anything.
Year 12? Not a peep from them. They got their iPads on day one and they just got on with it and, to this day, continue to get on with it rather admirably.
2 – Training, training, training
Question: What’s more expensive than training teachers? Answer: Not training teachers.
Since the success or failure of a 1-to-1 implementation depends on whether teachers see these new technologies as supporting them in their jobs, it is Essential with a capital E that teachers get their tablets in advance of pupils. You really don’t want pupils rocking up to lessons with tablets that teachers don’t know what to do with. That would be a recipe for Failure with a capital F.
The tech and the teach need to go hand in hand. But teachers can be tricky customers. The same teachers who complain they don’t have time for training will be the ones criticising you for not offering enough training afterwards. And the teachers who complain they don’t get enough training will be the ones picking you up on trying to cram too much into those glorious beginning of term events we call INSET days. At times, it will seem, even when you’re right, you’re still wrong.
For us, offering a mix of departmental, one-to-one and weekly drop-in training sessions, as well as the occasional INSET extravaganza has worked reasonably well. A constant drip-drip of training opportunities has ensured that the project remains in the forefront of everyone’s thinking, especially when making important decisions about resourcing the following year’s schemes of work.
And don’t forget the ostriches! Some teachers will try their hardest to bury their heads in the sand. They’ve seen it all before. They remember VAK and De Bono’s Thinking Hats and are sure your gimmicks, as they see them, are no different. The easiest thing would be to ignore them and focus on the easy wins, but think of it this way: find a way to bring them on board and they will become your greatest ambassadors. Easier said than done? Maybe. But definitely worth a try.
3 – When you say AND, people will hear OR
Whether as teachers, students or parents, we all come with a set of prejudices and biases. When it comes to technology, it’s no different. We see a kid with a book and we think they’re studious. But we see another kid with a digital device and our instinct is often to tell them to put it away, even though they may be reading the same book on it.
Similarly, when you introduce the concept of working with tablets at schools, teachers, students and parents will begin to make all sorts of assumptions about what work can/must be done on the tablet. They’ll start wondering whether paper-based exercise books will be needed any more; whether we will stop teaching cursive writing; and whether, therefore, everything that’s good and proper about teaching and learning will be unceremoniously ditched in favour of untested newfangledness.
This kind of binary thinking is, it seems to me, very common and, no matter how often you emphasise AND as a the correct preposition in this particular paradigm, many students, parents and teachers will still hear OR.
This will happen. It’s in our nature. The key is to always remain calm, composed, patient and reassuring when you answer yes, of course to teachers or parents who ask you for the nth time but can students still write essays on paper?
Oh, and don’t assume students know better, because they don’t. They also like to put their OR in.
4 – Plant seeds, add some water and step well back
When it comes to ideas, yours are always better than the ideas of others. Only they’re not. This is actually a well-documented psychological phenomenon called the Not Invented Here Bias. Ideas, according to Dan Ariely, are “like a toothbrush – everybody needs one, but nobody wants to use anybody else’s”.
Schools are no different in my experience. When guiding your colleagues through the thorny maze of scepticism and the sharp fronds of unsubstantiated enthusiasm, you need to remain open to their experience, expertise and professional judgement. They may not know as much about iPads as you do, but they sure know a heck of a lot about teaching and learning. Understanding that holding their hand out of the maze is as beneficial to you as it is to them is probably the most important realisation you will come to in this process, with your students as the ultimate beneficiaries of a well-informed strategy.
For these reasons, don’t tell them about your own bright ideas. When they come to you with a problem, don’t tell them what they should do, give them instead a variety of options that you know will get the job done. Let them try them out and join their own dots. Allow teachers to have and nurture their own ideas, because this is how change gains traction.
Make no mistake. Asking students and parents to view tablets as a tool for academic work and not just for leisure is a big deal. Asking teachers to change their practices is an even bigger deal still. As such, you must ensure your school shares its vision on how tablets will be used as loudly, as widely and as often and as possible.
We’ve already covered the need for frequent training opportunities for staff, but when it comes to the wider school community you need to think about making this vision clear, visible and easily accessible. The school website, newsletters, the school magazine, information evenings, frequently asked questions and one-to-one meetings with parents needing reassurance all spring to mind as powerful ways to make a good start with an effective communication strategy.
But it is only the start. As well as glossy articles in the school magazine and flashy pages on your school website, you will also need to listen to teachers’, students’ and parental concerns. Carry out surveys, SWOT analysis and chat informally with as many people with as many varying views as possible. Involve as many people as you can. Communication is all about the individual.
However, as with staff training, you may well find that too much for some is too little for others and that pleasing absolutely everyone is nigh on impossible. What worked in another setting may not work so well in yours. So, get out there more often, visit other 1-to-1 schools, read widely, learn lessons and pick the ones you feel you can apply in your own context.