Teacher educator Steve Bunce shares feedback on how good tools stand the test of time
Planet SherstonPlanet Sherston: boys motivated by football spelling game and othersHow do we engage boys in learning? How do we raise their achievement in reading? These are questions of high importance in schools.

With increasing pressure on teachers to obtain better results and a changing curriculum, can technology offer support? A recent white paper for Planet Sherston explains how this could be achievable.

Earlier this year, an action research project with Planet Sherston was completed with primary teachers from the North East of England. During the research period in May 2012 came the announcement by Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, that "The gender gap between boys and girls reading is extremely worrying. Boys with poor reading skills will struggle to succeed at school and throughout life." This reinforced the purpose of the project to find ways to address this problem.

Working with three primary schools, the children’s interactions were observed in and around using Planet Sherston online service which is a range of games and activities to support learning across the curriculum. Sherston software has long been established in education and has been part of the TAG Learning group and BLi Education. Through recent reorganisation, it has been rebranded as the Sherston Publishing group, still retaining its high-quality standards in educational software. The Planet Sherston website is the online portal and schools buy access through an annual subscription.

Planet SherstonMoshi-style graphics pull children into an attractive online worldUsing a Moshi Monsters-style alien to register achievements, the children are drawn into a learning world. Speaking with the teachers, it emerged that there were many success stories for engaging boys. They were determined to persevere: one boy would repeat the learning literacy and numeracy activities over and over until he achieved 100 per cent correct. Another reluctant pupil would stay in at break time and then demonstrated his learning by showing others how to play the games.

This engagement is reflected in the detailed user statistics for the individual schools: respectively, 34, 19 and 36 per cent of all access was from home. Speaking with the children, one boy said, “I go on it nearly every night because it’s fun!” Another said, “I’ve been round his and played on it.” One boy quickly responded, ‘I’ve added it to my favourites at home.”

So, how does Planet Sherston engage boys in reading? Many of the boys observed really liked the spelling football game. They read the words from pre-set lists and were then required to spell them within a specified time. Further engagement was seen as they created their own lists to adapt the game. Planet Sherston also contains a large range of literacy activities, which were accessed by the boys and tracked by the teachers.

Enthusiastic teacher Carolyn Lawton, of Harrowgate Hill Primary in Darlington, was keen to share her experiences. “It can be used to enhance lessons or plan and deliver new ones," she said. "It is so useful for teachers who are planning lessons, saving lots of time from scouring the internet and allowing you to search by subject and even objective to find relevant and stimulating activities and worksheets to enhance learning in and outside of the classroom.”

What became clear throughout the research was the important role of the teacher. The teacher can use one of the many resources, such as a food web simulation, as part of their lesson. They can then place that tool into the children’s tasks areas so that they can access it at school and home, reinforcing the learning.

Reflecting on my own teaching career, introducing the appropriate technology really engaged the boys in my classes. It was never to replace books or visiting the library, but to add to the experience or ‘hook’ their attention. An example was Sherston’s Map Detectives software. The children enjoyed how they could use the physical paper map in front of them and the on-screen clues. Many years later, at a TeachMeet at the Game Based Learning Conference 2010, a 15-year-old girl, Edith (above), gave a presentation on how Map Detectives had taught her how to navigate the London Underground system in real life. (Watch out for the Game Based Learning Conference when it returns in 2013, as part of the Learning without Frontiers Festival.)

This autumn, as new teaching undergraduates are just beginning their careers, they need to find ways to engage learners too. As a part-time lecturer at Durham University, I have had the fantastic opportunity to share Planet Sherston with them and their reaction was the same as my own first encounter. Sherston Software was an example of the ‘right’ tool for the job back in the late 20th century and I’m pleased that this offering to schools has developed into the 21st century.
Planet Sherston 

Steve BunceDr Steve Bunce works with schools across the UK, offering professional development and public speaking. Supporting teachers with ICT, he is an Apple Distinguished Educator and Google Certified Teacher. Contact him by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or follow him on Twitter – @stevebunce.

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