Barry was a hub for the industrial revolution – now it's a 'Hwb' for learning
Groups of Year 6 children in the LEGO Innovation Studio were engrossed in creating their LEGO machines. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the only sounds they were making, apart from a general creative hum, were requests for advice from class experts and teacher Ceri-Ann Clark.
Cadoxton Primary School's LEGO investment is for STEM education, bringing together construction, design, science and programming in engaging, creative activities. It is shared with other local primaries – including Barry Island and Romilly – and they collaborate with other local schools. The ambitious LEGO work was celebrated at a Lego Green City Challenge Day, run at the school by LEGO for Cadoxton and its nine partner schools and at many events since.
This work also fed into the research being carried out by Cadoxton pupils into the effectiveness of LEGO for STEM learning with the research arm of the Big Learning Company (freely available as a downloadable iBook, Learning Brick by Brick, in the iTunes Store). And one floor above the Year 6 class in this imposing stone Victorian primary school for 337 pupils (aged 4-11) perched above Barry, with views of the dock and Flat Holm Island, is Studio Innov8, a radical partnership project with The Big Learning Company.
Studio Innov8 is the high-tech multimedia centre (see video below) where pupils will develop and record their research – and other creative work – to be shared as best practice with schools across Wales on the new national education network, Hwb. It's the kind of innovative, 360-degree learning and teaching, with a progressive concept of 'active content' co-created with the learners, that made Cadoxton an ideal pilot school for the private part of the new national network, Hwb+ (34 other schools were part of the pilot).
The public face of Hwb – the national website packed with resources connected to rich Education Wales media content on iTunesU – is already in place and open to all. Hwb+ is the dynamic private section for educators and learners and those who work with them. The pilot schools have been working with Wales' eight national Digital Leaders (mainly seconded expert teachers) and the Welsh Government's technology partner Learning Possibilities as it integrates its own secure LP+ learning platform with Microsoft's free Office365 service (email and online Office apps).
Welsh Government seeking transformation
The pilot schools and the digital leaders have been testing the system before the national roll-out. And they have been developing some of the exemplar learning and teaching being promoted by the Welsh government. It is looking for Hwb to support and be a cataylst for a transformation of practice in Welsh schools that can motor the country into the PISA (OECD) top 20 rankings.
It's a tall order but Cadoxton headteacher Janet Hayward (pictured, right, in the school's Studio Innov8), as one of the school leaders behind for the exciting changes taking place in schools across Wales, is perfectly placed. She chaired the original 'task and finish group' of figures from Welsh education, industry and public life that came up with the concept of Hwb. Now she chairs the National Digital Learning Committee tasked with ensuring that this once-in-a-career opportunity is fulfilled.
"It's really quite something that what was a 'blue sky' vision this time last year is so quickly becoming a reality," she says. "We had a minister for education in Wales [Leighton Andrews AM] who was able to see the potential power of the use of technology in learning and teaching and was fully behind plans to make it happen.
"Transforming learning and teaching involves a culture change that can take time, but our teachers are all up for it, as are our children who are excited to work with innovative approaches."
The kind of change in education practice sought by the Welsh Government is already happening in schools like Cadoxton. Here the move is towards child-centred, project-based learning and teaching, and collaborating with other local schools for projects and resources, and working with partners like The Big Learning Company, the BBC, Microsoft and Apple. For example, on the day of this visit Stuart Ball, a Microsoft education employee and former teacher, was visiting to upload entries to the company's Kodu Kup innovative programming competition.
Technology is seen as an important resource in this school culture, and Cadoxton is no stranger to technical innovation. A number of years ago it slashed costs for its desktop computers by using PCs powered mainly by solar energy.
The move away from 'chalk and talk'
While not all groups of staff might initially be excited to work in a new and different way, it's the kind of culture change that can take teachers with it as it opens up opportunities for professional development and advancement, and better pupil engagement. Year 6 teacher Ceri-Ann Clark (pictured above, presenting on Hwb to governors) explains: "We used to be 'chalk and talk' and stand in front of the class and teach the children, whereas now I very rarely have a whole-class lesson. It's now almost entirely independent learning in my room.
"The children don't like coming back for whole-class teaching. 'Oh, do I have to?' they ask, because they are so used to being on their own and independent in their learning."
It's the child-centred learning and the external partnerships that catch the attention of another visitor to Cadoxton, national Digital Leader Matthew Geary (one of eight), who has supported the school. It's on the edge of his patch, a massive tranche of mainly rural Wales spanning up the Swansea Valley to the Brecon Beacons and west across Carmarthenshire to Cardiganshire.
"It's a two-way process," he explained. "I support the schools and focus on their priorities while at the same time keeping an eye on national priorities like raising standards for literacy." He sees schools take different approaches. Primaries are more likely to take a bold, whole-school approach to using Hwb+ to change practice, while secondaries tend to start with a subject or department. For those joining Hwb+ in the following tranches there has already been exemplary pioneering work in schools right across Wales.
“Barry, where children learn by teaching - online too”
“Follow my digital leader - how Hwb+ rolls in Newport”
“Can networks like Hwb+ help improve teachers? Yes”
“When student digital leaders become the consultants”
“Network is a core for the curriculum, not an add-on”
This series of articles on Hwb, the Welsh national learning network, is reproduced with the kind permission of the Welsh Government for whom they were originally commissioned in 2013 by Learning Possibilities (LP). LP has been implementing the integration of Hwb+, the private element of the network (based on its commercial product LP+), with Microsoft’s Office365 online service for schools in Wales.