The better that teachers know their learners, the more effectively they can help them
You might think that a teacher rated "outstanding" by school inspectors might be tempted to keep on keeping on, so to speak. But Ceri-Ann Clark has felt her effectiveness as a teacher grow as she has added the judicious use of technology to her teaching mix, and that includes her involvement in leading her school in the pilot of Hwb+, the 'private' part of Welsh national digital network for education.
A Year 6 teacher at Cadoxton Primary School, in Barry, south Wales, Ceri-Ann feels she has got to know her children much better as she has gradually moved away from whole-class teaching. This has increased her effectiveness in her number one priority – helping children to learn.
A richer feedback loop
"Two years ago we had an inspection and I was teaching whole-class lessons," she explained. "I was observed five times during the two-and-a-half days they were here in class with us, and my teaching was judged to have been 'outstanding' in every single lesson I taught. Yet I feel that I am a more effective teacher now in the way that I teach than the way that I was then.
"You are dealing with the children in a smaller group every so often and not whole-class, so you get to talk to the children more. You get to find out what makes them tick. and then you can obviously feed that back into your teaching."
It's this different, richer feedback loop with learners which Ceri-Ann Clark identifies as the key to her own improvements. "I am not saying that whole-class teaching is wrong because two years ago it was judged to be outstanding, but I feel more effective now," she emphasised.
Although teachers are naturally reluctant to talk about their own achievements – it usually takes some persuasion – this professional theme was clearly present in other Hwb pilot schools. That's because increased effectiveness can bring immediate rewards, like better engagement of children and heightened job satisfaction.
Up in north Wales, ICT teacher Elfyn Anwyl (pictured left) had also noticed the changes in his own teaching since he started using online collaborative services like Julia Skinner's innovative 100-word Challenge which he then incorporated into his work with his learners in Hwb+ (see Ysgol Y Moelwyn case study). Putting students in charge of the learning gave him more space to monitor their work as they did it, and get closer to them to better support them.
It's not simply that using digital tools changes teacher practice. It wouldn't, on its own. It's teachers being willing to try new ways of teaching and discovering how the digital world can help them. Like Sonny Singh, head of science at Bassaleg School, Newport, who says that his own teaching has changed "massively" over the past four or five years.
'Everything has to involve what is happening in the classroom'
Bernoulli's Principle – how planes fly – to his students. "It's a huge mathematical derivation," he explained, "and I would normally have taken them through it on the board, which would have taken about 40 minutes for the derivation."One significant moment came when he changed the way he introduced
Instead he used shared video resources online for them to see before the lesson. They were also presented with questions in a survey. "I got their responses in real time and fed them into my planning, grouping people according to the answers they gave and – boom – they were doing the activity. They were explaining what they had seen, breaking it down into different sections. They were doing it. Traditionally, I would have explained it and they would have written it all out."
Sonny Singh is resistant to current debates about "flipped learning"; he sees this kind of work as simply another option for teachers as they engage children in "learning anywhere".
Another moment came when he engaged his learners in an investigation based on photos and facts about the planets. He was startled to hear two of his students, otherwise disillusioned about learning, in a heated discussion about the temperature of Venus: "It was a groundbreaking moment for me – they were engaged and involved.
"Everything has to involve what is happening in the classroom and what they are learning. Other than that, if it's not improving what they are learning there is no point in doing it."
These changes, together with his fluency with ICT, are why Bassaleg deputy headteacher Lana Picton asked Sonny Singh to create the school's CPD programme for Hwb+. "Staff will do some self-training before the training session, then come back to Sonny with questions and ideas, developing resources in the actual training sessions," she explains. "They are not being 'instructed' by Sonny."
Hannah Jones, who helped pioneer the former national Strategic Leadership of ICT programme Leadership programme, has led the training initiative for Hwb+ for provider Learning Possibilities (LP). A former teacher, she commented: "Never ever assume that if you put technology in front of children and teachers that learning will get better. But it will do if it is supporting a good vision for learning, coherent strategies, effective pedagogies and sensitive support, preferably by other teachers.
"We have been delighted by the response to Hwb and Hwb+. Teachers are natural sharers and the new network connects them whatever device or platform they use. Many of our teachers feel that their performance and effectiveness has been heightened thanks to their new peer professional networks and their closer working with their learners. Our priority now is to build on the improvements and the lessons we have been learning."
While Hwb+ in itself doesn't ensure the changes described here, it certainly does support them with simple but powerful tools that can be used with the learning and teaching from the get-go. The fact that they are integrated into a virtual community that is secure and can be accessed anywhere and on any device means that teachers can swiftly adopt them for their practice.
Evidence of that trend in changing practice has already been reflected throughout the Hwb+ pilot schools, from Blaenau Ffestiniog in north Wales down to Bassaleg in the south. Now the challenge is to share those experiences through the national community of Hwb+ schools.
"Cadoxton flies flag for Welsh digital learning revolution"
“Barry, where children learn by teaching - online too”
“Follow my digital leader - how Hwb+ rolls in Newport”
“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.