Bryanston School has built a dynamic digital embodiment of its education philosophy – the 'eChart'
At recent keynote presentations, former schools minister Lord Jim Knight asked his audiences, "Where's the school app that tells you how your kids are doing at school?"
The good news is that what he’s looking for is just down the road from his Dorset home. It's called The Bryanston eChart and he can get a powerful demonstration of its effectiveness at Bryanston School where it has been jointly developed with learning platform company Studywiz.
How do you help learners progress? Give them prompt, meaningful feedback on their learning so they have no misunderstandings about how to improve.
By developing a clever new app that works with the assessment and pastoral data in the school’s Studywiz learning platform, Bryanston School has reduced its feedback loop to an instant. Students, teachers and parents get clear, meaningful information pushed to their iPhones, iPod Touches or iPads wherever they might be (web browsers will do). And it has helped produce their best exam results ever.
Bryanston director of studies Pete Simpson says: “It's more transparent. It's faster and better communication. But the crucial thing for me is the idea that children have an investment in their marks, which is part of the original purpose of this school.”
There's no place to hide – in the nicest possible way!
Effectively, there’s no place to hide at Bryanston – and in the nicest possible way! Problems simply can’t remain unaddressed until it’s too late for students or their teachers to do anything about them. The process of assessment and pastoral care is transparent and instant and involves parents too.
By astute use of ICT, Bryanston, an independent school with nearly 700 students (boys and girls aged 13-18), has managed to produce a dynamic, digital assessment system that reflects the progressive educational values that make its campus, set in the beguiling Dorset countryside, feel more like a university than a school. That philosophy, based on what is sometimes referred to as the “Dalton Plan” (link below), prioritises personalisation of learning, strong pastoral care, recognition of opportunities and flexibility and the development of strong study skills. It’s been at the heart of the school since it opened in 1928.
The Bryanston eChart (available to other Studywiz schools as Learner Matrix) represents a kind of holy grail among those who understand the power of formative assessment married to sensitive pastoral care. It enables learners to take control of their own learning and to appreciate how to get from where they are to where they want to be. And that certainly represents a consensus aspiration among switched-on educators.
Bryanston had already developed its assessment system as far as it could on paper, but paper could never produce the immediacy and sharing capabilities offered by computers and mobile devices. And it’s impossible not to be impressed by the clarity and effectiveness of the reports that can be pushed out from the Studywiz system by The Bryanston eChart with little or no delay.
Students get their marks as soon as they are complete, along with a range of comments and reflections – their own too. “I think it is important to emphasise that this was something which the school was committed to before it went electronic,” says Pete Simpson. “We had the structures in place in relation to the tutorial system, the chart and the communication between teacher and tutor, so from that point of view we were able to work on principles that had already been established.
“As soon as the teacher puts a mark into the on-screen markbook it simultaneously appears on the child's chart and that chart can be seen by the child, crucially, by the teacher, by the housemistress or housemaster and now by the parent. Then you get into the really exciting stuff I think, which is what’s developed out of that as we work with Studywiz and go through various versions – the business of commenting on work and joining those things up.
“Teachers are now producing comments which, over the course of a term, become an ongoing conversation about that child's progress. And the child can see that and there is an opportunity to reflect on that and to comment on what they think they could do better or what they think they did really well or what they think they need to address. And it’s done in a way which is friendly as far as the children are concerned because, to an extent, it mimics the kind of social networking conversations that they already have.”
Teachers more thoughtful about comments – students more reflective
As a result, Bryanston believes that teachers have become more thoughtful about their comments and their effectiveness, and this has encouraged learners to be more reflective and purposeful.
A key figure in developing the system has been director of IT Andy Barnes, who also talks pedagogy rather than technology. At its basic level the system can be considered a centralised markbook, but it’s very much more than that.
He continues: “The whole process is built on the idea that the moment the information is entered, the moment the assessment is made, the ownership is passed on to the student, the tutor, the parent, all those people that actually need the information. Historically, there was little point committing a mark or a grade to a mark book owned just by the teacher, that was then closed and put into a teaching bag. The information needs to be with the person who really needs it, and that is the learner.
“When it becomes dynamite is when you involve the tutor. Every student at Bryanston has a one-on-one tutorial at least once a week. And in that time you spend your time reviewing progress. So rather than concentrating on pleasantries and the like, you are actually saying to students, ‘Do you understand the challenges that you have at the moment? Do you know what you are going to do to meet those challenges?’ And, most important, ‘How can I help you?' And that’s the role of the tutor. When you've got a student that is more challenging, less focused, or all those other words we could use, how do you intervene early enough to make the issues manageable for them as well as for you as a teacher?”
In many schools learners sadly get feedback which is either unfathomable or too late to help them with the challenges they have already moved beyond; the reports from Learner Matrix give valuable academic and pastoral support just when learners need it – as soon as its available.
The fact that it goes to parents too helps bring in one of the most valuable levers for learning. Parents cannot, as yet, add their own comments but, with only a handful of exceptions (who don’t have connectivity), they can see what their children can see. And that’s an important lifeline for parents who may be thousands of miles away.
While the eChart is part of an approach to develop students holistically, there has been an effect on results.
“What we have seen is that online formative assessment challenges pupils to reflect on their work and improve week on week,”says Pete Simpson. “The immediacy of the information in a format which is accessible to pupils and their teachers has had a demonstrable, positive effect on outcome.
'Changes in learning habits across the range of abilities'
“We have been very pleased with the improvement in both A level and GCSE results since we introduced the system, and while it would be too simplistic to suggest that this was entirely down to the eChart, I think there is a strong correlation. The top students are able to fine tune their approach in a systematic and supported format, improving their chances of top grades, while those students who might need help with organisation or perhaps struggle with a concept initially, are getting immediate and focused support. We have therefore seen changes in learning habits across the range of abilities we have at the school.”
The Bryanston project is also a source of pride for Studywiz boss Geoff Elwood. “Learner Matrix is a great example of what can be achieved through a long-standing partnership between industry and education,” he says. “Bryanston's requirements and vision for continual assessment and guidance for students by teachers, tutors, and house masters has produced a unique framework for collaboration and communication.
“Combining this vision with the very latest web and mobile app technology has created an incredibly powerful tool for educators. I am really excited about Learner Matrix, and the buzz it is creating for us. We have already signed up a number of leading schools in Australia and Asia who have been quick to recognise the potential of this new tool for educators.”
While it’s important for Bryanston to have a digital assessment and reporting system that reflects and enables its own philosophy and strategies – and it's clearly a replicable approach – the crucial element is the student. The feedback from learners is what you would expect, extremely positive, as sixth-former Sacha Moore reports.
He has used the system for about a year and finds it very useful, particularly for English: “It has enabled me to get in contact with my teachers in a way I was never able to before. It’s enabled me to sort academic problems out with my teachers far quicker than I ever could before just by leaving comments in the chart and then letting them respond to it using the chart system. It allows me to get problems in my work sorted so much quicker so I can get on further with the work without being hindered by any problems that are keeping me back.”
While Studywiz will not be exhibiting at BETT 2012, the company will be attending the show to meet customers. Studywiz is running a conference room at the nearby Hilton Olympia Hotel for drop-in sessions to update them about Studywiz, the Learner Matrix and the work at Bryanston School. You can find more information and contact details here.