Innovative learners and teachers set the annual NGfL conference alight, writes Mark Hickson
Normanby Primary pupils at Northern Grid conferenceKeynote stars: Normanby Primary pupilsThe uncertainty and gloom that’s currently around in ICT and education was lifted at the Northern Grid Conference at Newcastle upon Tyne when learners and teachers showed how technology was supporting their innovative curriculum work.

Delegates were treated to video-linked Uncle Remus international storytelling and even classroom Tweeting, and pupils from Normanby Primary school had the last word when they staged their own keynote presentation.

We have had much to feel despondent about of late and there seems no point in going over it all again. We all know what I'm referring to, and I'm not attempting to downplay the seriousness of the situation. I would, however, like to share the sense of hope and enthusiasm that delegates experienced at the Northern Grid Conference.

We are used to hearing from those at the top of the education mountain at these events. But this conference was different. The strongest voices and the clearest messages were coming from the children in our schools and the teachers working with them, not the policy-makers or budget-setters (cutters?). It seems that some of the things I learned during my own school days about mountains were right: that lack of oxygen at the top can lead to impaired cognitive functioning, and that the most fertile areas are at the base of the mountain where conditions are good for growth.

The conference both opened and closed with optimistic keynotes which celebrated the opportunities provided by ICT for creating, collaborating, communicating, questioning and – oh yes, teaching and learning. There was no mention of grants or quangos, but numerous examples of children and adults getting on with using technology. Nor was there mention of targets, nationally imposed imperatives, schemes of work or programmes of study. The day was about the kind of learning experiences that we all remember from our own schooldays. The important ones. The ones which shape attitudes to school, college, university and life-long learning. The ones which create the learning disposition which is perhaps the most important thing we can foster in learners to they are fully engaged and enjoying themselves.

Andrew Stogdale, teacher adviser for Redcar and Cleveland, started out by stating that he didn't really like technology, but he does like what children are able to achieve with it. His talk was most powerfully illustrated by a video shot by a group of primary school pupils on a school trip – without their teachers knowing! Here was a lesson to all of us who feel that the decisions about when to pick up and put down ICT should rest with teachers rather than learners.

'Pupils use Twitter to communicate with the wider world'

Martin Waller teaches in Stockton at Holy Trinity Rosehill CE Primary School. He showed us his use of technology to video-link the pupils in his class with an African-American storyteller in the USA as part of an extended project on the Uncle Remus tales (which also involved them in producing stop-frame animations of their own Brer Rabbit narratives). This was a classic example of contemporary good practice in the use of ICT, but perhaps not the most interesting aspect of what Martin had to share with us. His pupils use Twitter to communicate with the wider world about what they are doing at school, in this way reflecting on their learning and finding a very real audience for their communications. Followers of @ClassroomTweets comment back on the work.

These examples are important because they are about what children do for themselves with the technology. Another important element in the day was all about what teachers do for themselves. Teachmeets – 'unconferences', informal meetings set up online, at which teachers share practice and insights – are now springing up across the UK. And the one at this conference demonstrated that, no matter what may be altered, axed or decreed from on high, teachers have an enthusiasm and readiness to share which may well be one of the the beacons we need in what appear to be dark times.

Mel Philipson, Northern Grid manager, reminded us of the value delivered to schools and local authorities across the region. Approved methods of calculation indicate that the savings and efficiencies amount to more than £7 million. It is important that we recognise this kind of benefit to schools, most especially at a time when funding for ICT is under so much threat. Regional broadband consortia, particularly working together as the National Education Network, are among a now-decreased number of bodies in a position to have a clear-sighted overview of current issues around ICT in education – they should be valued.

Mel Philipson (left) already has her sightsMel PhilipsonMel Philipson: delegates 'pleased and impressed' set on next year's event. "Delegates were really pleased and impressed by the offerings at this year's conference," she commented. "The Teachmeet session, which was a new style of workshop, was very well received. We're now planning next year's. Put June 23 and 24 in your diaries. Celebrate pupils' excellent work with us on June 23 and attend the best conference in the north of England on June 24."

The conference exhibition was an important part of the day, too. Those companies and government bodies whose huge carpeted stands dominate BETT were not present here. Refreshingly, there was less of an emphasis on hardware and software and more on the other needs of teachers and learners. A word cloud from the unavoidable pile of publicity material would be sure to show less "digital content" and "education software catalogue" and more along the lines of "learning gets animated", "supporting student voice", "pupils' turn to learn" and "tools for learning".

The highlight of the day, however, was the closing keynote – a presentation fronted by pupils from Normanby Primary school (winner of two awards at the Handheld Learning 2009 event). They appeared in role as having retired to Mauritius, meeting up to reminisce about their old schooldays. As they engaged in Monty Python-esque dialogue (“You searched for images on the Internet? We captured our own!”) we were presented with a series of videos showcasing the work of pupils (and their teachers, too) in schools. Here was a group of pupils confirming the existence of Prensky's "digital natives". We could be in awe of them. We could feel anxious about what we might usefully be able to teach them. But better, I think, to enjoy working with and learning alongside them. The kids are alright!

Northern Grid for Learning

Mark HicksonMark Hickson is a freelance education consultant based in the North East of England.

Photos courtesy of Martin Ellis

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