Any visit to a school is always a thoroughly enriching experience. However, my visit to Porchester Junior School in Nottingham this week exceeded my every expectation.
I have been a fan of Simon Widdowson (@xannov) and his work for some time now, so when a teacher colleague (Jenn Lucraft) asked me a couple of months ago if I knew of any primary schools doing anything interesting with mobile technologies (particularly ipads) or ICT generally, I thought immediately of Porchester. A visit would be a good opportunity to see first hand some of the things I’d only previously read about on Simon’s blog.
The day had been carefully planned by Simon and Headteacher, Graham Cullen to ensure that Jenn and I got the most from the experience. This meant that we had opportunities to spend time with Simon, Graham, staff (over a wonderful lunch) and with some incredible pupils.
The school has a technology 'museum'.
We began the day with Graham. I know from my own experience in school and from the many schools that I work with that one of the most important factors influencing a schools sustained success in moving forward, innovating and integrating ICT into learning is the support and vision of school leadership. Graham has only been at Porchester for a matter of weeks but I was certainly persuaded of his commitment to supporting Simon and his vision to keep Porchester at the leading edge in the use of technologies for learning.
From Graham, we moved to an ICT suite (Windows laptops) where Simon was working with a group of upper Key Stage 2 children who were using Scratch for the first time. The children were learning independently. I say ‘independently’; they were working from Youtube tutorials (on the school’s Youtube channel) on the fundamentals of Scratch but they were also collaborating and helping each other. This was great learning. Simon was an essential part of the process but, rather than run a ‘Blue Peter’ lesson from the front with step-by-step instructions to be followed in a linear way by pupils, he handed the learning to them, to work at their own pace and he acted as a facilitator, intervening expertly to move learning on when necessary. I loved speaking to these enthusiastic youngsters about the activity and asked at one point “What do you reckon to Scratch?” I was met with the answer “I prefer it to Kodu but I reckon my favourite is 2Simple, 2DIY.” The assertion was backed up by reference to software features that demonstrated a deep understanding on the part of the pupil. Impressive stuff so far!
Following this session, we had Simon to ourselves. These times when we were able to get Simon alone were brilliant. He shared his subject leader folder but, as is often the way, we would start discussing a topic only to find that we rapidly flew off, excitedly down a different path. We covered policy, planning, strategy, technical issues – everything an effective subject leader has a handle on. Simon has found that over time his planning has evolved into something less ‘wordy’. This is natural but also belies the fact that he builds in flexibility and responsiveness. He doesn’t want to be a slave to planning and cited the example of his discovery of the ‘Aurasma’ augmented reality app as a time when planning went out of the window in order to pursue an exciting new technology (more here). The same was true for Epic Citadel and Silent Movie Maker.
All the stand-alone ICT lessons are led by Simon and, although this is something I worry about, it seems a very effective model at Porchester. He is timetabled to teach ICT but also gets into classrooms and will work with staff to get ICT embedded in cross-curricular learning. Conversations had with staff over lunch testified to the effectiveness of this way of working with teachers citing greater confidence and willingness to use technologies in the classrooms. The school website/blog has become a powerful hub, serving as a record of learning and a vehicle for demonstrating the school’s vision and ethos. Note the site has links to the school’s social media/media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Flickr Amazon wishlist etc)
And so into a classroom. Anne Ingle (Y6 teacher) was kind enough to allow us the privilege of visiting her class whilst they used ipads to ‘write’ their ‘Hare and Tortoise’ stories. It was fascinating to see the pupils working on ipads. They had one between two and were enjoying some really collaborative learning. I was keen to know what the pupils thought the ipad brought to the party and there was certainly an infectious enthusiasm for the technology. “It is really fun!” “They’re better than laptops because they’re just easier to use.” Now, if I’m honest, I could imagine the lesson being equally effective with paper and pencil or laptops and I have no doubt Anne has such lessons because she has the conditions right for learning. What the ipad seemed to bring was a simple, fast tool with an app that made the task easy and rewarding – they were able to quickly produce a professional looking story with text and images with consummate ease. Another thing that impressed me was how everything just ‘worked’ – I have first hand, bitter experience of flying around classrooms trouble-shooting troublesome technology. I know that Simon has worked tirelessly to ensure technical issues are minimized and that what we saw isn’t always the case, however. Impressive stuff again!
I was especially interested in how the lesson concluded. What would the pupils do with their finished projects? What schools ‘do’ with pupil work is an endless source of fascination for me. Save it locally? On the device? How? Save it to a school-based server? How? Where, exactly? Upload it to an online space? How? Share it on a blog? How? Etc. There are some excellent systems in place at Porchester and I was impressed to see some pupils emailing their (PDF) projects to themselves from the ipad in readiness to then upload them to their ‘Learning Space’ (basically a privatized blog). These learning spaces are ‘hidden’ blogs that can then be accessed by staff and staff can also ‘reblog’ or publicise examples of work very simply to the school website. This was seamless and there were identified ‘experts’ in Anne’s class who were able to help others with the process if necessary. Again, this worked well on the day but I’m sure takes some time getting it right and getting the technology to support it. Further, the vagaries of different apps means that output may be easier or harder to save or share, presenting new and different technical challenges. This whole thing is something I’d really like to see getting sorted somehow. There is currently just too much fiddling/faffing about between activity and sharing/saving work. Not the fault of the school but definitely irksome.
After this, we had some more time with Simon. We learned that if you are going to deploy ipads in school, you will probably want to have a Mac or Macbook to help things along such as synching apps and galleries (one way pupils effectively record work is by snap-shotting stuff to the device’s gallery).
I certainly think that schools should consider ipads as an additional device that will bring new and unique learning opportunities to pupils. As Simon said ‘We bought them for research but we are still finding new ways of using them”
My head is still buzzing. Porchester are certainly leading the way in primary ICT and, thanks to the vision, leadership and passion of Simon, they will surely remain at the forefront.
Thank you to Simon, Graham, Anne, staff and those wonderful pupils for an unforgettable and inspiring day!