Reflecting on….technology in the classroom

Moving internationally has enabled me to create more time to invest in myself and my own professional development.  Part of this is joining the CTeach programme.  The first assignment was a short essay exploring one of three areas: cognitive science, technology or group work.  It felt a bit Goldilocks – I decided against cognitive science because I felt there was so much research out there and that, for me, was the easy option.  On the flip, I felt the opposite about group work and wasn’t convinced this was an area I could really get to grips with fully.  Tech, on the other hand, was an area I didn’t feel expert in and yet, given the time period, felt very relevant.  I really enjoyed getting to grips with the research and shaping my own feelings about the use of tech in the classroom.

So what have I learnt?

Just using tech in the classroom isn’t going to aid learning.  Prior to my work with CTeach, I would allow my sixth form pupils to ‘use’ their laptops during my lesson.  What I hadn’t paid a huge amount of attention to was the idea of distraction.  In fact, the research I read found the following:

‘94% of students emailed during a lecture with 61% using instant messenger’ (Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer, 1993)

‘Only 1.5% of undergraduates reported that they hadn’t engaged in any multi-tasking at all’ (Cepeda, 2006)

‘In a 100 minute lecture, on average students spent 37 minutes on non-course related websites’ (Barton, 2018)

‘When students bought laptops to large classes, they used their laptops for off task activities about two-thirds of the time’ (Bouygues, 2019)

The evidence was pretty conclusive.  Without purpose, technology was more of a hindrance with regard to learning than a support.  I reflected upon this with my sixth form classes and felt that my experience had been similar, in that my old year 13 class were often, I felt, distracted by their technology.  I entered into so many conversations about their focus being on me instead of their computer and asking them to put their phones away.  When their results came in, I also reflected that technology and their ability to be distracted had perhaps contributed to some of the most able from missing out on the top grades.

In addition, although smaller in scale, Van der Meer (2017, 2020) has conducted some interesting research into technology and our ability to process information.  She found that technology has its limitations when it comes to the processing of new information and that, in actual fact, she argues that ‘a lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing.  These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning.  We learn better and remember better as a result.’ A case for handwritten notes, perhaps to better aid learning and retention.

As a result of this research, I decided to ban laptops during my sixth form lessons unless I had identified a specific reason for their use.  More about this in a minute.  When I explained what I had learnt from the research, there was minimal complaint and life inside the classroom continued with pupils making handwritten notes instead and fewer conversations about mobile phones.

This has given me the opportunity to reflect on how we use technology in a beneficial way and there are, indeed, a variety of ways that technology can impact upon learning positively.  What experts say is that rather than just being impressed by a piece of technology or the latest technology fad and rushing to utilise, we must first consider the pedagogical need that the technology is going to support.  For me, there are three clear ways in which technology can support learning.

  1. Cognitive science – retrieval and spaced practice.

One such area where technology can really aid learning is that of cognitive science and, more specifically, retrieval / spaced practice.  Ebbinghaus, in the late 1800s, examined his own ability to learn and retain nonsense syllables and discovered that with any considerable number of repetitions and a suitable distribution of them over a spaced amount of time, his potential for remembering was stronger.  In ‘Using Digital Technology to Improve Learning’, the EEF argue that ‘technology has the potential to increase the quality and quantity of practice that pupils undertake.’ 

For me, Quizlet is an absolute piece of retrieval magic.  We use Quizlet for quotation retention (there is a separate debate about whether pupils need to learn quotations, which is, of course, not the focus of this blog).  I have also seen teachers use Quizlet lower down the school to support pupils in learning new vocabulary and for basic factual recall.

Quizlet uses flashcards and takes pupils through a variety of tasks with those flashcards.  Pupils initially learn what is on the flashcards, then they have mini multiple choice quizzes, then they can fill in the gaps. Pupils particularly like the games with the Match game being the favourite but a gravity game also being available.

If you purchase a teacher account for around 40 euros here it gives you access to the progress of the pupils which means you can see who is or who is not learning and the outcomes of any tests they do to see how well they are retaining.

I have blogged about the use of Quizlet previously here if you want to learn more: https://wheninromeeng.wordpress.com/2018/05/28/my-work-with-quizlet-quotation-retention/

Like many of these other platforms, one of the benefits of Quizlet is that it is adaptive so really supports pupils’ individual learning and retention.  

Of course, there are now many other platforms like Quizlet designed specifically for retrieval.  Programmes such as Anki, Memrise and, more recently, Remembermore.

After four weeks of using the programme, the students in my y12 class already know 35 quotations.  For me, if Quizlet can support in embedding the quotations within my students’ long term memory, their capacity to focus on the discussion and debate of a text, with evidence to support their arguments, will be far greater.  It really is a wonder!

  1. Metacognition

The second area in which technology really aids learning I think is with metacognition.  The EEF guide to metacognition states that ‘metacognition is about the ways learners monitor and purposefully direct their learning…By metacognitive strategies, we mean the strategies we use to monitor or control our cognition.’ For teachers, it is about thinking how we can model the use of particular strategies to support learning.

For this reason, having visualisers in a classroom is one way in which technology can be used in a really impactful way to support learning.  Dawn Cox (@missdcox)  recently wrote a superb blog post about a week in the life of her visualiser and it is packed with the different ways in which a visualiser can be utilised to support learning.  She says I use my visualiser for: admin explanation/modelling, model answers, modelling presentation/layout, sharing student answers, showing texts/artefacts, writing notes for students to copy, making expectations clear.’  Dawn’s blog post is available here: https://missdcoxblog.wordpress.com/2020/10/24/a-week-in-the-life-of-a-visualiser-in-re/ and it is well worth a read about how she utilises her visualiser to support pupil learning.

And yet, whilst the EEF’s Digital Technology guidance report states that ‘visualisers could improve the quality of explanation and modelling as they enable teachers to show pupils a wider range of high-quality models’, and, as teachers, we can see the tangible positive impact visualisers have in the classroom, there is next to no evidence to say that this is the case. 

Maybe for the time being, teacher anecdote will have to suffice. 

If you are looking for a good visualiser, I cannot recommend IPEVO enough and I am excited to have just recently ordered a number of Do-Cam’s for our English team.

  1. Flipped learning / independent study

Finally, the third way in which I think technology can really benefit pupils is with ‘flipped learning.’  In fact, in 2001, Wenglisky found that computers were more likely to have a positive impact on learning outcomes when students reported using them at home rather than at school.  Tangney et al (2010) argues that the advantage of flipped learning is that it has the ‘capacity to support learners in a variety of contexts and the flexibility to enable pupils to learn skills at a time and place that works for them without being restricted to geographical boundaries of provision locally.’ Something that, perhaps, has even more relevance in 2020.

For me, I think I see flipped learning in a much broader sense of pre-loading learning, ready to explore / discuss / unpick within a lesson or as a way of consolidating learning.

Pre-loading

One way in which we use technology to support the pre-loading of learning is through the use of Youtube and, in particular, the work of Mrs Rumsey (@rumseyresources) who has made a series of videos to support the teaching of the IGCSE Edexcel anthology.  Across the y10 curriculum, we build in opportunities to expose our pupils to the poetry and non-fiction anthology, whilst doing the coursework units.  Here, we are simply aiming for all pupils to have read, understand and formulated an opinion on the texts they will be examined on by the end of year 11.  In year 11, a more considered approach to these texts is taken.  

Their first exposure to either one of the poems or one of the non-fiction texts comes through home (flipped) learning and we provide pupils with two clean copies of the text.  On the first copy, they are asked to read and reflect.  Their personal response is important and valid and we provide them with questions to get them thinking about that personal response.  On the second copy, we ask them to watch the video produced by Mrs Rumsey on the text and to listen to her analysis, annotating their copy as they go. We then bring this together in a fortnightly lesson where we discuss pupils’ responses to the text, their knowledge of the text based upon the work of Mrs Rumsey and explore the text with a particular theme or issue in mind.  As a result of the Youtube videos, pupils arrive to the lesson with a sound knowledge base that enables us to focus on exploring the poem through the lens of purpose, perspective and theme in a much more thought-provoking way.

Consolidating and extending.

The second way in which technology can be used to support flipped learning / independent study is through the use of consolidation activities or extending.  There are a plethora now of programmes available to pupils to support this and, one of my concerns is that you have to be mindful about not over-loading pupils with this range.  Here are two websites that we commonly use: one to consolidate learning and one to extend:

  1. Seneca

Seneca is a free programme for schools and offer a wide number of courses including courses aimed at the international sector, which is often lacking.  We use the Of Mice and Men course to support our teaching of this IGCSE text with year 11.  After delivering some lessons on the social and historical backdrop to the novel, I was able to set my pupils the section on context.  In this section, pupils were reminded of significant events and ideas and then tested on their understanding of these.  As a teacher, I was then provided with an overview of who had and had not been on and a % in terms of how many answers they got right.  Similarly, once we had finished reading Section 1, pupils were assigned the Section 1 course on Seneca to complete.  The use of Seneca here being to really consolidate pupils’ understanding of key aspects of the text.

  1. Massolit

Massolit is a wonderful website in which university lecturers deliver lectures on different literary texts.  This is most beneficial for students in KS5 and so I will go on to use this with my year 12 students after reading Raisin in the Sun.  (There is no course yet for Chronicle of a Death Foretold!).  Rather than purely focusing on consolidating students’ understanding of the text, these lectures also expose them to new thoughts or ideas from the minds of wonderful professors.  Viewed as wider reading on my part, I think this is really beneficial and good preparation for what will become their own ‘reading’ at university where they have to seek out texts to broaden their understanding of a particular area. Again, a video a week can be assigned and then a lesson could start with a personal reflection on the content of the video and a consideration as to how what has been viewed has developed or shaped new thinking.  This programme does cost around 400 a year.

(NB: as an English teacher there are two websites or programmes that can be used to support reading or wider reading (Readtheory and CommonLit) but, perhaps, these are for another blog.)

In conclusion, reflecting on the use of technology for my first CTeach assignment has been a really enjoyable experience and has really made me thoughtfully consider what we implement and why.  What came across resoundingly from my research was that when technology supports a specific and focused pedagogical need, greater gains can be made in terms of learning outcome.  So when a new piece of kit comes our way or a new opportunity to embed technology in the classroom is presented, we first need to step back and ask ourselves what pedagogical need does this serve and how will it aid my pupils’ learning?  If we do this, the technology we employ has the potential to be truly impactful.

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