Two days ago the long-awaited installation of internet-connected devices landed in my underground classroom. The buzz was palpable. My students, unable to contain their enthusiasm, started to burble inchoate (and largely unwarranted) references to my being “Their favourite teacher”. “This is the beginning of something magnificent”, I told them, to a chorus of their largely abysmal attempts at replicating my accent.
In a school such as mine, an investment of this magnitude is nearly un-heard of. To have reached this point, many, many people had to share the vision. They also had to take a leap of faith – and now they are all watching. For me to support such high expectations I have had do to a lot of soul-searching and a heck of a lot of preparation.
So here, on day one of the realisation of my new learning project that has been 5 years in the making, I begin the story.
I love my job. I’m endlessly engaged in it. I am constantly thinking about how to do it better and get better outcomes. I feel excited by my successes and crestfallen when I fail. I don’t struggle to “motivate” myself and I feel lucky to be able to do something that is so fulfilling. Sometimes I find the job so exhausting that I wonder if I will get through another day, and on at least 10 days a year I am up working late enough to see the sunrise. In my life, whether I’ve worked running a radio station or teaching aerobics classes, I have always felt motivated. So the question I asked myself was: What special conditions exist in the jobs I’ve done that were not present when I was at school, where I was mildly successful, but never engaged, and never came close to realising my potential?
My work has always felt purposeful. I could always see an outcome for my efforts. There has always been a tangible link between my effort and a worthwhile result. I have always had high levels of autonomy in my work and felt proud of what I do. I have been trusted.
How could I create these conditions in my classroom? How could I change the paradigm sufficiently to allow my students to enjoy the classroom as much as I do? Importantly, how could I do this without undermining the established excellent practice that I have inherited and spent most of my adult life developing?
Embedded Pedagogy or Embedded Technology?
I’m not interested in rewriting the rules on learning in English that have arisen from centuries of what we might call the great English Literary Heritage. In fact, if anything, I simply, and humbly, hope to introduce more students more effectively to this domain and ensure they have access to it for their entire lives. I also value my role in the classroom as a subject specialist and teacher and I see the time students spend with me as an extraordinary investment. Time in the classroom must not be mis-used. This project is not an exercise in exploring new technology for the sake of it and then bolting on whatever pedagogical theory might fit. Instead it is an attempt to build a solution to some of the more pressing problems in the classroom, using the best information available, that happens to have a technological component.
What I am interested in doing is creating a context for the students’ experience of the classroom that allows them to engage their intrinsic motivations and teaches them the disciplines and routines that lead to effective outcomes. With the above story in mind, and after five years of smaller-scale experimentation, I am now in a position to summarise the thinking behind the project.
- In English, teacher input is the single-most effective action
- High-stakes, measurable, outcomes increase “motivation”
- Learning is an iterative process
- Autonomy and trust increase students’ engagement
- Access to expert input leads to improved outcomes
- Accountability should not be abstract
- The “real world” is right here, right now
- Creativity needs an audience
- Fulfillment comes from achieving something difficult after a struggle
So, I want my students’ work to be informed by specialist input. I want them to go back to it over and over again until they are proud of its quality. I want their excellent work to be the centre of their attention and the results to be seen by a critical audience. I want them to learn from experience that hard work is the only real means of achieving success.
I want them to love learning as much as I love teaching. For my students the classroom should be the real world.
Ok, but how?
Since the advent of social media, there has been an explosion in creative output. Independent films on Vimeo, self-published novels on Amazon, Music via MySpace and iTunes. Mucisians are being paid more every year in distributed royalties. All of this comes from the new routes of access to an audience. 20 years ago when my team and I ran a radio station, we were the curators of this material. We policed the threshold between the artist and their audience. In the industry at the time, it became apparent that it wasn’t talent that lead to success, but connections. Writing a great song meant nothing. Knowing Malcolm McLaren was what mattered. Today a great band can make a great song, put it online, start performing gigs and their music reaches its audience without their having to submit to the faceless record company intermediaries.
With this surge of independent production has come a resurgence in individual creative pursuit – even every second teacher now writes a blog. I have never been so engaged in professional critical reflection than I am now that I have a blog and an audience and a twitter community with whom to interact.
This is what I want for my students. The work they produce needs an audience. They deserve swift, highly knowledgeable input into their work. They should feel that frisson that any writer feels at the moment of publication “Is it good enough? What will my audience think?”
Examples of The Plan in Action:
Now that my students’ school books come in the form of a blog, every change they make, every edit, new work and quiet thought is immediately distributed to me as their teacher. I can swiftly respond to what they’re doing and critique their action. The feedback I give can be immediately incorporated into their work. No more are my comments crafted as an afterthought, now they come in as a part of the student’s editing process.
Their prior work, including copies of their annotated controlled assessments, is all there in the chronological stream of their blog. They have constant access, from any device that can connect to the Internet, to their feedback.
When they choose to, they can switch any given piece of work to “public” and it is transmitted to the world. They can elect to showcase a few finished pieces and involve their community, peers, parents and teachers in the development of their work. They can call out for ideas, observe the work of others and build an audience around their school work. Last year, one student, who had written a particularly original response to a poem in the AQA GCSE Poetry anthology, was receiving thousands of hits a day to his published post as it was picked up by students around the country studying for their final examinations.
As written by a year nine student on his first entry on his blog on his first day with an iPad in his hand:
Hi there people, this is Samy welcoming you to edutronic. Edutronic is a site where you can be able to talk to the world from your very own computer. You can tell the world about how you’re feeling or just what you homework is by publishing your work like I am doing now. When you send your work you can either choose if you want your work to be seen by the world or you can just send it to your teacher by using the private button. Also when you publish your work it goes to the teacher first and your teacher decides if it’s good enough or if you need to improve on some things. Edutronic is a new exciting way to produce your work. So have Fun
How will it be tested? How will we define success?
Given that we are a school in England’s state school system, there’s no lack of data available to evaluate student’s progress in the (however narrow) key curriculum areas of reading and writing, so you can be sure that I’ll be keeping a close eye on the students’ progress on that front. The students attitudes towards the subject and the frequency and quality of their non-assessed work are being surveyed and recorded. Parents and Guardians’ views have been surveyed and I will continue the dialogue with them as well as continue to run my annual survey.
A visit from Ofsted, the national school inspection body is imminent, so their perspective on the programme will be of interest.
As always, at the end of the year the students will also be invited to reflect on how learning in my English classes has been for them – the strengths and weakness of the learning experience from their point of view.
And then there is you: please be invited to use the comment form at the bottom of almost every page across the entire Edutronic site to tell us what you think, and to encourage or critique the boys in their work.
Thank you to Tom Sherrington who has written an entry on his outstanding blog about Edutronic after his recent visit, and whose thinking, like many of my fellow educators online, informs mine and keeps me moving forward.