Guest post by Gerald Haigh
“Only connect….”, the oft-quoted epigraph that E.M.Forster wrote at the beginning of his novel ‘Howard’s End’ (which is about failure of connection) is a favourite phrase of mine. It resonates in every conceivable context – and might even be a global mission statement for Microsoft. Be that as may, it certainly went round in my head on the evening of 15thMay as I dozed on the train on the way home from a remarkable day with Microsoft at Priory School in Portsmouth.
On paper, the programme looked straightforward enough. Steve Beswick, Microsoft UK Education Director, following up a conversation with a teacher from the school at BETT 2013, was scheduled to visit Priory with UK Partners in Learning Network Manager Mandeep Atwal. My job was to tag along, netbook at the ready, to with a view to writing this blog.
We were hosted, courtesy of head teacher James Humphries, by Geography Curriculum leader, Professional Tutor and Microsoft Innovative Teacher, David Rogers. The plan was to see technology at work in the classroom, talk to teachers, school leaders and, of course, meet students .
Very soon, though, it was clear that this was going to be much more than the standard school tour with set-piece classroom drop-ins and presentations. Priory is a place where the young people have things to say and questions to ask. As a result, the day quickly developed into a real learning experience for everyone, an inspirational glimpse of the boundless potential of our young people, and a rallying cry for all who are involved in bringing technology to bear upon their learning.
We certainly had the classroom visits. We saw tablets, OneNote, SkyDrive all working together to support investigative work on climate in two Year Seven Geography classes. The lessons were led, respectively, by teachers Sam Atkins and PGCE student Jonathan Parrott (who remained remarkably composed, confident and in control, with rather too many adults in the room). Then in another timetabled slot, Steve Beswick had a freewheeling discussion with the head and the senior team, of which more later.
Really, though, it was the sessions, staged and impromptu, that happened outside lessons which produced the real highlight moments. In between times, he found himself surrounded by eager young people. They all know Microsoft, and with access to someone from the top of the organisation, they weren’t going to miss the chance to ask questions and pitch ideas.
Mandeep, for her part, had numerous meetings with teachers, including NQTs, listening to them, introducing ‘Partners in Learning’ and pointing ways forward with Microsoft technologies.
Most memorably, perhaps, there was the presentation to us by three of Priory’s ‘Digital Leaders’ – students number of with a special interest in and knowledge of technology who are given the opportunity to contribute significantly to the school’s development of 21st century learning. In this case, we heard from Digital Leaders Robbie, Scott and John, from Year Nine as they gave an overview of the school’s progress with technology, including the move to ‘Bring your own device’ –
‘There used to be a “no phones” policy and now laptops, tablets and mobiles are widely accepted. We helped with that, and Mr Rogers was the engine to make it happen. It was a matter of convincing everyone, changing opinions. And now more school departments are investing in mobile technology.’
The digital leaders also told us about the Priory Bench – possibly the only school bench in the world I’d guess, with its own twitter account (‘ @priorybench I’m in the hall, come sit on me.’)
Detail aside, though – and there was plenty of that, well illustrated on the digital whiteboard, explaining just what the digital leaders have achieved – what impressed was the confidence, knowledge and optimism of these three young people. Quite clearly, for them, learning with technology needs no justification. It’s the only way to travel. Robbie summed it all up, speaking with real intensity about the desire to leave something permanent behind when they move on.
‘What we aspire to achieve from now to 2016 is to make a real difference in that small time frame, to promote the use of technology in the curriculum, and complete the transition of classroom learning to digital learning.’
All of that, of course, was truly exciting and inspirational, providing enough emotional charge to lift us through the following days. What’s important, though, is to reflect on what it all meant to the participants – to the children and the staff of Priory school, to the Microsoft people who were there and, of course to the wider audience in education, in politics and business, in UK and beyond. So taking them in turn –
Wins for students
The presence of Steve and Mandeep and the keen interest they took in them was a strong affirmation for the young people that what they learn at school is as important as their teachers say it is. It underlined the fact that there’s a serious world out there, that technology plays a crucial part in it, and, yes, there can be room for them, whether in Microsoft or elsewhere. As Steve told the digital leaders,
‘The way you are presenting to me is fantastic. The life skills you are developing around communication, being articulate, having opinions, putting points across. If I was interviewing you that’s the kind of thing I’d be expecting.’
The boys and girls had a lot of that from Steve, on more than one occasion and it went down very well. As David Rogers told me next day,
‘The impact on the children really opened their eyes to 21st century skills. That kind of face-to-face encounter even for a short time is so powerful They were really fired up. I would love to be the one doing their exit interview in Year Eleven, because they’ll remember the day as one of their highlights’
Mandeep and Steve could also point out that the work the digital leaders were doing could and should be collected and preserved and used not only later in CVs, but currently in qualifications such as MTA (Microsoft Technology Associate)
Wins for staff
I was able to be there when Steve met Priory’s head James Humphries and the senior leadership team. It was a fascinating meeting of minds. Steve emphasised the importance of 21st Century skills, and the Microsoft projects that support it. From his perspective, James Humphries agreed while pointing out some of the constraints around appropriate CPD to bring teachers up to speed, and the demands of the exam system,
’As long as we have to put students in a sports hall with a piece of paper then we have to teach them to do that.’
Steve had practical suggestions to make – about using ‘Getonline@home’ for improving access, the possibility of using ‘Pupil Premium’ to buy appropriate technology, and the short training videos available, for example on the Microsoft Education YouTube channel. He ended with a straight offer of help,
‘Tell me what you most need, and I’ll pass it on to the politicians when we meet.’
There were many gains for individual teachers, too. Mandeep spoke to a number of them about Partners in Learning, and showed something of the range of software that’s freely available. ‘Mouse Mischief’, and ‘OneNote’ were well received, and when I spoke to Maths teacher Laura Tilley after a session with Mandeep, she was full of enthusiasm for what she’d heard.
‘I couldn’t believe there’s so much. Straight away I think I’ll be using Mouse Mischief – it’s so interactive – and the add-in to Word that will enable me to draw accurate graphs for quadratic functions.’
Wins for Microsoft
The Microsoft team went away with lots to think about. Mandeep found new teachers, particularly, receptive to what she had to say about Microsoft technology for 21st Century learning. She felt she was able to provide something that – to her surprise -- was crucially missing from their initial teacher training
‘Everything I showed was well received. We have so much to offer for their professional development. That was the key take away for me.’
For Steve Beswick it was the children who provided the real boost. He was delighted by the interest they showed not just in Microsoft, but in the world of technology generally, and the opportunities it could provide.
‘It was just the energy and the excitement at what technology can do. And they weren’t just looking at making that first million. Even at 11 and 12 they wanted to do things for society -- to help people with disabilities for example.’
Without doubt, he concluded, there was a real demand there waiting to be satisfied.
‘Everything I’ve seen here confirms how technology can engage young people. They are so excited and they want more of it – more technology in school to help them with their learning. And added to that, of course, is the fact that they will need it for their working lives.’
And the broader lessons?
Employer engagement – face to face encounters with people from the working world – is a real stimulus for convincing young people and their teachers of the value of making themselves employable through life skills as well as qualifications.
Not every school, and not all departments within schools are on the same page when it comes to creative and purposeful use of technology for learning. There are implications for training that can only partly be addressed by educators, technology suppliers and business. Government needs to recognise that effective training calls for time, resources and expertise.
Students have great ideas about everything, but particularly about what they learn and how. Wisely led and mentored, they become an effective voice within and beyond the school, adding real value and contributing to the quality of learning.
(Currently has an illustrated report of the Microsoft visit)
(Word maths add-in) http://www.microsoft.com/enus/download/details.aspx?id=17786
Davod Rogers Blog
Mandeep Atwal’s blogs make a rich resource of what’s available, free of charge to teachers from the huge array of Microsoft products and initiatives.