Gerald Haigh reflects upon ‘Transforming Learning through Tablet Computing’ at Sandymoor School


The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh, based upon his visit to Sandymoor School for the ‘Transforming Learning through Tablet Computing’ event last week.

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On 11 June I went to the conference ‘Transforming Learning through Tablet Computing’, run by Sandymoor School, a Microsoft Showcase School in Runcorn, together with Microsoft partner Kelway who have worked with the school on its IT environment.

The Conference, held at the school on a normal working day, was attended by over 50 teachers, school leaders and technical staff. It featured keynote presentations by Sandymoor’s Head Andrew Howard and Microsoft UK Senior Education Director Steve Beswick. There followed a number of break out sessions including hands-on experience with Windows devices of various kinds, including Surface 3, with Microsoft technologies, guided by Sandymoor teachers who are Microsoft Innovative Education Experts (MIEE).

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The first time I went to Sandymoor School it was housed in a collection of temporary buildings so anonymous that my taxi driver waited to be sure I was in the right place. (I guess he had visions of headlines saying, ‘Heartless Runcorn taxi firm abandons pensioner on derelict site.’)

That was in March 2014. Now the school is well settled in the building that was then approaching completion just along the road.

I’m really glad to have seen the school in both places. Doing so really brought to life the much-used saying, ‘A school is not a building’, because I felt on both visits I was essentially in the same place. Sandymoor head Andrew Howard’s vision for the school was fully in place long before there were buildings of any kind, after all. He sets it out very clearly in the blog, presented as a Sway, with the title Education Transformation, posted here on 3 February 2015

Building a school from the ground up – Andrew Howard’s journey of education transformation with Sandymoor

In a key passage, Andrew writes,

‘A teacher is no longer the gatekeeper of knowledge, the expert and deliverer of understanding. It is no longer valid to have the teacher stand at the front of a room, delivering material to students.’

Many teachers have aspired to that style of pedagogy. In the past, though, they have discovered that creating independent learners can make extraordinary demands both on their professionalism and their staying power . The late Sybil Marshall, author of ‘An Experiment in Education’ (1963) and a lifelong advocate of child-centred (but not, she was careful to add, ‘child led’) schooling, understood this well. In 1970 she wrote

‘To control a class in freedom, to learn with each child instead of instructing a passive class, is the most exhausting way of all of doing a teacher’s job.’

Now, though, innovative teachers are finding that technology, though it won’t change anything on its own, will bring considerable strength and efficiency to the aid of those who do wish to work differently. You might say that Andrew Howard’s answer to Sybil Marshall’s doubts is expressed in what is, for him, a personal mission statement,

‘Technology will not transform learning, but without it learning will not be transformed.’

And so Sandymoor classrooms and teachers are focussed on independent, collaborative learning, making full use of one-to-one technology where it’s appropriate, and Andrew’s keynote at the conference was face-to-face confirmation of the experience-backed beliefs that are set out in his Sway presentation. Delivered with sincerity, on home ground, and illustrated with a wealth of examples from classroom life at Sandymoor, the presentation was convincing and clearly gave the conference delegates much food for thought.

Microsoft’s Steve Beswick’s contribution was precisely complementary to Andrew’s, setting the Sandymoor vision alongside Microsoft’s global perspective, which is that twenty-first century learning has to match twenty-first century needs:

‘The world economy no longer pays the workforce for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.’

This led him straight to the oft-repeated message from Microsoft to educators which says, simply,

‘Stop buying stuff.’

As Steve says, ‘The plan should not be technology, but technology can help the plan.’

He illustrated his presentation with numerous practical examples and videos from schools making innovative use of Microsoft technologies. (Later, Steve told me how impressed he’d been by Andrew’s use of OneNote to follow students working across the school. I guess that gives him another great example.

The first priority for Microsoft, then, is to support good learning, led by good teachers who can then use technology appropriately not just to streamline what they do already, but to harness its powers of collaboration, creation and communication in the cause of seeking new and previously unexplored learning paths.

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As a striking illustration of how students and tuned-in teachers can take their learning into new territory, Steve spoke about the rapid rise in the use of ‘Minecraft’ as an example of digital learning that many simply never saw coming. At BETT 2015, in January this year, Minecraft had a presence on the Microsoft stand, and on the last day Steve Beswick told me how astonished he’d been by the huge level of interest. His Sandymoor presentation confirmed that this interest and activity grows at an undiminished rate, and clearly there are many developments to come, led by teachers such as MIEE Ray Chambers of Uppingham Community College whose BETT sessions were so well received. Ray’s work, and videos using Minecraft and particularly MinecraftEDU were featured on the schools blog in April this year.

Minecraft tutorial videos from Ray Chambers – setting up servers and information blocks

Steve’s talk also covered the forthcoming BBC nature film ‘The Enchanted Kingdom’, and the ambitious accompanying educational resource developed for Microsoft by Showcase School Broadclyst Primary. Arising from Broadclyst’s project-based learning approach, the resource is cross-curricular, creative and also filled with factual content. At the same time it steers learners and teachers towards the widest possible range of Microsoft’s technologies for learning.

Taking their presentations together, it’s evident that Steve Beswick and Andrew Howard, and their respective teams are sensing the same turning points. Both see mobile technology and the cloud as game changers. Steve spoke of the cloud as a utility, like electricity, but free to schools, and commented on the way many schools are now paying for on-site equipment and services that could be had without charge. Along with this goes Andrew’s own hands-on commitment to the transformational possibilities of mobile devices, used with Microsoft collaboration and communication technologies such as OneNote, and Sway.

One of the workshops I attended was on Sway, run by Sandymoor teacher and MIEE Julie Cooper. We all had a go at creating one and I, a compete novice, found it amazingly easy (OK, it helped to be sitting beside Computing and ICT teacher Michael Corker from Wilmslow High School). Inspired by the Sandymoor story, I took ‘On a journey’ as a theme and constructed a short narrative which included a clip of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby singing, in 1942, ‘Off on the road to Morocco’. The experience was enough to raise the question, ‘Why isn’t everyone using ‘Sway’?’

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I made a beeline for Michael Corker at my second workshop, which was led by MIEE Dan Kerr and covered the general use of OneNote in the classroom. Michael has just finished his training placement at Wilmslow High and will start there in September. What impressed me about him at both workshops was how quickly he got the point about the whole Microsoft cloud offering. Flicking through the various OneNote options and possibilities he became enthused. ‘I want this!’ he said, ‘I like it very much. It’s how I live my life.’

He was quickly speculating on how he would use OneNote in his new post. ‘Everything in one place!’

Another delegate, Jan Messenger, was moving into education as a primary school office manager after a career in industry.

‘I’m here to find out what it’s all about,’ said Jan.

‘Aren’t we all?’ I replied.

She was very taken with the idea of teachers moving around the room with their tablets, and said it reminded her of an after-dinner speaker she knew who also kept moving round the room.

‘He said he wanted to be sure the buggers were staying awake.’

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The final half hour or so of the Conference included a sincere thanks from Kelway’s Accounts Director Kevin Hayward, who was clearly well in tune with the Sandymoor philosophy. There was also summing up by Andrew who pre-empted what was probably an unspoken question when he pointed out that everything at Sandymoor was achieved from a normal school budget. There were questions from the floor about choice of devices, which enabled Andrew to talk about BYOD, and the fact that the cloud allows access from any enabled device. The tablet, though, is his preferred choice.

‘In the history of technology we could say that it came of age with the advent of the tablet. And now the pen is another gamechanger.’

Everything we hear about Surface 3 and the pen bears that out. There was this blog, for example, on MIEE teachers using inking in the classroom.

This was one of those conferences where there was a lot to take in, much that can’t be covered here, and many questions necessarily unanswered – one delegate, intrigued by the short discussion on BYOD suggested ‘Security’ as a topic worth pursuing, and there were many other signposts that could lead to further learning.

However, it would be wrong not to mention the contribution made to the Conference by Sandymoor students, especially the four digital ambassadors – Jonathan Follett, Jonathan Madden, Jake Galvin and Sophie Keouski who, between them unobtrusively and efficiently acted as guides and mentors to the group. In fact it was one of the ambassadors – Jonathan Madden of Year 8 – who, fittingly, had the final word, stepping forward to thank Andrew for welcoming people into school on a working day. ‘How many head teachers would do that?’

Whatever the answer, we were all grateful that Andrew did it. It was a good, truly educational day, given life and vigour by Andrew Howard’s obvious professional enthusiasm.

Finally, it’s important to point out that an event like this, hosted in a school, is a real multiple win for Microsoft, Kelway and the school. I feel sure it set a pattern for how Microsoft can show its technologies in the right setting, to the best advantage to knowledgeable audiences.


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