‘Redefining Learning’ is an ongoing and international series of conferences, sharing the rich vein of knowledge, experience and expertise being created within the global community of Microsoft Showcase Schools and Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts.
The six schools that make up Northampton Primary Academy Trust (NPAT) are building a strong track record in doing exactly what the title of this conference says, and on 22nd June they came together to explain and present to a hundred or so teachers and leaders from around the country what the term means to them.
The conference, sponsored by Misco, BETT, Zioxi and EasiPC, was hosted at Abington Vale Primary, in their city centre building, which was once an office block – a conversion which has given them both challenges and opportunities especially in terms of open and flexible learning spaces. Organisation of the day was handled from Simon de Senlis Primary, the Microsoft Showcase School, whose head, Tom Rees is Director of NPAT. Speakers were Tom Rees himself, Ewan McIntosh, CEO of consultancy ‘NoTosh’, Kevin Sait, Head of IT Strategy at Wymondham High Academy Trust in Norfolk (and #MIEExpert), and Flipped Learning specialists Kirsty Tonks and Jen Devaney of Shireland Collegiate Academy.
At least as important as the speakers were the break-out opportunities to meet and talk to children and teachers from each of the NPAT schools working with a range of Microsoft technologies.
True to the theme, the emphasis throughout, coming both from the speakers and the practical sessions involving the children, was on learning. Technology was certainly very much in evidence, but always shown in the context of transforming and supporting learning.
Tom Rees launched proceedings with an impassioned talk that put learning and creativity at the heart of his vision; technology supports that, but the aim is to create what he calls,
‘Curious, industrious, agile learners. This is the generation we want to cure cancer, Alzheimer’s, climate change; to be more tolerant.’
At the same time, teachers are aware of the digital skills gap, and the importance of STEM skills, identified by both government and industry.
Ewan McIntosh also had a message about using technology appropriately, and pointed out the way that people can be impressed by a hi-tech, innovative space, without asking exactly how it’s used.
‘Saying, “Have you seen their new school!” is meaningless unless the building is being used correctly,’ he says.
At the core of Ewan’s talk was the importance of asking the right questions.
‘The big question is “Why?” and it’s not just for the teachers,’ he said, urging a problem-solving, project-based approach which starts with the children. The teachers job, he believes, is, ‘To provoke learning and curate wonder.’
Kevin Sait, in his presentation, also spoke about student leadership.
‘I want to tell you how we let the students take charge of technology,’ he said.
Anyone who’s been to Wymondham, or heard presentations by students from the school will know just how remarkable has been the story of student digital leadership there. It has grown as the school has developed an all-embracing Microsoft environment based on Office 365 and Windows 10 devices. Wymondham’s unique ‘O’ Team, student-led, with Kevin as wise mentor, not only solves problems but initiates innovation. The use of ‘Yammer’, too, across the school, has released and encouraged student voice to a remarkable degree in a large school where communication could otherwise be difficult. Kevin’s pointed advice –
"The phrase ‘If you can't use new technology to share, collaborate and communicate then why buy it?’ ought to be on the front page of every school’s IT policy."
Last on the speaker list were Kirsty Tonks and Jen Devany from Shireland Collegiate Academy, talking about their well-established but ever-developing use of flipped learning. They are convinced of the value of the approach for school improvement, but not content just with their own experience, they are at the heart of ‘MathsFlip’, a wide-ranging Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) project to measure the impact of flipped learning in mathematics across years 5 and 6 in 24 primary schools.
As Kirsty pointed out, the success of flipped learning lies beyond the technique of moving the content of a lesson around,
‘The key lies in the quality of the tasks,’ she says, which implies careful preparation and the selection of the best possible resources to put before children.
There was intense interest in flipped learning among Conference attenders and some nods and murmurs as Kirsty announced,
‘We are really pleased to have agreed a partnership to run a next cohort of MathsFlip schools here in Northamptonshire.’
She added that there was an opportunity for six more Northamptonshire schools to join, and such was the enthusiasm I’d guess that she’s had a good response by now.
Interspersed with the speaker sessions were brief introductions by the sponsors, who also each had a space for products and information. There was Zioxi furniture, devices and software on show from EasiPC and Misco, and information on the BETT Show (I learned of the considerable expansion planned for BETT 2017 with mixed feelings, but that’s between me and my aching feet.) The sponsors, although relatively unobtrusive on the day, were important to the success of the Conference, not least because it was free to delegates.
Also between speaker sessions, we were invited to tour the open learning area where six groups of children and teachers, one from each of the NPAT schools, were working with Microsoft technologies, using Surface 3 devices – on show were Office Mix, Sway, Minecraft, Collaborative PowerPoint and OneNote. Kevin Sait also ran a group centred on BBC micro:bit.
I failed, sadly, largely because of failing to keep an eye on the time, to visit every one of the six groups, but a glance around showed each of them to have an interested crowd of delegates, impressed not only by the children’s use of technology, but by their explanations. I stopped first by the group from Lings Primary, who were working with Minecraft, designing a space station. Headteacher at Lings, Leigh Wolmarans, is an enthusiast for gaming in education, and for Minecraft in particular – in fact within seconds of meeting him his passion had me hooked. In an interview with Microsoft in January he said
“For children, learning comes down to three key principles: engagement; relevance; and enjoyment. If you can tick all three boxes, you’re onto a winner…… the way we use something like Minecraft, it’s not a game. It’s a genuine learning technique.”
From the Lings group I moved on to find Abington Vale Year 4 children using Office Mix. There I met Alexandro Fallo-Nastase of Year 5, and Omar Zahran each creating their own introduction to the wonders of the tropical rainforest. They were clearly adept with the technology, and each had come up with his own approach, each equally effective.
Then I encountered Michael Street, from Year 6 at Ecton Brook Primary, Michael was building a ‘Sway’ to show his journey through school, pulling together photographs and examples of work. I wrote down what Michael told me about Sway, because I think he’d have passed an interview for the Education Marketing team at Microsoft.
‘You can access it anywhere, you just go to the internet. I can be at home doing my Sway even though I’ve started it at school. And you don’t have to worry about saving it.’
This was an impressive Conference, which managed the difficult balance of providing a visionary glimpse of what learning can become for all children as the 21st Century goes on, while at the same time acknowledging the practicalities of running a classroom with today’s learners in today’s social and economic environment. Not once, at any point, could a delegate feel that they were being introduced to something out of their reach. Many, indeed, were ready to go back to school and pick up immediately on what they had seen and heard.