Microsoft OneNote at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School

The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh.

Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School – the colloquial and convenient name ‘HabsBoys’ – is used here – is a very successful, high achieving, selective fee-paying day school for boys aged 4 to 19. The school regularly figures at or near the top of any list of good schools in terms of examination results, Oxbridge admissions and parental approval. A competitive entrance examination provides an intake generally well above average ability. The latest Independent Schools Inspection (ISI) report comments on the children’s very high levels of knowledge, skill and understanding, levels of oracy and literacy and general pride and enjoyment in their work.


This means that HabsBoys provides a particularly clear example of the task which faces all leaders and teachers in very successful schools who wish to introduce innovative, technology-supported approaches in the classroom.  In short, the old principle, ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’, which serves well in so many walks of life has a powerful influence on confident and highly respected teachers.

Always, though, the justification for contemplating change is the same – 21st Century work and life skills require 21st century approaches in school; we live in a fast-changing world that values creative, agile and risk-taking thinkers, and in any case, to stand still is to risk losing ground. In this regard, ISI, as with Ofsted in the state schools, adds a more immediate level of motivation for change by not only emphasising the importance of two-way, teacher-pupil assessment-for-learning dialogue, but also by requiring accessible evidence of its use and effectiveness. This latter expectation can, in practice, only be achieved in a manageable and comprehensive way by the use of technology.


Trialling Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School

I was inspired to visit HabsBoys by hearing about the ideas and enthusiasm of Ian Phillips, Assistant Head and Director of Computing, and also by reading a report, by Ian and History teacher Dr Alex Courtney, of a trial which they ran, each in his own subject, on the use of Microsoft One Note Class Notebook for collaboration and assessment and, in particular, for showing evidence of the dialogue of feedback.

OneNote was already familiar to a number of staff at the school for sharing resources and collaborating on schemes of work and revision.

The arrival of OneNote Class Notebook, however, was not only a boost to collaborative working and learning, but made it much easier to preserve the evidence of teacher feedback and pupil response. The Independent Schools Inspectorate now require schools to show this ‘dialogue of feedback’, and Ian and Alex’s trial was constructed to demonstrate how this might be done with already available technology.

The trial

(Below is a brief summary. You can read the full report here: Using OneNote Class Notebook with Y10 in History and Computing and ICT).

There were actually two separate trials – in History and in Computing -- both with Year 10 boys. The aims of both can be summarised as –

  • Allow students to work anytime, anywhere, home or school, individually or collaboratively, with appropriate staff intervention
  • Record the staff/student assessment dialogue.
  • Assess the work of a whole class to achieve better standardisation.
  • Easily share student work, or extracts, with the whole class, encouraging peer assessment and illustrating marking criteria.
  • Enable the monitoring of individual work -- intervening in a pupil’s planning or note-making, easing it back on track when misunderstandings appear.


This was a relatively informal trial. Lessons learned include,

  • Staff appreciate the continuity offered when boys use the same software at home and school.
  • History pupils made better notes, drawing on a wider range of resources to include in their preparatory work; they were also more engaged with their work.
  • Boys had no significant problems using the Class Notebook. They liked working collaboratively and appreciated being able to see and record who contributed what to the planning. They were surprised, too, by the immediacy of collaboration

Reflections on the trial

This relatively limited trial is important because it enables two technology-minded teachers, working with their own pupils, to show colleagues the advantages of enlisting Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook to support their work. Some of the benefits– the recording and preservation of feedback evidence and pupil response, for example, and, importantly, of the process of iteration as students work towards the preferred outcome – have an immediate attraction. Others, such as the learning gains to be had from a more collaborative approach, may take a little more time to take root. Ian’s strategy, though, of leading by example, working with actual students, is surely the right one.

The two authors themselves come to the following conclusion:

‘This trial fits well with our aims for introducing problem based learning; allowing boys to collaborate whilst we scaffold student responsibility so they can move to become independent learners. OneNote should work really well for the coursework preparation with Y10 and Y12, not so much for its collaborative functions but in that it can act as a scrapbook / organiser for each boy as he progresses through the necessary reading and research. As the teacher has remote access to each pupil's space, they can monitor progress during that preparatory phase much more efficiently. This could help keep less organised (and, indeed, the overly enthusiastic) pupils on track.’

The full version goes into far greater detail, and you'd be encouraged to read it here:
Using OneNote Class Notebook with Y10 in History and Computing and ICT

Visiting HabsBoys

I found HabsBoys a fascinating school to visit. As you’d expect, it is replete with excellent specialist facilities, of which staff and boys are rightly proud, and the beautiful extensive grounds were looking their best on a June afternoon. Factor in a consistent and superb record of academic success, and a high demand for places, and you’d be forgiven for looking around for hints of complacency. If so, you’ll be disappointed. The key signals to the visitor are to do with vibrancy, questioning, and engagement with the core task, together with a determination to look beyond the laurels, let alone rest on them.

Staff lunch conversation, for example, at least at the table where I was sitting, consisted of an instalment of what is obviously a long-running debate about pedagogy, and particularly around the value of collaborative, technology-supported learning, This is a school where teachers of whatever preferred style are excellent and effective – the results tell you that – and it’s pretty clear that those who are gifted with the ability to lead from the front, painting word pictures and holding classes in rapt attention, may well be resistant to what they see as pressure to allow students to take at least some responsibility for their learning, individually or in collaboration.

Ian Phillips, though, is a persuasive evangelist. As an Intel Visionary, a member both of the Microsoft Independent School Steering Group and the Independent Schools Council ICT Strategy Group – and above all a hands-on teacher --  he is someone to whom people listen. He is bent on what Microsoft Showcase schools call ‘Redefining Learning’, and with the school openly committed to the use of technology wherever it can be of advantage, he is a significant agent for change. He refers, as a model for change in education, to the ‘Year of Learning’ which ran in the 2015/16 academic year at Stanford University, California. The year was devoted to the deep and questioning study of the nature of teaching and learning at a time of great change.

Ian’s aim, working with Dr Alex Courtney and computer science teacher Vaughan Connolly,  is to see, perhaps not a year, but a time of learning at HabsBoys, with an open-minded rethink of the core purposes of education and the role played by schools. Together with with like-minded colleagues they are engaging school leadership in a series of conversations about the way forward.

In the classroom with Year Seven, OneNote Class Notebook, and BBC micro:bit

By the time Ian and I made it to his Y7 Computing class, where I spent a good part of my visit, the boys were already well into their work. Using desktop computers, with OneNote Online, they were working in twos and threes programming Micro:bits to solve problems which they had devised. At the root of this is Ian’s belief in the importance of computational thinking as the foundation of programming and computer science in general –

‘We have to develop a common language, within the school and internationally, for the development of computational thinking, otherwise there’s no hope. How else will be the big problems of the world be solved?’

With keen younger children in particular, the issue is getting them to look past their fascination with the gadgets, and perceive what is the actual problem to be solved – so rather than design a virtual pet, for example, is the real problem actually to devise a way of bringing comfort and companionship to someone in need?

That was evident in the Y7 lesson where children were anxious to have their micro:bits in action – controlling a buggy or a musical keyboard for example, and their Class Notebooks showed many examples of  Ian’s online coaching  towards thinking a little more deeply about the planning process.

Habs Boys Microbit Year Seven

At least two of the collaborative groups in the class were programming one BBC micro:bit to control another mounted on a buggy, using the micro:bit built-in radio – a technique described on the Computing at School (CAS) Community site, which uses the Microsoft Programming Experience Toolkig (PXT).

The class had already made big strides with their programming skills in the course of tackling the ‘sTEAM’ challenge, set for them by Ian, which involved sending a buggy through difficult terrain to rescue a stranded secret agent. There were lots of snags and problems to deal with on the way.

Detail of the projects apart, what really impressed me about this lesson was the overall sense of enthusiasm tempered by deep engagement in the task. There was plenty of buzz and lots of talking, but it was all about the job in hand. Collaboration was there to be seen – and each group told me that, yes, they did plan some of their work together remotely from home. Ian’s ‘stop and listen’ interventions were few – I only remember two, both very brief. The real feedback takes place on the Class Notebooks. Really, if anyone wonders what 21st Century learning looks like in the flesh, this is it.

Moving on

The next big thing for Ian, I guess, will be Microsoft Classroom. Soon after my visit, Ian tweeted:


Comments (0)

Skip to main content