By Jack Kenny
The Microsoft Innovative Education Forum is a great way for discovering teachers who are doing exceptional work in the classroom. This year primary school teachers Jan Webb (fifth from right above, and below) and Simon Horleston (second left, and below) passed through a rigorous filtering process to attend the European Innovative Education Forum gathering in Berlin where they won recognition for their work.
Jan Webb has had an interesting career having taught every age group from three to adult. At present she is teaching at Weston Village Primary School just outside Crewe in Cheshire. She has been there for five years and is currently teaching a Year 4 class as well as being the ICT co-ordinator. Simon Horleston has been teaching six years and is at Howe Dell School in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, in what he describes as "a stunning new eco-building". He works with upper key stage 2 and is inclusion co-ordinator.
Jan describes herself as "an ideas scavenger" and is excited by the way that technology can do more than simply engage and motivate. "The potential for collaborating with others is enormous," she says. "This, for me, is the real breakthrough in using technology with our pupils to move learning forward. Learning doesn’t happen in isolation: we learn from people; we are encouraged and motivated by people; we want to show other people what we have learnt; ideas snowball when we are working with others. Technology as a facilitator for collaboration, for shared construction of knowledge, for creativity has, I believe, the potential to change the way we teach and the way we learn." Simon believes that the use of ICT "in an innovative way creates a sense of trust, belief and responsibility between the learner and the teacher".
The project that Jan developed, "A classroom without walls", impressed the Microsoft judges. Jan explains: "An opportunity arose to work with Temasek school in Singapore on a collaborative project. We used a friendship forum to build a relationship with the children from Temasek, discussing e-safety issues and making our own avatars to use instead of posting our own photos.
'The beauty of wikis is that the children were able to work together'
"The children would look forward to the replies from the other children and used the opportunities to ask questions about life in another part of the world. Then we used a wiki to build information pages about healthy living. The beauty of wikis is that the children were able to work together on the construction of these pages, editing and improving each other's work, using the discussion and comment tools of the wiki to give feedback and make suggestions.
"We also shared a science experiment with the children from Temasek, with children from each class making measurements and recording them in Excel so they could then generate graphs to answer questions such as: 'Do we get taller as we get older?' 'Do taller people have bigger feet?'"
The skills in using forums and wikis then supported Jan's work with Hornbill School in Brunei. "The topic was the Rainforest and the school undertook a school trip on our behalf, sharing the information and pictures they found," she says. "The wiki that we made was shared by both classes, with children from both schools contributing to the information pages, editing and improving each other's work, commenting on what other people had added. We were also looking at persuasive texts and prepared radio adverts using Audacity and free sound effects and clips to convince people to save the rainforest. The collaboration gave us an authentic audience for our work."
Looking outwards and thinking internationally was also the theme of the work presented by Simon (left). His project, "Climate Change Challenge", arose after the children had stated that they wanted to do a project with a focus on the environment. "At Howe Dell, pupil voice is important and directs much of what we do in a positive manner, unlike some recent press reports which have sensationalised the approach. My own focus was to improve the writing skills of the class, through raising awareness of local and global environmental issues.
"There were six stages to the project; research, story writing, stop-motion animations, evaluation, spreading the message and taking responsibility. The key message that the project promotes is that ‘climate change is a real issue to everyone and that we can help to make a difference’.
'The children fully believe in that message, and belief is something that can’t be taught'
"One really remarkable achievement of the project is that the children themselves fully believe in that message, and belief is something that can’t be taught. Our uses of ICT were relevant to the tasks, enabled the children to be active in their learning and also ensured that concepts were understood. We used LogIT Explorers – sensor devices to record levels of light and temperatures throughout the school site. Before thinking about climates around the world and reasons for those different climates we thought about why rooms and places in our own site differed and then applied our understanding to the world."
They used a variety of equipment; Digital Blue Movie Cameras – ensured the children could create their own stop-motion-animations. Senteo Voting Systems were used these to enable children to evaluate their own learning; the anonymity enables pupils to be honest and reflective. Laptops were used for research, handling data, editing animations, text and graphics, word processing, spreadsheets, PowerPoints.
"For the children the key part of the project was to create their animations, but first of all they had to research their topic, plan their key message, plan their story and write their story. By using ICT the children were able to give their work a professional feel and bring their message alive so that they could feel proud of their work. Therefore ICT was essential to the project, but also used as a motivational tool. Once the work was completed we shared our messages about climate change at a headteachers conference, four children shared the work at an international climate change conference where there were also representatives from schools in Kenya and India as well as the UK."
'Reinventing wheels takes time and never seems to me to be an efficient use of time'
Arriving at a position to feel confident enough to enter the Microsoft event involves training and learning. Jan says, "I pick up seeds of ideas from various places – courses I have been on, reading about new tools, suggestions from my personal learning network on Twitter, reading blogs, listening to others about what they are doing, even watching a TV programme. Sometimes I will try out an idea on its own, sometimes it gets developed, combined with other ideas and tweaked so it fits with what I am doing or what I want my children to be learning. Reinventing wheels takes time and never seems to me to be an efficient use of time, whereas personalising it seems to me to be crucial if it’s going to be successful. "
Simon enjoys his visits to the annual BETT educational technology show at Olympia, London: "BETT is a great source of keeping yourself at the forefront of developments. However, ideas are also developed through lesson planning, which involves mapping of the curriculum documents".
The next steps for both of them will include attending the Worldwide Forum in South Africa. Jan will work on incorporating tools such as forums, wikis and Skype: "Web 2.0 tools have much potential – but there are some who are still wary of using them. I want to be able to roll out their use in a supported way with colleagues so that changes in what they are doing are sustainable and have a long-term impact on their teaching and on the learning of our pupils.'
Simon gained inspiration from the event in Berlin: "I saw a variety of innovative ideas that I would like to implement in my classroom and share with my school: game based learning, e-safety projects and video tutorials to support homework".
Whether Jan and Simon are fortunate in October in Cape Town remains to be seen, one thing is certain – that they will continue to be successful in the classroom.
Jack Kenny is a freelance writer and chair of examiners for English with Edexcel. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org