Examination season is here again in the UK and I, like many other teachers, will soon be invigilating hundreds of students taking their final assessments. Important though they are, however, exams don’t tell the whole story. Those still and silent examination halls are a powerful and universal symbol of assessment, but they don’t reflect the reality of education for much of the year.
Far from being silent, teaching and learning is an ongoing conversation between pupil and teacher. It is essential that schools offer their students as many different paths into knowledge as they can. Technology – used well and with imagination – can help schools to deepen and enrich this conversation.
The power of edtech
As an English teacher, wedded to book, page and pen, I can honestly say that using technology for collaborative learning has transformed my teaching more than anything since I first stepped in front of a blackboard (yes, really) more than 20 years ago. I use multiple devices in my practice: a Macbook, an iPad Pro with Apple Pencil and a Prowise Chromebook.
Technology, I have discovered, doesn’t have to isolate us. Indeed, teachers can break down the barriers by setting tasks that promote interaction and shared learning objectives – even when we are not all working together in the same room. I have asked my pupils to work together on group presentations using Google Slides on their Prowise Chromebooks, for example. By collaborating in the cloud, they can work at home and I can add comments in real time. Making interventions like this can be crucial because I can guide students before mistakes are made without inhibiting their ideas.
Online collaborative platforms designed by companies such as Google, Microsoft or Prowise are good places to find ideas. They are easy to navigate and can take planning and learning in new and exciting directions. They’ve been road-tested by teachers for years. These tools build bridges, and new knowledge forms in groups.
Sharing strengthens learning
There are even touchscreen alternatives to the interactive whiteboard, that stubbornly 20th-century bit of kit. The Prowise Touchscreen, for example, allows teachers and students to work together via a high-resolution smart screen set up at the front of the class. Using the screen, teachers can bring focus to the task in hand, while pupils are also able to work individually on their Chromebook.
I have really enjoyed introducing Year 10 students to Shakespeare by setting up the task, annotating extracts in front of them, and setting them off to do the research, all the while checking in and curating what sites they visit. Work is saved automatically on Microsoft 365 or Google Docs, and the results can be both stimulating and visually stunning.
Even those tired old wall displays could be a thing of the past, with student work being exhibited via a screen, updated and refreshed as new ideas develop.
Undoubtedly, many of the online tasks you might set could be done face-to-face. But working together online can be liberating, giving students the time to reflect and develop properly researched and detailed answers. Technology can give voice to quiet members of the class, too, which can be empowering. Such a process strengthens learning, rather than diluting it.
Although students will probably always be assessed in an examination hall, they will increasingly have to adapt what they’ve learned to changing contexts and, in the future, rapidly evolving working environments.
I have no doubt that we are seeing the development of new ways of learning in our classrooms, and we have to ensure that our students are equipped to work in online teams with as much ease as they do face-to-face. We have to teach them how to "listen" to each other as they work together, to respect the input of others, read carefully, and accept others’ contributions. In order to produce something meaningful that adds to their academic progress, they have to work in a mature and mutually supportive way.
Although they will inevitably have to sit at a screen to do their work, our students can still make that a social activity with learning at its heart. Examination results will always be a measure of an individual’s ability, but we must ensure that in getting to that point our students have had as much help as possible, from us as teachers, and from each other. Technology can support those aims.
Many of our students will, in the future, be working in extended networks around the world on shared projects. Getting them ready for that world is a challenge that schools will have to meet. The good news is that the tools are already there. Now we’ve got to pick them up (or switch them on), connect with each other and make them work.
David James is deputy head (academic) at Bryanston School