Teachers cannot know it all and cannot provide every answer to pupils' questions. But I have found that collaborating with "local experts" can be beneficial to children and that a school's learning platform, its online community, can be good for this, especially if the experts happen to be hundreds of miles away at sea.
My last school, Ranvilles Infant in Fareham, Hampshire, was in the middle of a Royal Armed Forces housing estate, so children coming to the school knew more about the Navy than the average four-year-old. We used this as the foundation for a project to create a children's guide to the Royal Navy.
The school was keen on introducing technology as early as possible and so we felt that this project would be an ideal way to use the forum on our learning platform. We got the children to note ideas and questions on to the forum, for example by asking what they would like to know about the Navy.
We also had to consider how the pupils could share their findings when they were just beginning to read and write to a standard accessible by others.
Then we needed answers - and this is where local expertise came in. We asked for local volunteers who would become our Navy experts; two of these were fathers who were serving aboard ships. They came into school to meet the children and this generated some exciting cross-curricular activities and classroom display: but the real success came later.
Year 1 and 2 children learned how to post new questions upon a learning platform forum, often delighting in changing their text font, colour and size. Our experts replied from their ship hundreds of miles away, often with explanatory images, sound or photographs.
For example, Q: Do you have music on the ship? A: No, though we used to have someone who played bagpipes whenever we came in and out of the harbour. Or, Q: Where do you sleep? A: We live in "messes", with up to 40 people sharing the same room. So it is important to tidy up after yourself and not to leave things lying around.
This e-pal relationship continued and the children were soon mapping the fathers' routes upon classroom displays and Google maps.
Children gathered information about the Navy and began to create talking books. Thus, we had a children's guide to the Navy without over-dependence on reading and writing, although, as an unexpected consequence, we soon found that boys in particular were making swift and comprehensive progress in their reading. They were captivated by having conversations with people at sea.
Every school is unique and has something about it that could prompt localised projects. It could be the school building itself, the local area, historical connections or something entirely different.
Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a former ICT teacher at Ranvilles Infant School in Fareham, Hampshire. She is now an education development consultant. Ranvilles was winner of the extending learning opportunities category at last year's BECTA awards for ICT in education.