Power to the pupils

31st March 2006 at 01:00
As a teacher, Dan Buckley recognised the value of self-evaluation, but it was only when he saw how to tap his students'

knowledge and creativity that paper-bound theories surged into life

I still remember the pleasure and power of knowing how the video recorder worked before my parents did, to be able to write a program in BBC Basic that wrote your name all over the screen, to gasps from amazed adults. That was back when children had the slight edge. Now, as my nine-year-old daughter nonchalantly emails me an animation she made of her cuddly toys which I can't reply to because my other daughter has changed my keyboard to Japanese, I realise I should take up gardening.

Until the 1990s, I claimed to be an expert in using ICT in the classroom. I would wheel out the program I wrote to find the equation of a best-fit line with pride as I made clueless children use it to enter their results.

Exasperated with having to copy the graph off the screen (try printing 30 sheets with a dot-matrix printer in less than an hour), one student asked if they could finish it off at home.

The next day I met the internet. After some brief resistance, and the urge to ban it, I realised "Can I finish it off at home?" was a pretty skilled way of managing an adult who needed it breaking to them gently. Since then children have become more skilled in the art of managing ICT-immigrant adults, although some of them do find it hard to be patient.

As a deputy head, when children realised I understood the frustration, they would bring all sorts of dilemmas to me. "Sir can you have a word with the librarian? We need to send an urgent message. We tried MSN - she didn't know what it was but asked us to come off it anyway. Then we tried email and she kicked us off the computer, and I'm not getting my mobile phone out or she'll have it." Or "Mrs X has confiscated my computer because it was saying rude words." "Really?" 'Yeah. Luke's brother wrote it in VB (Visual Basic). It's cool."

While observing a lesson using a simplified, 'educational' word processor, I noticed the Year 4 pupil was nodding excessively as the teacher was explaining to her how to change the font. When the teacher left, she whispered to her friend, "We've got proper Word at home."

In 2000 it suddenly dawned on me. I had been trying to create genuine leadership opportunities for students and they had always failed because the students knew they had no genuine power, and so did the teachers. But in ICT there was a reversal of this relationship that was accepted by both, so why not use it?

We set up a range of projects with a courageous set of teachers who let the children take centre stage: we gave children teacher training and then they used ICT to create and deliver lessons; we did a summer school, the flyer for which admitted we were going to try and make a pop video but had no idea how; we asked secondary children to train primary children who then taught ICT to their classes in school; and we asked every Year 7 to create a musical story without words. Remarkably, they were all successful, some in life-changing ways.

Student Y was in a world of his own and poorly motivated. Most ways he approached work led to him being misunderstood. When we launched the self-determined learning project, 60 students were given a complete free rein for five weeks. I had written some skill ladders, and in the project children met with a mentor each week to plan how they would progress up their chosen ladder.

They then had a week to use ICT to find the evidence and present it to their peers for assessment by any media they chose. The plans student Y came up with filled us with despair, but he was bursting with energy and enthusiasm so we let him do it.

When the researchers for the project came to evaluate, we chose student Y as an example of how motivating all the students had found it, even if their progress up the ladders had been slow. He presented for 10 minutes using two sources of sound, movement, PowerPoint and video clips. At the end there was stunned silence. We'd been taken for a tour of his planet. It was amazing.

On another scale, one of Becta's former ICT in Practice award winners, Bob Overton, arts co-ordinator at Mere Oaks school, Wigan, had used ICT to facilitate severely disabled children so that they could express their own ideas freely. Jenny, a girl with physical disabilities, created a piece called Puppet on a String, in which she dances in front of a video recorder with strings attached to her like a puppet. The slowed-down film has the effect of ameliorating her physical difficulties and the smile shows her joy at being able to express her creativity and passion for dance in ways that would otherwise be impossible for us to understand.

All the teachers involved in such projects develop a different and more rewarding role by creating the structures within which they can hand over creative licence and then marvel at the abilities they have unlocked. I would be lying if I didn't admit that getting this right takes enormous amounts of energy and frustration. But this is the reason why we are told that 90 per cent of schools are not e-confident. It's not that teachers don't want these benefits for their students, just that the mountain in the way is too large and few can see what is on the other side.

The SRF tries to provide routes through, and the array of Becta awards and case studies give glimpses of the possible, but most documentation facing teachers places the responsibility for this ICT expertise and innovation at their door. Meanwhile, the real innovators are sitting in front of them.

Most guidance avoids the empowerment of students, the electrifying force that can breathe life into the theories.

Back in the 1990s, a student frustrated with my use of ICT took the work home to achieve a better result. As a teacher I was sceptical about the importance of home learning and tried blocking fanfiction.net. The emails from students flooded in, and two girls with special needs explained why they preferred their stories to be commented on anonymously online before they handed them in to the teacher.

Having experienced all this, SENchildren explaining why they use peer review sites unknown to adults, hard Year 9 students creating video compilations of Second World War clips that show emotional depth, and Year 5s discussing how to teach Year 4s over the webcam, I can't put the genie back in the bottle.

The Self-Review Framework raises the aspiration for schools and encompasses current best practice, but I believe we are not ambitious enough for students because we haven't seen what they are really capable of and, without this experience, we are in danger of defaulting to an out-of-date classroom model.

Dan Buckley is former deputy headteacher of Eggbuckland school, Plymouth, and is now a principal consultant with Cambridge Education

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