Using technology to improve attainment - does this Swedish classroom hold the key?

20th September 2016 at 14:15

In a classroom in Sollentuna, a suburb of Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, 28 12-year-olds are tapping away on tablet computers and intermittently chatting to their classmates.

As growing numbers of schools embrace technology, this scene may not appear to be out of the ordinary. But the pupils in this class at Tegelhagens Skola, a school and preschool for students aged one to 13, are among a small group of children to pioneer a new approach to technology that has recently been shown to significantly improve performance on national tests.

The approach is called “Write to Learn”. Its central theme is the use of laptops and tablet computers to enable pupils to view and comment on each other’s work during a lesson, then edit that work based on the feedback from their peers. The 12-year-olds at Tegelhagens Skola each have their own tablet, which they use for about 80 per cent of their written assignments.

With the Write to Learn model being based on students sharing their work with others and receiving feedback, collaborative software is essential. At Tegelhagens Skola, pupils’ work is published on an internal website set up using Google Sites, an app that allows users to create their own websites without having to write any code.

Their teacher, Ditte O’Connor, sets aside classroom time most days for pupils to access the site, which she has named Showtime. Each student will read the work of one of their peers, designated as their “feedback friend” for a particular piece of work. O’Connor puts different pairs together for different tasks.

Constructive feedback

O'Connor monitors pupils’ feedback and leaves her own comments. Pupils’ feedback must be based on a checklist of learning objectives, she says, to ensure they do not make unconstructive comments such as “good work”.

“By looking at the feedback a pupil gives, you can see whether they have understood the lesson,” says O’Connor, who teaches Swedish, English and geography.

She says that lessons move at a faster pace with tablet computers than when pupils write by hand, and that using technology has significantly improved students’ language skills. “Some of the pupils had very poor writing skills when they started; they wrote extremely short texts with poor vocabulary.

“After using this [Write to Learn model] for a year they were scooting ahead, writing long, descriptive texts. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

O’Connor adds that, although pupils do much of their writing on tablets, handwriting standards have not fallen. “Their handwriting is fine, absolutely fine,” she says.

Write to Learn on trial

A recent trial of the Write to Learn model, based on 502 nine-year-old pupils and carried out by researchers at Sweden’s Örebro University, found that O’Connor’s experience of the model’s benefits was not a one-off.

A report on the trial, published in the journal Computers & Education in August, notes that 78 per cent of pupils using the model passed all 15 of Sweden's national tests in literacy and maths.

This was significantly higher than the 59 per cent from a control group using no technology and 50 per cent from a second control group that used technology but did not use the feedback model.

The trial also found that the Write to Learn model reduced the gender gap by allowing boys to improve their performance faster than girls.

Annika Agélii Genlott, the teacher who developed the approach, is now a researcher at Örebro University where she carried out the trial. She is also working for the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions on a project to encourage more schools to use the Write to Learn model.

She says that one of the trial's most important findings is that, despite a push in Sweden and elsewhere to kit out schools with computer equipment, the use of technology alone is not enough to raise educational attainment.

On the contrary, it can be damaging. “ICT use without integration in social learning activities is not effective, but may in fact prove detrimental,” the study says.

Technology – the right way

Agélii Genlott says that too many schools are falling into this trap. “Often the school is buying laptops and tablets, but teachers haven’t [used them in the classroom] before, and they don’t know how to use them effectively.

“If you just change the tool and use a laptop as a typing machine, you won’t get any big result from it.”

Instead, Agélii Genlott says, the role of technology should be to facilitate approaches that are solidly grounded in pedagogical research.

The Write to Learn method, she adds, was influenced by research on formative assessment carried out by Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at London’s Institute of Education, and research on “visible learning”, in which teachers evaluate their own practice, by John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute in Australia.

But although the Write to Learn model has deep roots in educational theory, Agélii Genlott says it took a nine-year-old girl to convince her it was working.

“I spoke to a pupil and she said, ‘when I read my peers’ work I read it with other eyes than if I’m reading my own. I can see mistakes better, then I can understand mistakes and look on my own texts in another way.’

“That’s the core of the model.”

Kate Williams is an education writer