The Benefits of "Going Google"
From Simon Lean-Massey (Y4) and Ben Cording (Y3) from Elmwood School
Being only three years into primary teaching, I thought I would spend a bit of time consolidating what I had learnt on placements, prepare more resources so that I could better differentiate, and develop those killer spelling and handwriting programmes (not).
It was all going well. I liked my school, my class, and my colleagues. I felt like I was getting better at meeting needs, but still there was this nagging feeling that I didn’t quite know how I was going to get the students to take control of their own learning as much as I had hoped. Surely, I could add better value as more of a guide and less of a director.
And there were those reluctant writers, the ones who found it hard to take pride in their written work because it looked like a centipede had walked through a bunch of iron filings and then gone ballistic on their page. There were also those books to deal with: books left at home or lost; finding the work to give feedback; and trying to ignore all the surface features, which were barriers to the ideas that dwelt inside the scrawl. I had always been super tech-savvy, but didn’t get terribly enthused by the thought of having a class of 30 with six devices, producing the occasional Powerpoint, I-Movie or Storybird.
Serendipitously, we had just got a BYOD network layer running and the SNUpgrade. Little by little, we increased the number of devices in the class; half a dozen children started bringing a variety from home, I gave out my personal laptop and my work laptop, and we went out on raiding parties each morning, borrowing devices from generous and tolerant colleagues (sincere thanks and apologies). Over the space of a term or so, we have almost got to the point where we can get 1:1 device coverage for a large part of the morning.
We began a transition to a fully digital literacy programme. We now plan our writing on mind-mapping apps, draft on Google Docs, and often publish on Google Slides. I make all our reading activities as GDocs, which the children can access on any device and from any connected location. Parents can see exactly what their children are working on, and can see my feedback and next steps through the comments feature in GDocs. I can see children working on their writing at home. Many a Sunday afternoon, I log on to find children working on independent research or other literacy tasks.
Perhaps the most obvious change has been in our writing programme. If a writer is struggling for ideas or feedback, it is easy to assemble a team of quick experts who can open the “struggler’s” writing and type suggestions directly in. Within a few minutes, the writer can have four or five, or even 10 suggestions to help them over the particular roadblock. What is more, previously reluctant writers now find themselves part of expert groups. The initial surprise on one boy’s face was priceless – his ideas creative, spelling atrocious, grammar very average, and handwriting almost illegible, he was not accustomed to being asked to contribute to and comment on the work of his classmates as an expert.
I now have a class of year four children whose overall engagement has skyrocketed and who are more (and more-productively) interactive than previously. For those concerned that 1:1 devices will lessen interaction and collaboration, my experience has been the complete opposite. The previously engaged are now better enabled and the less engaged are now more so.
But, perhaps the greatest personal reward was unanticipated. As the class has become more accustomed to automated feedback on some of the surface features, and has started using digital tools for research, my role has changed markedly. I’ve never been busier, but it’s a fulfilling busy and the reason I got into teaching: I have gradually removed myself as a source of support for inquiries that the children have the tools to resolve themselves. I now feel that I am adding value by putting a far greater proportion of my time into helping children develop questioning skills and deeper thinking. I am trying to build a more personalised pathway by using varied life skills and broad general knowledge to give students gentle suggestion and guidance for further inquiry so that they can continue to follow their own curiosity.
Although it is taking me time to build my own literacy resources, for those who are daunted by the idea of creating their own, there is a great community of digital teachers who share. A move to digital learning doesn’t require teachers to provide screes of self-generated digital content to teach a whole bunch of unfamiliar skills. It just requires that we find quality resources to teach those same information filtering and processing skills that we have always taught.
Coming into 2014 I was convinced that the future of my year three teaching practice lay in the fancy short-throw projector that sat proudly above my whiteboard. I had spent the previous year coming to grips with Activinspire, playing around with what the software could do, and now felt like I had it down. Video clips at a click, instant and permanent records of classroom discussions, shared examples of student work that we could modify as a class - this was the future of education.
Then Simon and Google Drive came and interrupted my best laid plans….
After seeing what Simon and his class had accomplished in a very short period of time by going Google, I knew that I wanted in on the action. I loved the idea of instant feedback, of effortless collaboration, and of marking work in a way that students would actually see and care about. But most of all, I loved the idea of a fluid classwork structure, where students learned to manage their time productively in order to complete tasks both at school and at home. I knew that I liked all of these things, what I didn’t know was how my year three students would take to them.
I had a ton of questions. Do year three children need to still be writing in pencil, or do we go fully digital? Are we pushing this too early? Is too much ‘screen time’ something that I should be worried about? Did my students even have the basic computer literacy skills necessary to go down this path? I talked to colleagues and to parents of students in my room to try to find answers to these and other related questions. With (mostly) positive responses backing me up, I arrived at what I think to be a good transitional stepping stone that guides the students from pencil and paper to digital literacy.
Every week exactly half of the students in the class work with 1:1 devices during writing sessions
So has it worked? Absolutely. We began this programme toward the beginning of term three and I can certainly say that I completely underestimated how quickly the students would pick this stuff up. We had a week or so of confusion and the picking up of basic computer skills, but after that the rate at which these year three children learned the ins and outs of the system was very quick indeed. Quite apart from the things that I suspected would be huge advantages of this system (peer/teacher feedback, student engagement, fluid classwork structure etc), it is the unexpected benefits that really provide the greatest joy for me. Things like children and parents working closely together on a piece of writing, not because it’s homework and it must be done, but because a child really wanted to work on it at home and Mum or Dad came over to see what they were up to; or when I log in randomly during the weekend to find that several children have decided to get together in the drive and work collaboratively on a document they have decided to create for themselves - just for the sheer joy of creating.
Like Simon above, while I am certainly busy creating learning tasks and managing the drive, the benefits are already very apparent after only a short amount of time. I look forward to seeing how this approach will shape the classroom in the weeks to come.