Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Technology tools that support new teachers

Being a new teacher can be daunting. To be honest, even when you've taught for many years, a move to a new school can make you feel almost entirely like a beginner again. The nature of teacher is that students listen when they respect you, and rarely before that point. Your job as the teacher is to establish high expectations, behaviour boundaries, and what I used to call "the deal": "You guys work hard, and I'll make your learning worthwhile and engaging".

Behaviour for learning

As such, the first thing to establish is your behavioural expectations, and I would say it's worth sweating the small stuff. New teachers often say that the added distraction of students using mobile devices is just another discipline headache they don't want to have to deal with, hence they don't go near technology. Personally, I think that if students are misusing technology, what you have is a behaviour problem, not a technology problem, and it should be treated as such. A few little routines, however, can make a real difference. Things like "screens off" time while you explain tasks, and insisting on tablets and devices being flat on the desk where you can see them go some way to creating the attention levels and transparency of use that you want. The same goes for acceptable noise levels, no hands up during questioning and creating an atmosphere in which students are allowed to speak without fear of others criticising or interrupting are the bedrock of good classroom dynamics. A couple of really useful little apps I've found are RandomMaster and Too Noisy (really good for Primary classrooms!)
Too Noisy
RandomMaster is a student selection app: Pre-enter the students' names, and it simply randomizes them as necessary, in front of their eyes on the AppleTV, and there's no arguing, and no bloody lollipop sticks! It can be used to put students into groups, pick the student to answer a question at random, and assign roles within groups (Expert, scribe, researcher and so on). 

Too Noisy is an ambient volume level measurer: You set what is an acceptable level of noise while the class are working independently, and the display will show students when it is getting too loud, without you having to tell them every two minutes. Again, it's simple stuff, but it makes your expectations clear from the off.

Amongst the other apps you can use are things like timers to stop some students dominating class discussion, and spinners to assign random questions. 

A great tool for this is Triptico which, if you've never seen it, gives you loads of little animated apps such as timers, spinners, scorers, task selectors, word magnets for labelling, order sorters, thinklink hexagons (if you're a SOLO Taxonomist, which isn't as creepy as it sounds!) and various different quiz formats. It's absolutely brilliant if you're working on a desktop or laptop or whiteboard, especially as you can run multiple activities on a screen at once (timer, quiz, student selector etc) BUT it's not yet available as a mobile device app, which is a shame for people like me who don't like swapping between devices for tasks in class. As a new teacher, that might not seem like such a big deal, but every moment you spend getting round tech problems is a moment the class can go off-task and off-boil. The fewer of those you have, the better at the start. That said, it's still well worth checking out...

Triptico is a nice little link to the next, most important part of teaching:


Before we start, a caveat: Beware of using technology in and of itself as a "thing". In terms of engaging students, this is short-termism at its worst. The fact that students are using mobile devices does not mean you have their attention. Sometimes it means you have a good deal less of it than you think. And it definitely doesn't necessarily mean they are learning! But it does offer you a huge variety of new worlds to explore from within your classroom. And it's the tasks that you set which will engage students or not. So think carefully.
  • Fun activities are one way to make learning fun and effective, so use apps like Triptico to make the learning enjoyable.
  • Differentiation is another key area which mobile technology can help you with if you want to engage all students. It makes it considerably easier to assign students different materials depending on their ability levels. "Flipping the classroom" is something I really rate as a means of differentiating work, and allowing students to work at their own pace (See my post about Flipped Learning here), and technology makes it very easy to distribute these different resources to different students, whether it's over your VLE, through Youtube playlists or web-pages (you can collate these easily on Pinterest for instance), or simply sending out different electronic resources via email. Want to make it flash?  Use QR codes or augmented reality apps like Aurasma or Layar.
  • Getting your students to show their learning in different ways which are more accessible from whatever stage they are at is one of the great uses of technology in teaching. Some students are ultra-bright in certain areas, but can't show their learning in writing yet. It's important that they learn how to write well, but nevertheless, a student can create a brilliant Science report or MFL monologue without being able to write it down, especially if tech is at your side. Try using apps like Explain Everything to allow them to create videos with their own written or verbal commentaries to show you their learning. Tellagami is another lovely little app which allows students who are a bit shy to speak their findings through a cartoon character, with background pictures to illustrate their learning. Or for longer projects which are intended to develop written skills, what about getting your students to create their own interactive books, with video links, hyperlinks, pictures, and even quizzes. Apple's iBooks is a great way to do this, but I tend to go with Creative Book Builder for its simplicity, and the fact that Apple don't get to put a whole stack of obstacles between you and the sharing of your work! (Apple? Proprietary about their software? You jest, I hear you not cry...)
  • Finally, technology is more than ever about communication, especially with the advent of mobile tech. It gives you the ability as a teacher to bring the outside world in, make the learning relevant to that outside world through face-to-face interactions (Skype, FaceTime, Google hang-outs). Our own Science department did a superb project with NASA last year, communicating weekly over Skype to talk to their experts about global warming, and to help them with aspects of their work. I can't tell you how many sparks were lit by that single project, but the students still talk about it today.
  • And it's not just about bringing the outside world into your classroom: It's as much about getting the work of your students out there. Primary schools are now getting their students to blog their learning to other schools internationally, and forging international relationships with other students. Blogger is free, it's connected to a Google e-mail account, and it's easy enough for a monkey to use, as the last 500 words should easily attest. My own personal ambition for my film students is for their work to be known before they even leave our school. We formed the Finham Film-Makers Society, we set up a dedicated Youtube playlist from the department channel, and already the students are starting to gain the sort of exposure they will need to succeed in a competitive business. Can you imagine doing that ten years ago?
  • Before we end though, a second caveat. Once your use of technology is confident, re-appraise what you're doing in the light of the most crucial question: How far does this enhance learning? Are you using technology and time to create resources which are having no impact on learning? Have a look at the SAMR model below, and if you think you're just substituting stuff, take a step back. Either re-think what you're doing, or give it up. Life's too short to spend time on tasks which don't benefit your students. Re-formulate your task in the light of what you want students to learn, and you'll soon start to work your way up the ladder.
The SAMR model: How transformative is your practice?
I could write another whole section down here on another of the most important aspects of good teaching and learning, which is Assessment for learning. But you know what? You've probably had enough reading for the day. Conscientious blog-readers such as your good selves will probably have a stack of other (far more interesting and erudite!) blogs to be getting on with, so we can cover Socrative, GoogleDocs, and all those delights at a later stage. We could even set it for homework. Let's go crazy. In the meantime, for those of you just starting out, I wish you all the best. It's a great profession.