Amiracle cure… the Holy Grail… the Rosetta stone for teachers everywhere. The transformative powers of technology have been sold to teachers like an enormous ‘yes’ for decades – promising to solve learning and satisfy students. The truth is a little more mundane. Technology doesn’t change everything; it is no more than a tool, and any impact on learning is wholly reliant upon the skill of the teacher.
And yet, if we harness the tools of technology a little more wisely, we may be able to make valuable improvements to our students’ learning. What is more, we may save ourselves some time and energy, too.
Let’s consider the case of feedback. We know that if teachers give specific, accurate and clear feedback, students can effectively move from A to B. All the evidence tells us that feedback has a significant impact on learning.
The Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit puts the impact of feedback on learning at an whopping average of eight months added progress for students annually. We also know that there is a huge amount of pressure, from school leaders under the gaze of all-seeing OFSTED, as well as from many well-meaning parents, to give regular and detailed written feedback to students. The effective practice that can attend instant oral feedback, or well-structured peer feedback, too often doesn’t get a look in. Feedback becomes bastardised into an endless cycle of marking.
In these conditions teachers are left groaning under the weight of shortsighted marking policies. New orthodoxies emerge in classrooms everywhere: coloured pens daubed on every page or triple impact marking being mandated. These marking methods are all to be issued by teachers with the expectation of relentless regularity.
Like technology, the expectation is that if we give lots of such feedback that students will make vast improvements. Only, once more, this will prove a bogus miracle cure. Yes – we should issue clear and effective feedback that guides students how to get better – but we need to be careful not to issue it to the point of excess. Perversely, with too much feedback, we will actually inhibit students from thinking for themselves. Also, if we run teachers into the ground then their teaching will inevitably suffer.
Making it work
So what role does technology play? For busy teachers, technology can make effective feedback easier and, crucially, it can save time. As a teacher I am always looking for effective shortcuts that see no let up in the quality of teaching and learning.
You needn’t have a fleet of tablets or a flashy new building with computer rooms the size of football fields, either. There are cheap (even free) and easy alternatives. For example, with apps like Socrative, on personal mobile devices, we can source instant feedback all the time.
Alternatively, we can invest in the now relatively cheap technology of a visualiser. There are few tools that can provide the bang for our buck that a visualiser gives. Rather than hauling a bag full of books home, we can instantly show our students’ work to the class, giving quick, visible feedback. By modeling good responses or common misconceptions in this way, we can then improve the general standard of work, thereby ultimately saving our time correcting endless mistakes.
Here are just some of the approaches I have been trialing for fast and effective feedback using technological tools:
The web search engine is useful of course, but Google Drive can prove the secret weapon of this global behemoth. One of my favourite innovations for feedback is using Google Docs. Essentially, it is a word processing application, but it has the massive benefit of being live and online. With a few easy steps, you can set up your class group to be sharing and interacting with documents online. I can now get students to give feedback on one another’s work, before I then give them quick and visible feedback.
This online website and mobile app is a quick and easy (and very popular) way to quiz our students and to get them using flashcards and more for self-quizzing. You can access the many preexisting quizzes or set up an account and devise your own. Students themselves can become masters of their own revision fate using this simple and free tool.
This website application is another quick and easy method to set up quizzes. With a quick snap of a camera on a quiz you generate online, you can get instant feedback on student performance.
Using the tool of technology effectively always takes an initial investment of time and effort, no doubt, but by selecting the right tools we can leverage the power of speedy and useful feedback with some ease. Technology won’t ever prove a miracle cure for teaching and learning, any more than endless marking in our students’ books will; but it can likely help busy teachers get better at giving effective feedback.
About the author
Alex is director of learning and research at huntington school, york. He writes regular blogs at huntingenglish.com. His book, ‘teach now! English: becoming a great English teacher’ is out now (routledge).