Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Category: ICT

Susan Boyle, historical knowledge & the Black Death

One binary pairing we never seem to tire of in education is the knowledge/skills division. Lately, the prominence given to ‘knowledge’ has become fashionable in the media and as a History teacher, I find it puzzling because both are necessary to do well. The following task created by myself with the help of the Library team at Berkhamsted shows that we should really talk about skills and knowledge as two sides of the same coin when it comes to great historical learning.

The first part of the task was to evaluate the BBC Black Death website and then also the Wikipedia page and they were asked to evaluate the websites with the following questions:

  • Who wrote the website and why?
  • How accurate is the information on the website?
  • Who is the site aimed at?
  • Was the information on the site useful to you?
  • Would you go back to it?

After using these research questions, students were let loose on a dummy site created by myself and the library team. You can see it in all of its fake glory here.

Apart from the obvious historical errors, we also added links to a variety of things including Susan Boyles’ website (where we substituted the word ‘Buboe’ for the word ‘boyle’) and a merchandise shop.

Using the historical knowledge from their previous lessons and these new questions, students were asked to evaluate the site and answer the following:

  • What is wrong with the content of the site?
  • How would you improve the site?

The first question demands recall and use of their knowledge to make a judgment about the validity of the content. It also demanded careful reading.  They could ‘Google’ information to check facts but it was far easier for them to think carefully about what they have learned and use their exercise/texts books as the authority. The students were outraged at the obvious mistakes but then had to think very carefully about the things that seemed plausible. The answers for the first question were marked according to the following mark scheme:

L1 1-4 marks Can identify basic historical errors (dates, sequence of events)
L2 5-7 marks Explains the errors and links to own knowledge via explanation about why the content is wrong
L3 8-10 marks Is able to provide a balanced critique of the site with examples supporting both sides

The second question was marked according to the following:

L1 1-5 marks Provides factual correction in relation to sections/talk of layout
L2 6-8 marks In addition to the above and provides one example of research/content to be included
L3 9-10 Identifies what should be kept, adds additional pointers for improvement/uses the research questions to help shape their answers links.

All the Year 7 students have completed the task and it has improved/sharpened their knowledge of the Black Death and improved their digital literacy skills. As a great side effect, they also seem to be increasing their cultural literacy by singing Susan Boyle songs.

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Berkhamsted IT Open Day, 12th Feb

We are running an IT Open Day this year after many requests from schools to come see our network infrastructure and talk about iPad/Google Apps use.

The day will have two main strands: technical and teaching/strategy. Draft agenda below:

Tickets at £50 (£45 for early bird discount) can be ordered from hereThe agenda and further details will be available on the ticketing page. Look forward to seeing you in February!

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Open Public Services and Social Media

In the last week of November I spoke to the Public Policy Exchange about the effective use of Social Media in schools. I can’t say who attended or what questions they asked as the meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule. What I can reveal is a brief summary of what I discussed.

In 2011 the government published a White Paper on the future of Public Services (schools, hospitals etc and which served as the basis for the the conference). One heading stuck out for me:

The old, centralised approach to public service delivery is broken.

This line of thinking has huge implications if made into a reality. Two other quotes struck me from the White Paper and the progress update released last year:

Public services should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level.

We will ensure fair access to public services.

Within this context, how could Social Media help deliver or enhance Public Services? My view is that despite the desire to move away from centralisation, that is a fundamental function of the state (see Steven Johnson’s ‘Future Perfect’ for a recent example of this)and we should really think about how we can enhance or add to the existing delivery of centralised public services.

Why Social Media and Public Services? Brief context is needed. A recent survey of students at HE suggests that 72% of them spend at least four hours a week on social networking sites a week (25% said they spent upwards of 11 hours a week). Are Public Services ready to reach such people on their terms? Can Public Services incorporate this information into what they do?

Social Media Landscape diagram

Social Media Landscape 2012 by Fred Cavazza

As there are so many tools to think about, I limited my talk to three of the most common (Facebook, Twitter and Google +) and returned to the work of Simon Sinek for helping us to understand why, how and what Social Media can do in terms of a particular Public Service – Education. Purpose/principles are very important in any endeavour and Social Media can help schools fulfil their core purpose of providing opportunities, celebrating success and ‘living’ the idea as a organisation geared towards learning.

I provided three (nowhere near exhaustive) ways that Social Media tools can be used by schools.


On a basic level, Social Media tools can be used as reminders for students, parents and colleagues. This works for promoting events, homework etc. I showcased examples of tweets announcing public lectures, teachers/lecturers reminding students about assignments and to reminders to watch particular documentaries.

Celebrate work

On another level, Social Media can be used to celebrate work publicly and in a timely fashion. This is especially interesting as Public Services do not have the marketing budgets commercial companies to show the brilliant work that is often undocumented. I used a few examples of Sixth Form Colleges showing off their colleagues wining teaching awards, teachers showing work on walls and the picture below of a Motte & Bailey castle made by one of my Year 7 historians. This tweet was retweeted and picked up by a national organisation and when I told the pupil, he was beaming which would translate into increased effort in his lesson (benefits for all).

Motte & Bailey Castle made of cake

Amplify intelligence

The third example of how Social Media can help deliver effective Public Services was in the area of professional development. Twitter has been incredibly helpful in spreading ideas in terms of teaching and learning and I used examples of hashtags on Twitter to link professionals across the country and generate discussion  (such as #TeachMeet, #edtech and #SLTchat). Talking online is useful but what is impressive is how these discussions lead to action or physical meetings in an attempt to solve a common concern. Using TeachMeets, Meetups and the forthcoming Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted as examples, I argued that the professional development that could be generated via Social Media could be more effective and targeted than what an instiution could sometimes provide. Using the example of TeachMeets and Meetups, I made the point that people gave up their time freely to discuss issues and learn from others which in a time of reduced budgets was something to seriously consider. The use of Social Media in this way was a clear example of  Steven Johnson’s ‘Peer Progressives’ – amplifying and developing expertise through distributed networks.

How could the example of schools using Social Media apply to other Public Services? In the first instance, it could be used to celebrate the work within the institution – something that is not done enough. With so many services under public scrutiny, Social Media could be used to raise staff morale in a very cost effective way – all you need is a smartphone (and an awareness of what is appropriate). Secondly, it creates the possibility to amplify what is already good within an institution not just through publicity but also through linking with other interested groups who can provide news ways of approaching a problem. If you have a common concern as a Public Service, would it not be useful to discuss this with other colleagues in different areas of the country?

I then suggested that there were three key things to consider when thinking about Social Media in Public Services.

  1. Does your use of Social Media fit the purpose of your organisation? For education it is a natural fit but if you are constrained by budgets, does it really fit into what is the main thing your organisation does? This is the ‘why’/purpose question.
  2. Do you have a framework to help schools/other Public Services to innovate? This means being able to take managed risks and a willingness to learn from mistakes (as this will happen).
  3. Be prepared for criticism as it will come. How will you deal with a disgruntled user of public services on Social Media channels? You need to plan ahead as it will happen.

The discussion and questions were really interesting (but I can’t say anymore than that)! I want to thank for the team at the Public Policy Exchange for their hospitality and understanding (especially Alex) that I had to leave after my talk to go back and teach my Year 10 GCSE History class. Yes, my class was also thrilled about it too.

Social Media Landscape image from Fred Cavazza.

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Using new technologies to enhance teaching and learning in History

Using New Technologies book coverA brief update to publicise a book that I have contributed to and edited by Professor Terry Hadyn of UEA. Using New Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Learning in History (Routledge) is now available in paperback and a ebook friendly version will be available within the month.

I recall a few years ago being told by someone very prominent in the History teaching community that ‘ICT had been done’ and did not require any more thought. This book indicates that the judicious use of technology is still an issue to be grappled with especially as the thoughtful use of technology stems from careful thinking about subject knowledge, skills and literacy.

The ebook version will have links which will be constantly updated and may come with additional chapters. My contribution includes how iPads can be used to enhance History teaching and also the use of iBooks Author. I hope you find it useful and let me know if you have any questions.

Contents are below:

Professor Terry Hadyn What does it mean to be good at ICT as a history teacher and We Need to talk about PowerPoint),

Neal Watkin The history utility belt: getting learners to express themselves digitally

Ali Messer History Wikis

Arthur Chapman Using discussion forums to support historical learning

Dan Lyndon Using blogs and podcasts in the history classroom

Richard Jones-Nerzic Documentary film making in the history classroom

John Simkin Making the most of the Spartacus Educational website

Ben Walsh Signature pedagogies, assumptions and assassins: ICT and motivation in the history classroom

Johannes Ahrenfelt Immersive learning in the history classroom: how social media can help meet the expectations of a new generation of learners

Alf Wilkinson What can you do with an interactive whiteboard?

Nick Dennis and Doug Belshaw Tools for the tech savvy history teacher

Janos Blasszauer History webquests

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TeachMeet Mozilla #TMmozLDN2012

I am sold on the model of practitioners sharing their work in informal settings. I have attended and helped steer a number of TeachMeets over the years (and will be hosting a few in the near future) and I love the natural, easy conversations that occur between the presentations. With this is mind, when Doug Belshaw, announced that there was to be a TeachMeet in London on the 7th October hosted at Mozilla’s London headquarters, it was too good an opportunity to miss.

As usual, Doug’s organisation was spot-on and I enjoyed the presentations (especially a ten year old Mr Ross showing us how to use Mozilla’s ‘Hackasaurus‘ tools) and I was eager to learn more about Open Badges as an idea. Essentially, Open Badges are ways of displaying achievements and skills for all kinds of things, especially the things that are not paid attention to in the normal progress of education. I was keen to hear Zoe Ross’ experience about the use of Badges in her school. You can find out more about the work Zoe and her students have done towards the creation of their own badges here.

One thing that struck me in the conversation about Badges was the thought that they can operate on three levels. On a micro/Classroom level, they can be a great mechanism to structure expectations. In one sense, this is similar to merits/points but with slightly more specified in terms of behaviours. What was great about Zoe’s work was the students identifying and creating the badges for the attributes they expected of good learners. I can see a lot of ways this could be very useful within individual classrooms and especially with boys with ideas of ‘levelling up’ and being part of a larger structured learning game (see Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys with the Latin lesson example to see what I mean).  An effective school is full of effective lessons and this would be one tool which could really help create the right atmosphere for progress.

The second level would go beyond one classroom. It would tie in to an existing framework of educational achievements such as Guy Claxton’s work around Building Learning Power (with a useful badge type system similar to the implementation at Cramlington Learning Village). Another example is the International Baccalaureate Middle Years/Diploma Programme learner profile. The attributes identified by these systems would be useful for any school to aspire to and moves us to a more rounded view of education.

Were it to be successful in an institution, I think the third (macro) level would really offer the opportunity for Badges to be of value to the rest of society by considering the boundaries beyond the school.  It was Tony Sheppard who suggested that Badges could be like the Duke of Edinburgh Award, validated by an external body that has status and continually refines the expectations for the award whilst being mindful of its core values. Imagine Badges for IT skills validated by the Chartered Institute for IT but designed by teachers in schools. The day gave me a lot to think about in terms of my new role.

Beyond the discussion of Badges in education, I was very interested in Miles Berry’s presentation on using HTML5 to create presentations; something I think I will try with my IT student this year. I also had the inevitable ‘iPad is terrible’ conversation which I found entertaining as I use an iPad, Kindle, Chromebook, Mac and PC in my daily working life. No one device can rule them all (in my honest opinion and possibly another blog post).

I can only recommend that you get yourself to a TeachMeet soon; they really do help you to look at education (in all its forms) from a different point of view. Thanks once again to Doug and the Mozilla team for hosting a very interesting event.

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ISC ICT Conference and TeachMeet 7th November 2012

I am really looking forward to this year’s Independent Schools Council ICT conference. Part of my excitement stems from the fact that I do not have to travel far to attend (it is being held at Berkhamsted) and part is also due to the quality of the speakers we have confirmed:

  • Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and UNESCO Chair in Information and Computer Ethics at the University of Hertfordshire, and Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford.
  • William Florance, Head of Enterprise EDU – EMEA, Google UK Limited.
  • Miles Berry, Senior Lecturer and Subject Coordinator for ICT Education at Roehampton University and Chair of the National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education (NAACE).
Booking details for the conference can be found here and tickets are priced at £125.

We are also hosting a TeachMeet after the conference which is free to all (to be clear, you do not have to be at the main conference to attend the TeachMeet). If you would like to attend and share some of the excellent work in your school, please sign up here.

I look forward to seeing you on the 7th November!

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