PELRS: Transforming the way we learn

Developing Pedagogies for E-learning Resources (PELRS)

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PELRS: Transforming the way we learnSummary of Research Findings

This document provides a short summary of the research findings of the PELRS project. Key points are presented in bullet format, with a more substantial commentary following.

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Teacher Involvement in Innovations using ICT

There is strong evidence emerging from the project that many teachers are able to make changes to their classroom practice through their involvement with the project. Teachers’ motivations for getting involved with the project are multiple and complex but many are wanting to find ways to move beyond a narrow focus on transmissive models of pedagogy and want to harness the power of technology to change the way that their particular subject is taught. Many want to foster a greater sense of autonomy and responsibility for learning within their pupils and allow them to make creative choices about how to learn a particular topic. The PELRS framework, with a plenary consultation with the pupils at the beginning of a learning event, has proved effective in allowing teachers to retain control of the curriculum content while pupils have real choices of resources and methods of learning that content.

The PELRS framework and pedagogic strategies have worked well to give teachers an alternative to the linear lesson plan and style of lesson planning which constructs teachers and pupils in mutually exclusive relationships of teacher and taught, and where ICT resources are controlled by the teacher and planned into the learning process in discrete and limited ways. The PELRS alternative to lesson planning in the linear mode gives teachers access to a variety of conceptual and planning tools which enable them to think about teaching and learning in broader terms, for instance in the ways in which roles in the classroom can be negotiated or where technology might be used as a resource.

PELRS was designed in part to address the problem that many teachers are reluctant to use innovative processes with ICT in their classroom because of a lack of complete technical mastery. This assumption of the need to display superior competence, borne of the teacher’s traditional role as source of knowledge, has acted in the past as a strong barrier to development, as many of these teachers lack the time to gain all of the skills needed before they feel confident allowing a group to use a particular technology. The PELRS framework offers potential solutions to this dilemma. Groups of pupils can work independently to gain the expertise in a particular technique or software package and then share that with peers and with the teacher. There is much evidence that the explicit attention PELRS gives to re-defining roles within the classroom frees teachers from the pressure to show they have total expertise on every aspect of a technology and allows pools of expertise to be created within the classroom and shared across groups rather than all of the technical skills being mediated through the agency of the teacher.

A key aim of the PELRS project was to use learning theory, particularly activity theory and sociocultural theory, to give teachers opportunities to engage with ways of thinking about how they could use ICT within the curriculum. The PELRS framework, with its graphical depiction of learning theory and practical advice about how to structure learning events gives teachers access to new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. There is evidence that a certain kind of “orthodox” approach to thinking about pedagogy (in terms of whole class teaching and aims and outcomes delivered within a single lesson unit) has stifled debates about the multiple and contested ways in which learning can happen, even within a school context. The PELRS framework is one way in which this debate can be reopened, and because teachers are able to relate to the theories embedded in the framework and see them being operationalised in their classroom – whilst also being challenged by some of the framework’s more radical features – it can act effectively as a way of changing how teachers conceive of teaching and learning.

PELRS has been challenging the notion of fixed roles of teachers, pupils and others within the learning sphere and attempting to show that these roles are not given or fixed, but can be negotiated and placed in creative tension in order to find new ways of working. Certain of the PELRS strategies, particularly the “pupils as teachers” strategy embed this change of role into the activity itself. Evidence from activities undertaken have shown that pupils welcome the chance to take responsibility for their own learning and that structured group work with opportunities for collaboration on joint ICT led presentation projects is effective both in helping learners take control of their learning, and in helping them to acquire the curriculum content stipulated by the teacher.

Pupil Knowledge and Skills

A key focus of the PELRS project has been on using the skills and knowledge which many pupils gain whilst working on computers outside of school contexts and drawing these back into the activity system of the school. Through the planning of activities using ICT which are open-ended, and where real creative choices are placed in the hands of the pupil, PELRS is demonstrating that teachers and pupils can come to an agreement about the objective of a learning event and use technology to create a motivational atmosphere to achieve that objective.

Pupils working with PELRS report that they are motivated by tasks which allow them to use ICT in open-ended ways and where an emphasis on performance and outcome is favoured over the teaching of a particular or discrete set of skills. Opportunities for peer coaching and the sharing of expertise from pupil to pupil are greatly enhanced during PELRS work (when measured against lessons where access to ICT is controlled in a traditional way), and teachers report this as being effective in helping all pupils achieve high quality work. The need for the discrete teaching of skills, whilst not removed completely by this approach, is reduced within the PELRS framework as pupils can gain skills on a “need to use” basis and teachers can modify and control groupings to optimise the sharing of skills. In primary schools the use of teaching assistants can greatly enhance this process. Many of these are rapidly becoming experts in the support of pupil learning using ICT and the third year work is already creating case studies of the ways in which teachers and classroom assistants can collaborate on projects.

The success of pupil learning using ICT can be judged by the occurrence of “flow”, that is a state of mental activity where the mind is taken up completely with the task in hand. We have very strong evidence that PELRS learning events are much more likely to lead to flow than lessons based on traditional pedagogy. Many PELRS learning events have captured the imagination of pupils and, because of the open-ended nature of the activities, the pupils have been able to work on the material away from the formal classroom situation. Teachers may appear initially reluctant to set work which relies on access to hardware, software or internet connections outside school because of equity issues, but the use of groups within PELRS has gone some way to solving this issue and many pupils are now working independently on projects using resources they have at home and in other settings.

We found during the project that as pupils worked collaboratively on projects, sharing not just knowledge of curriculum content but also skills in using ICT that many positive outcomes, such as working in groups, taking control of learning, negotiating timescales and engaging in metacognition, were not capable of being credited in the assessment system. The teachers were well aware of the positive nature of these outcomes and committed to further work to embed these in classroom practice, but the rather narrow nature of the formal assessment regime, centred as it is on individual performance, renders this important work “invisible”. The PELRS project has shown that new ways of teaching require new ways of assessing learning and in the current climate further innovations could be hampered by the system.

School Infrastructure

During the lifetime of the project, the infrastructure for learning with ICT in schools has generally been improving. Work with a number of schools in this third year of the project has allowed us to see ICT provision in a far wider range of settings and compare this with the provision in the four partner schools we worked with in years one and two. Wireless networking using suites of laptops is becoming popular, in both primary and secondary schools, and many machines have been recently replaced and are state of the art. There is evidence that many schools are beginning to invest more systematically in digital tools such as video cameras, still cameras, digital microscopes etc., This investment is extending the potential for innovative work within the classroom and a project such as PELRS can be instrumental in allowing teachers to find a space to use the new technology. Formal ICT lessons are less likely to give teachers a model of how to use a new technology in their practice because of the nature of lesson planning and delivery in this mode, but PELRS offers the use of smaller groups exploring new equipment and techniques and therefore a way of embedding the technology more effectively into the work of the classroom. Strategies such as the “pupils as teachers” and “pupils as producers of media” also give the opportunity for whole class sharing of work and therefore chances for pupil groups to interact with a whole class and a sense of shared objectives to emerge. As these “plenary” events are more about the input from the pupils rather than being wholly teacher directed, pupils find them engaging and motivating and work hard to produce the best possible outputs for these.

The ongoing investment in interactive white boards is to be welcomed, but there is a danger that this technology reinforces rather than disrupts the dominance of traditional pedagogies. PELRS has sought to use the interactive white boards within learning events so that pupils as well as teachers can plan and deliver lessons using the boards and rather than the tool being solely for the teacher’s use, there is a sense that it is a shared resource in the classroom.

In many schools, the administration of the computer network, and in particular access to the internet is hampering attempts to widen the nature of the teaching and learning process. Aggressive internet filters serve the purpose of giving the school protection from pupils who may access inappropriate material (either accidentally or by choice), but in many cases the filters are too strong and serve to block access to sites which could be legitimately used for learning. Pupils often need access to the full power of the internet, rather than an artificially controlled subset of resources and where this is happening, the potential for transformation is much higher than in schools where the internet is perhaps controlled too tightly. There is a real opportunity for schools to teach more explicitly about web searching, how to judge web-site sources and responsible internet use. Rather than using software and hardware solutions which move the responsibility away from pupils and invest it in technical arrangements, there needs to be education on what to do when pupils accidentally access inappropriate material. There is also scope for better education of parents, possibly including the signing of home-school agreements where parents acknowledge that total policing of the internet is not a possibility and where the schools are to some extent protected from legal challenges if inappropriate material is accessed. Evidence from the project suggests that the accessing of inappropriate material may actually be very rare in schools (through either the deliberate or accidental actions of pupils), and that schools may have become too defensive on this topic because of the fear of media involvement.

Many PELRS activities place demands on a school infrastructure which are not normally made by traditional learning activities. For instance multiple groups may be working with still or video images and require access to editing software and the necessary network resources to move this data around. Teachers have been creative in seeking solutions to these challenges but many also report that they need more help in solving these particular issues and in some cases a fundamental rethink of the way the school approaches its network may be needed.

PELRS style work requires that pupils have control over their data and are able to save, open and access files on a long term basis. Some schools, through the provision of network space, have gone a long way to making this a reality and giving pupils the resources needed to direct and control their independent work using ICT. In other schools, the network is limiting rather than extending the pupils’ potential and this issue needs to addressed at a school level by the relevant managers and leaders.

Background to the Project

The project was conducted over a three-year period 2002–05 by Bridget Somekh and Matthew Pearson of Education and Social Research Institute, Manchester Metropolitan University, with support from the General Teaching Council. The team would like to thank the participating schools:

Broughton Junior School, Lincolnshire
Charles Kingsley’s Church of England Primary School, Hampshire
Eckington School
Emley First School, Huddersfield
George Spencer School and Technology College
Holme Valley Primary School
Kirby Hill Church of England Primary School
Kirkburton C E (C) First School, Huddersfield
Kirmington C of E Primary School
Medlock Valley High School
Primrose Hill Primary School
Sandilands Junior School
Seymour Road Primary School
St Bernadette’s Catholic Primary School
St Nortbert’s RC Primary School
Westhoughton High School Specialist Technology College

We would also like to thank the members of the Advisory Group (including representatives of BECTA, NCSL and QCA) for their support and guidance.

For further information, please visit the PELRS website.

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