The digital revolution in the prep school
Simon Hitchings, Head of Swanbourne House School
Much has been written about the many exciting projects which schools have embarked on in recent years as new technologies have been embraced and brought into the classroom. No-one can doubt the significant impact of tablets in the teaching and learning of pupils across a wide range of ages from the use of apps aiding initial literacy and numeracy acquisition in Early Years, to the sophisticated presentations created by older pupils in History, Science, RS and Geography. The benefit of tablet technology has been brought to classrooms at Swanbourne House in the last four years since the school first acquired a set of iPads.
For boarders, the accessibility of tablets and the embedding of technology in the infrastructure and culture of the school open up new routes of maintaining communication with parents. It is commonplace at Swanbourne House for boarders and houseparents to Skype parents in the evenings or at weekends, and for the pupils to maintain contact with their parents via their school email account.
Different ways of thinking
Anyone who has used a tablet is aware of the speed of access to information (provided the internet connection is good and the broadband width sufficient for all that is going on in school at the time – a serious issue for those of us in rural locations but worth the expense to address properly). The ability to collaborate on work, to share ideas in a brainstorming session, to combine media in presentations – all these are enhanced by the use of a tablet. The intuitive interface of tablets and their apps engages children's brains swiftly and leads to different ways of thinking. Children's experiences with devices out of school mean that many of them are already advanced in their use and the school's job becomes one of both piggy-backing on the skills the children already have and teaching wisdom, safety and direction in their use.
Some people have worried about what happens when the initial excitement of a device wears off and it is just one more part of the classroom scenery that children are accustomed to. However, part of the teacher's responsibility at all times is to keep learning engaging and this challenge is far from insurmountable. The key is in the use of the tool in interesting and effective ways and is a challenge for the modern teacher no less than keeping the interest of children in learning algebra and Latin participles has been for generations of teachers.
A significant concern for boarding parents will naturally surround the regulation of devices, the amount of screen time allowed, and the controls on the school network. Robust filtering systems are an essential part of managing pupil access to the internet and open decisions need to be made by schools about the availability of social media via the school network. It is right that schools make judgements in these areas and present them in a reasoned fashion to parents.
And here is surely the key. Technology continues to present us with new and exciting tools to enhance children's learning and boarding experience, but technology itself is not the promise of a better educational world. Critical pedagogy and pastoral care based on the school's choices about curriculum and boarding routines. Teachers' choices about how best to deliver the education we want to provide allows us to use technology to achieve the successful outcomes for children we are all working towards. Without a teacher to guide the way in which tablets are being used, or without a curriculum which is incorporating new devices in a planned manner, the technology cannot deliver educational growth.
Many schools are seeking to use these tools in the most effective way while recognising that the old tools are still the best for many tasks. There are times when it remains right for the teacher to talk and children to listen and engage in a discussion, when the written task in the exercise book is the best way to allow a child to show and develop their understanding. With an ICT curriculum that embraces e-safety, touch typing and programming, and a broad curriculum in which key software as well as the capabilities of the tablets are used, a range of technology can be engaged to complement traditional teaching methods.
In the boarding house we must ensure that children are not perpetually face down in their screens. The health of a close community relies on giving children the tools and opportunities to learn how to live and build relationships and that requires time where children are playing and chatting together without technology anywhere near.
I am excited by this mixed economy where the range of tools available for teachers and children is so broad. A well-resourced school will ensure that all the tools are available, and a well-planned school will aim to guarantee that the right tools are being used at the right times.
Simon Hitchings is Head at Swanbourne House, a co-educational boarding and day school in Buckinghamshire. Simon was educated at Colston’s School in Bristol and University College, Oxford, where he gained a double First in Classics. His career has been in prep boarding education for the past 22 years with more than half that time spent in senior management roles. He and his wife Caroline have been at Swanbourne House since 2013.