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Driving classroom interactivity, beyond technology

Primary school teacher Victoria Fry shares her insights on some of the best ways to drive interactivity and engagement in the classroom.

Long gone are the days of  teacher  dominated classrooms and passive students. Teachers and educational specialists have worked hard to create environments of stimulus with increased interactivity, which welcome free thinking students who challenge and question the facts presented to them. So why would this be a desirable outcome for teachers? The answer is simple, engagement and, as a result, improved learning outcomes.

Before examining the syllabus and pedagogy, let’s look at the physical space of the modern classroom. By creating a learning space without dated and stagnant parameters like the piled high teachers desk, cluttered with dusty text books or the designated ‘computer lab’  with two archaic PCs,  we develop a flowing environment that encourages free thinking, as well as investigative and independent learning. So how do we achieve this? One effective way is increasing students’ interactions with computer technology. First hand I’ve visited classrooms with established interactive computer hubs. I don’t have the time or word count to list the many software applications, computer types and gadgets available, but the thing worth noting is this area was never off limits. Students had the freedom to probe further into areas of interest whenever they chose and benefited from broader ways to learn.

The National Survey for Education Statistics tells us that 73% of teachers reported that technology in the classroom allows them to respond to a variety of different learning styles with 74% saying technology motivates students to learn. Using the internet in our classrooms allows for endless learning, after all questions are a learner’s most powerful tool, so we should empower them with a means to find answers. By allowing motivated students to take ownership of their learning they become engaged and through engagement they learn. So how do we ensure that this independence is not abused and hours upon hours of Minecraft play aren’t clocked up when a teacher’s back is turned? For this we look to the syllabus and more importantly the pedagogy… All schools have protection installed on their network and use intricate methods to prevent access to inappropriate sites, but the idea is that if students are truly engaged in their lesson they will have no need to explore inappropriate or off task sites. Why not incorporate games into your lesson? The site MinecraftEdu has been used by thousands of teachers world-wide as a means to teach a range of different topics from using the equally sized blocks to practice ratio and proportion to building scale models of historical buildings. Instead of treating these games as the adversary treat them as your best resource.

When we talk of interactivity within the classroom we usually think of Interactive Whiteboards; access to computers and other devices. Well I challenge you to look at interactivity as human to human communication, in particular exploring the importance of the student voice. I am a huge believer in student led learning and have seen how engagement levels increase through implementing Learning Challenges within my classroom. This involves letting the students decide which ways of learning they want to pursue and what they want to learn about. It’s then my job to facilitate this and my planning focuses on the  resources needed to successfully complete each Learning Challenge.  In order for this to happen, there is a huge reliance on student led discussions. Sandi Novak articulates it perfectly by highlighting that students need to be in the forefront of these discussions, not simply responding to open ended questions. It’s not something that can happen overnight and requires conscious effort, deliberate instruction, structured practice and feedback.

There is some excellent technology readily available to support this kind of student led learning which connects the human interfacing with digital world. Explain Everything is an easy-to-use design, screencasting, and interactive whiteboard tool with real-time collaboration that lets you animate, record, annotate, collaborate, and explore ideas, knowledge and understanding. This tool provides teachers and students with an opportunity to share thinking, reflect upon knowledge building, and assess both products and processes of learning. We also have programs like SeeSaw  which are a perfect forum for teachers, parents and peers to track students’ progress. Seesaw empowers students of any age to independently document what they are learning at school. Capturing learning with photos and videos of their work, or by adding digital creations. Seesaw gives students a real audience for their work and offers parents a personalized window into their child's learning.

Once effective student led discussions are mastered the results often show that there’s much more knowledge in the classroom than you might expect. It creates the perfect foundation for further learning using students’ own interests and knowledge gaps, resulting in increased engagement. Interactivity is essential to promote engagement within classrooms and this generates students who are focused, enthusiastic and requiring little behaviour management thus creating the perfect teaching environment for learning to flourish. 

References: (Sandi Novak – Student Led Discussions page 39 and 40)

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