Blog written by Education writer Gerald Haigh

For me, nothing really beats a visit to a lively primary classroom. If you want to know why, just take a look at this picture – and I defy you not to smile.

This is Bethany, Anosha, Alfie and Isaac, year six pupils at Simon de Senlis primary in Northampton, with their Surface RT devices. They are working individually but in a group of five (one member chooses to sit somewhere else in the room, and why not?) As we shall see later, they are sharing their work among each other, taking feedback from other group members and the teacher, all on their class site using the power of Office 365, via the school’s SharePoint – based LP+4 Learning Platform. http://www.lpplus.com/

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I was at Simon de Senlis to report on some of the innovative work in Microsoft Showcase Schools. The head there is Tom Rees, who’s featured often in these blogs, as a BETT speaker and a keen advocate of Office 365 and LP+4 . For example

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ukschools/archive/2011/10/27/embracing-the-cloud-in-education-with-lp-4.aspx

Also at Simon de Senlis, another familiar name is Charlotte Coade, a Microsoft Expert Educator who’s spoken at numerous events, including BETT 2014, about her school’s use of Windows 8 for learning. Here’s she is on the use of TimeLapse -- http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ukschools/archive/2013/04/25/fast-forward-learning-with-timelaspe-on-windows-8.aspx

Each of the Showcase Schools offers so much that needs to be shared with a wide audience, but on this occasion I was drawn by the knowledge that the school has Office 365, the LP+4 learning platform and 60 Surface RT devices – enough to achieve a one-to-one ratio for much of the work on years five and six. (Younger KS2 classes have laptops, and KS1 has iPads, in every case there’s access to the features of Office 365 via LP+4)

The choice of SurfaceRT was made after looking at a range of options.

‘They were half the price of an iPad,’ says Tom Rees, ‘Which gave us the choice of a high ratio of device to student.’

Price was not the whole story, though. Tom and his colleagues have a vision for learning that involves easy and frequent collaboration in the cloud. Surface RT, with SharePoint and LP+4, provided that.

‘We had to have a cloud solution, a way of linking everything together and managing the workflow, allowing children to edit and save and refine their work, and for the teacher to go in an look at what the children are doing, and give feedback. Surface ticked all the boxes.’

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For Tom, feedback is a key feature of effective learning.

‘When you read Hattie’s research you find that feedback is the number one influence.’ (Hattie’s research on feedback is readily available from many sources including

http://visible-learning.org/2013/10/john-hattie-article-about-feedback-in-schools/ )

Cloud technology, one-to-one devices and easy collaboration and communication all combine to achieve what Tom calls, ‘A rich culture of feedback.’

With that in mind, I was eager to see whether working with SurfaceRT and Office 365 really was enhancing the learning experience of the children, and producing improved outcomes.

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The year six children I visited, in Charlotte Coade’s classroom, were working on the special characteristics of a playscript -- conventions regarding layout, use of bracketed adverbs to indicate how the speech is to be delivered, stage directions, dialogue moving the story on. Shakespeare, of course, figured strongly as a role model.

As I arrived, the children were producing their own playscripts, working individually, but sharing their work online in groups with the aim of supporting each other to polish and improve their writing. (‘Up-levelling’ )

These children, I found, had really taken to the idea of sharing ideas and redrafting, and I had an absorbing discussion with them about how they make and take comments to and from each other as well as the teacher.

The process is not left to chance. The children use a taught and well-understood structure for their peer-interaction. Comments to each other follow the ‘Two stars and a wish’ rule – two positive comments followed by a suggestion for improvement. Tom Rees describes it as,

‘An elegant way of allowing children to edit and improve and refine their work without the feelings of failure around having to start again.’

Here, for sure, is a gold-plated example of how, properly used, technology can add layers of effectiveness and value to learning. There may be nothing new about peer assessment, for example, but when work can be easily accessible online by the group and their teacher, it moves to a whole new level. It becomes non-threatening and mutually supportive. It’s highly inclusive, too, because, online sharing and commenting gives children of all abilities the confidence, time and opportunity both to contribute to and learn from the exchange of work.

(For a more detailed explanation of this technique, see this Simon de Senslis blog http://mandela.simondesenlisblogs.org/2014/05/29/up-levelling-our-writing-through-technology/ )

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I confess to being very excited by what I saw in Charlotte’s classroom. The children were absorbed in their work, open to feedback, keen to give it in return, and, more importantly, well able to explain what it does for the quality of their writing. I was able to have an absorbing ‘one writer to another’ conversation with one group about the pros and cons and pitfalls of redrafting, and knowing when to stop fiddling and settle on the final version.

It’s important to emphasise at this point that while the work I saw enabled by technology, there’s no doubt that all of it was very much teacher-led. Everything the children were doing, all that they said to me, their enthusiasm and understanding carried the mark of good teaching. Later, I discussed with Charlotte Coade what I’d seen in her class, and asked her to sum up what she found that technology was contributing to learning.

‘Freedom,’ she said. ‘It gives the children more freedom to be creative , to explore, go back and edit and make changes. And the learning doesn’t stop, it can continue at home.’

She spoke about the use of spreadsheets in maths, and all the functionality of Windows 8 and the LP+4 learning platform, ‘Class sites, wikis for collaboration, discussion threads, class blogs.’

Staff also make full use of their own site on the LP+4 platform, says Charlotte.

‘All our planning is done in the cloud, all our policies are there for discussion.’

Tom, just before I left, summed up for me the Simon de Senlis approach to technology.

‘I think technology helps us in three ways. One is promoting parental engagement with the curriculum, another is helping children to become fluent online, and the third is about feedback, and redrafting and ‘prototyping’ across the curriculum.’

One thing really needs to be added here. My reports on the Microsoft family of Showcase Schools obviously focus on technology. It’s very clear, though, that all of them are committed to giving their students a rich and varied cultural experience. A look at the Simon de Senlis website, and the blogs to be found there, underlines that. At the time of writing, there’s a blog called ‘Sensational Sketching’ which shows some beautiful pencil drawings from Year Five. And Tom Rees was keen to point out that,

‘We’ve had a big focus this year on handwriting. We’ve spent time and training on helping children achieve a fluent hand. The word is ‘automaticity’ -- transferring words to paper without thinking about the process.’

I’m tempted to say that’s a great example of something important that you can’t do with a tablet and the cloud, but no doubt somebody will prove me wrong.

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Charlotte Coade gives live, one-to-one face-to-face feedback to a member of Year Six. Non-digital presentation technology features in the background.