Taking a risk... with technology


In the coming months, Nadine Pittam will be looking at how we might take small risks in our teaching. This, the first article in the series, examines one of the least dependable and therefore most risky tools a teacher has: technology.


“Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of planning, teaching or assessment. They will not look for a preferred methodology but must record aspects of teaching and learning that they consider are effective, and identify ways in which teaching and learning can be improved.” Ofsted School Inspection Handbook, September 2014.

Why begin with Ofsted? Ofsted has stripped us of our creative freedom and destroyed any confidence we have ever had in what we do. However, we must begin with Ofsted when we are talking about risk-taking because Ofsted is the monster under the bed which makes us play it safe.

Ofsted is the enemy, right? Not necessarily. Until December 2014 there was a “Good Practice” section of the Ofsted website where one could read reports which detailed unusual but successful operational methods used in schools. 

We can see that by taking away the section which states “this is how we like you to do things”, Ofsted is further putting its documentation where its mouth is. Ofsted really doesn’t “advocate a particular method of planning, teaching or assessment”. So if we can accept that Ofsted isn’t afraid of teachers taking risks, all that’s left for us to do is to take those risks. 

Before we go any further, let’s be absolutely clear what we are talking about. Risk-taking in this context is about stepping outside our comfort zone to try something which has the possibility to excite and invigorate our students but which also has increased potential to fail.

Planning to use technology, for example, increases the risk of something “going wrong”. But these risks don’t mean we shouldn’t try that new idea. Instead they simply demand that we ask ourselves: “If this lesson is going to go wrong, where is it going to go wrong?” And then we must think about what safety nets we can put in place to prevent the worst from happening. We run school trips, they are risky, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t run them, we just have to plan for potential complications.

Take a risk with Twitter

Benefits of taking this risk: Students are encouraged to work at a faster pace, perhaps with an edge of competition. Twitter enables you to monitor conversations and communicate privately with individual students or groups. The output from the lesson is recorded to print or study later.

Conquerable concerns: Twitter is blocked through our school IT system. Getting students to “follow me” puts me at risk. What if the technology fails in the middle of the lesson? What if the students Tweet off-task?

How can it be used? Think of a lesson where you would like students to respond in groups within a given time limit after a period of independent research or investigation. Perhaps you want them to solve a crime, understand a poem, find a picture and write why it is typical of that artist, that era, that geographical phenomenon. Think about how you could use Twitter outside the lesson, for homework or for long-term engagement with an activity. 

How can you use it? Create a teacher profile and get your students to follow you. Once you have Tweeted the task or question the students can post their responses in a reply Tweet. You can choose whether you want to display this “feed” on the board or not, and you can choose how to (or indeed whether to) reply to them, or indeed if you want to monitor their off-task tweeting by also following them for the duration of the lesson. 

Think also how you can differentiate; riskier activities lend themselves so well to differentiation because students’ roles are more likely to be varied. Perhaps you and your most able four or five students run the panel whose role it is to judge the responses which are posted on the feed. Maybe you could give the most able the stimulus texts in advance so they are prepared. And how many different and exciting ways can your teaching assistant be useful in a lesson like this? 

Pinterest boards

Benefits of taking this risk: Pinterest is incredibly versatile and fosters independence. It is so visual, so immediately readable and is therefore great for engaging students, or for supporting students with English as an additional language. Students are forced to engage with websites rather than simply copy and paste information from them.

Conquerable concerns: Students might not know how to use Pinterest. I don’t know how to use Pinterest. The internet might fail at a key moment.

How can it be used? Instead of giving students a list of websites you want them to visit, use Pinterest to display the sites, that way you can include questions or tasks under the picture for each link. If you want students to get a general feel for something – an era, an artist’s work, a novel, a country, etc – then you can present a mood board simply by gathering Pins from relevant sites. 

For an example, see this Dickens Mood Board (http://bit.ly/15esOuQ). Of course, it doesn’t have to be you who puts together the Pinterest board, it could be a great task to set your students; maybe you could ask your students to produce a mood board which explains to a younger audience what it is they have been studying. Or perhaps they could teach one another?

The camera/email on your SmartPhone

Benefits of taking this risk: It is immediate, you can share work in the length of time it takes to send an email. You have a copy for future use, to share with future classes who complete the same task. If you have a SmartBoard, you can annotate the work too, or print it or cut bits from it.

Conquerable concerns: What if the network fails? What if the email takes too long to come through? What if the quality of the photo isn’t good enough?

How can it be used? If you were with a friend and they did something brilliant you wanted to share with another friend, you would probably take a photo or make a video and send it. What’s to stop you doing that in your classroom too? If a student completes a task you want to share with the class, take a picture. The image of the student’s work is then on the board and you are able to critique it there and then. If you are worried about the picture quality, there are scanner apps you can download for your SmartPhone which enhance photographs of text. If you are lucky to have a visualiser in your school, give yourself 15 minutes to learn how to use it.

Forums, VLEs or VLE chatrooms

Benefits of taking this risk: An online discussion suits some students more than a verbal discussion. Your role is more focused on being a facilitator, to check everyone is included and that everyone is contributing appropriately. The conversation/discussion can be printed or saved to be followed-up later (follow-up work could include students annotating or improving on the discussions, discussing which conversation was the most successful and why).

Conquerable concerns: The network or computers might fail. I don’t know what chatroom I can use. I don’t know how to use the virtual learning environment (VLE). They don’t know how to use the VLE.

How can it be used? If your school has a VLE, and many do, set up a discussion on a VLE forum or chatroom space. Or you might like to try setting up a chatroom on a secure closed-network site like Ning, Todaysmeet, Edmodo or similar, or of course choose the live video option: Skype. This can be something you set up as a one lesson thing or as something to exist in the background of a bigger project.

The idea of an online discussion can run and run. At the simplest level you could propose a topic and encourage your students to discuss it. Present a discussion topic or issue which was relevant to a particular group of people or characters and ask that students reply in role: What were the reactions to the New Deal in America from the point of view of different groups of people? Or, how might different people view a proposed new supermarket in their small town? Or, how do key characters in a novel respond to an event in the novel?

Finally, think about how you could have a forum running in the background during a whole unit where students ask one another for help with certain topics, or have to upload their homework for others to see. If you did this, it might be more of a long-term project, establishing over time a culture where students feel able to present problems then respond to one another. This is a low-risk way of using technology, but it yields so many possibilities for your students. 


Let’s imagine a teacher tries some of these ideas; let’s imagine a teacher tries to use them in an observed lesson. Providing that the teacher has put contingency plans in place for any potential complications, how could Ofsted find fault? The monster is not under your bed, it’s in your head. Regain that creative freedom you dreamed of having when you first got into teaching. See the risk, weave the safety net, jump.

  • Nadine Pittam is founder and director of the skills-based website of teaching ideas, Spark-Ed. For more information, visit www.spark-ed.co.uk. You can follow Spark-ed on Twitter @sparkedcouk
Photo: iStock


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