Reflections on the Steve Jobs Schools

It’s interesting to see that seven Steve Jobs Schools have opened in the Netherlands, equipped obviously with iPads for all the pupils. It will be interesting to watch how they develop. Just putting the technology in does not make a school digitally normalised. That depends on how the school leaders and teachers have themselves progressed through the evolutionary stages.

When you get this kind of corporate initiative there can also be pressures to use the technology in ways that don’t help the educational transformation and huge step-up in pupils’ achievements that you find in properly digitally normalised schools. The companies have their own priorities for what systems and apps they want the schools to try out. This set me thinking about the ways that commercial pressures from the companies are balanced against the educational imperatives to advance education in the right way for our connected world.

Apple has a pretty good track record going all the way back to the ACOT project (Apple Classrooms Of Tomorrow) but even with the best intentions large companies that do this sort of thing inevitably focus on what the technology can do, because their prime corporate interest is in making the systems and apps better at enabling the kids and teachers to achieve more. I think the difference we are seeing now compared to even 5 years ago, is that two of the key technology USPs (Unique Selling Points that companies use to promote their products) are communication and collaboration. This has a lot more synergy with good educational approaches than the ‘content delivery’ USP did, in the days of CD ROMs and Integrated Learning Systems.

The possibly scary technology USP that is also in the frame and developing rapidly is the combination of online testing and data manipulation and mining. Effective use of data on learning and achievement is one of the characteristics of a digitally normalised school. But if the educators and parents come to focus on knowledge data, because this is the data that is easiest to generate and compare, this could push the educational experience the wrong way. If on the other hand the focus moves to data and information that demonstrates what the pupils are doing and what (real world) achievements this results in, the data USP might prove useful and get both companies and schools moving in the right direction together.

I’m not saying that data on kids’ knowledge is unimportant. Young people like to gain mastery over areas of knowledge and ability to do so is a key part of learning and life, it’s the balance of what comes to be most visible and most praised that is most important.

The problem is that generating information about what the kids are doing and achieving beyond knowledge acquisition in a technology system is a lot harder than testing knowledge. A lot of the data is there once schools normalise digital and pupils do lots more online, in school and at home. The question is how to analyse and present it. How would you present a view of how well a pupil had engaged in a project? There will be simple things like time on task using technology, number of searches conducted in doing research and so on. But how would you assess and present anything about quality of searching and research, or quality of engagement in forums while discussing the project with their classmates?

I think this is a big issue because the content learning/testing bandwagon is developing rapidly and both politicians and exam systems focus on this, often to the exclusion of assessment of competencies, because it’s so much easier and cheaper. Whereas I think industry and business, and probably higher education, would love to be able to compare potential employees/students on the basis of their competence if this could be easily and clearly presented.

A lot of companies are working to develop systems that gather data on learning and aim to provide information to teachers, parents and the pupils themselves. They are doing this because they sense there could be a big market. Accountability of education systems is a big issue for every government. Educators will have to watch out that ‘What you measure is what you get’ does not triumph over ‘What you (should) measure is what you want’.

If data and information on learning progress comes to be seen as critical, because governments and politicians need to show educational progress for electoral reasons, and schools need to demonstrate that they are achieving the accountability levels that are set, that could push schools towards technology systems that can gather loads of data and generate very good information on learning activity and progress. For schools in the UK that are only just at or are below the ‘floor target’ achievement levels, data on pupils’ progression is already absolutely critical in enabling the school to stay out of ‘special measures’ and all the difficulties this brings.

In the Steve Jobs Schools the whole technology infrastructure is Apple as well as the devices. You can imagine the need for data acting as a lock-in to these Apple systems, if Apple succeed in producing the data gathering and reporting systems that governments and hence schools want. The question is whether these will be sophisticated enough to measure the kinds of education being provided in digitally normalised schools or whether they will focus mainly on just knowledge acquisition. This will depend on the quality of the conversation between the educators in these schools and Apple, and on whether Apple listen properly to them. Software can do very sophisticated things with data if the right questions are asked and the right data sets brought together. And how information is presented is critical. Look for example at how Hans Rosling presents data on world health.

I’m also watching very closely what is happening with Frog, particularly in Malaysia. This is more open and amenable to BYOT rather than one standard device for all pupils, because the Frog platform and the way it is being provided in Malaysia lock the pupils and parents into getting at everything through the Frog platform, rather than into a specific device. Internet access is free through the Frog platform from their homes but if they go direct to the Internet they incur phone charges on the YTL 4G networks set up at each school. This approach also of course tends to lock the parents into using the 4G wireless provided by YTL, so there is a corporate benefit to Frog’s parent company.

If all pupil access to learning systems is through the Frog platform, Frog can gather all the data about anything they do or search for on the platform. In addition Frog are working hard with the apps providers to get them to feed data into the Frog platform, so potentially all data on what the kids are doing with apps could be become available for analysis.

There is massive potential here. Imagine being able to get real insight into how young people are using their social networks and friendship groups to aid their learning. Imagine helping both pupils and teachers to see how their informal learning is developing as well as their formal learning, and how they support each other. Imagine being able to create profiles of how pupils learn that could clearly show to others how competent they are at learning and at doing real life tasks that matter.

Then we it might be possible for digitally normalised schools to clearly demonstrate how and why their educational offering to their students is so significantly better than schools that are failing to take educational advantage of digital. And how just achieving the exam results is not enough. Education is about much more that test and exam results.

Constancy and Sameness: On-going Evolution and Uniqueness

Mal Lee

Few teachers, principals or head teachers will have failed to notice the ever-greater transformative impact digital technology is having upon schooling.

Few parents will have failed to see the very considerable impact of the digital on their workplace and the fundamental structural and organisational changes that technology has occasioned and continues to occasion in the business world.

All of us will have watched with fascination and delight the young’s – indeed the very young’s – embrace and normalised use of the digital 24/7/365, their love of and excitement with the new and the impact that technology is having upon their lives and learning, particularly in their homes and on the move.

Yet despite this profound societal and organisational change most governments and education authorities continue to project the image that schooling is generally constant in nature, unchanging, largely immutable, not at all impacted by the digital and that all they need do is to fine tune the workings of an approach we have known for the past 40-50 years and all will be fine.  They might try charter schools, middle schools, specialist schools or academies but basically the place called school, operating within its physical walls should continue unchanged.

The same authorities also project – possibly unwittingly – that all their schools are much the same, at the same stage of development and as such they can validly apply top down ‘one size fits all’ solutions for all the schools in the country or region.  As all the schools are the same they can successfully introduce common interactive whiteboard, laptop, phonics or staff development programs into all the schools in the same way.

My reading is that most teachers and school leaders – probably also unwittingly – work from a base premise of constancy and sameness.

When an a new program, or major technology is introduced implicit is the assumption is that it will operate successfully and appropriately for many years, even though folk deep down know society and the technology is evolving at pace.

It is an outlook that fuels the retention of the status quo – even when it is becoming ever more irrelevant – and the idea that change is difficult and is to be avoided.

The constancy and sameness underpins the belief that central offices or national governments can validly prepare the same teaching materials for all its schools, employ the same tests and accountability processes, use common pay scales and leadership programs, apply the one technology model to every school or indeed that all the schools in a region can profitably come together and benefit from a common staff development program.

This thinking stands in marked contrast to that within those schools operating at the Digital Normalisation Stage where all within the school’s community – the leadership, the staff, the students and the homes – have accepted that change and on-going evolution is the norm with schooling, that the excitement associated with opening ever more learning opportunities is natural and that all within the school’s community are welcome to join in the on-going quest to provide the best possible education.  It is an environment that fosters excitement, strong student, parent and community involvement and ownership, collaboration, risk taking, flexibility, responsiveness, the adoption of solutions particular to the school’s situation at a stage in its evolution and vitally an on-going focus on the desired educational vision.

By the Digital Normalisation Stage all within the school’s community accept their school is unique, and that while it can learn much from other schools at the same evolutionary stage they require educational solutions apposite for their school’s situation and evolutionary stage.

With the benefit of hindsight what is now evident is that:

  • constancy and sameness is the thinking of the paper based stage
  • in moving along the evolutionary continuum and through the evolutionary stages the schools will gradually shed that thinking, such
  • by the digital normalisation stage all within the school’s community will assume on-evolution and school uniqueness are the norm.


Application of the Evolutionary Continuum

In constructing the school evolutionary stages continuum and in writing the soon to be released Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages our desire was to provide all associated with schooling globally a simple measure they could readily apply to position their school and identify the road that lies ahead for their school.

We’ve consciously aimed to provide a facility all can use – and not as happens so often in education a measure that can only be applied by someone skilled in psychometrics.

The desire is to provide an indicative measure that can be readily used

  • to further parents and grandparent’s understanding of the school’s position
  • to give the students greater voice
  • in assisting empower all the staff, the teaching and vitally also the professional support
  • to assist the development of principals
  • to foster whole school evolution and on-going enhancement
  • to highlight the individual school – and not the system per se – as the unit of change
  • in helping the political decision makers better understand the global commonality of school evolution, and the growing variability between schools
  • by those in teacher training to better understand the schools they will be entering
  • by educational researchers to develop measures that can be realistically used in ever more integrated, rapidly evolving schools.

Our hope is that the continuum can be applied without assistance but if help is required Roger at – and Mal at – can assist.

Skype and the astute juggling of time zones should make it possible to assist wherever you are in the world.

In applying the measure in a group setting do bear in mind the earlier post by Roger.

Helping schools along the evolutionary path

We hope that people and organisations that are working with schools, to help them advance their educational offering, will make use of the evolutionary stages taxonomy and the resources you will find in this blog. We do however have a concern that sometimes those leading programmes for teachers and school leaders do not practice what they preach.

If we wish schools to provide an outstanding education for young people in the connected world, programmes to help them do this should be run by outstanding tutors. In the UK this has been considered very carefully in the creation of the Naace TOTAL programme for school leaders – “Towards Outstanding Teaching and Learning”. Being an outstanding tutor requires approaches very similar to those required of an outstanding teacher. As a result the way that tutors run their courses will model good teaching practice, as follows.

That this is being done should be made explicit to the course participants, to help them realise that their experiences on the course are in some ways similar to the kinds of learning experiences pupils should be experiencing in their school. For example, to help them realise why pupils might want to use their mobile phones, how much a visualiser can help learning, the ways that online classroom management tools work to stimulate better learning, or how much better collaborative aids understanding compared to just listening to the teacher.

High Expectations. Courses need to be tailored to the level and needs of participants. Relative to this the expectations of what the participants will achieve on the course and how their practice will change as a result need to be set high – and the participants made aware of this.

Using technology where appropriate. This means using the kinds of technology that you expect schools will adopt as they fully embed the use of digital and change pedagogy as a result. It is important that the technology works reliably for tutor and participant so check carefully what is available. Make sure the participants bring their own technology and expect them to use it whenever they need to.

– Internet access is of course required. If not available on site use a mobile phone hotspot. References to Internet sites that support what the course is dealing with need to be provided, in the presentation slides that will be made available to participants, or even as QR codes.

– Projector is required. If there is an interactive whiteboard endeavour to use it interactively, with the participants.

– Use of personal phones should be incorporated, for things such as taking photos of group work.

– A visualiser is required, preferably with some use by participants as well as by the tutor, so they can personally experience how they can demonstrate something to the whole group much more effectively.

– The courses should to be blended. Files should be both downloaded and uploaded during the course and the online platform is to be available pre and post the course, so that they appreciate how online resources can be used to support and extend the learning.

Active learning by participants.

– content delivery by the tutor, while some will be necessary, must be balanced by activities in which participants will lead their own learning and engage in discussion and activities.

– courses are likely to be more intensive than school lessons and hence examples of active learning used on the course may be curtailed compared to what would be done with pupils, but it is desirable to model such things as enquiry-based learning if possible and sensible in the course.

Collaborative learning.

– teachers are generally quicker to learn than pupils (except about technology) so the pace of collaborative activities can be set high. However teachers love to talk and will often go off at a tangent to issues not directly relevant to the collaborative activity, so the conversations need to be kept focused on the task.

– collaborative discussions need to be facilitated well, with the tutor avoiding too much provision of input and concentrating on drawing issues out from the participants.

Use of classroom management tools. Online tools can support various innovative approaches to teaching and learning, for example:

– use a random name selector to select participants for tasks.

– use an online voting system to RAG assess understanding.

– use a wiki to collate views on a topic.

Flipped learning.

– Some kind of pre-prep for the course should be provided and that this has been done should be checked up on.

– If the course is spread across two days (overnight, or with time in between as for TOTAL) there should be tasks to be done or thought about between the two days.

– There should be some follow-up activities proposed for participants to do, that are linked to their ‘day-job’ needs.

Assessment for learning.

– It is desirable to build in some kind of AfL processes, at least at the level of checks on understanding on each session, and possibly through technology (another possible use for their mobile phones).


– the course must produce evidence of the work the participants have done. Where at all possible this should be tasks that relate to their real job needs and that they can take further in their job roles (e.g. starting to create lesson plans to be completed later, doing first-stage technology development plans for their school).

– there must be some evidence of progression visible, which requires that their starting points are identified and evidence of these is captured so that it can later be related to where their thinking or skills have developed to.

– and the progression should not stop at the end of the course. On the TOTAL courses we use “Postcards from the future”, with the participants noting on a postcard what they expect to have achieved in their school in three months’ time, as a result of attending the programme – which we mail back to them in 3 months as a reminder of their intentions.


In schools that have normalised digital the quality of teaching and learning is improving very fast, driven by the teachers’ professional development networking and by the pupils showing how they can learn better, and discussing this explicitly with each other and their teachers. Very few current teachers and even fewer school leaders have any experience of what digitally-enabled outstanding teaching and learning feels like. Don’t waste the golden opportunity of them gaining some first-hand experience of outstanding teaching and learning when they attend your programme.


Evolution of Digital Technology in Schools

Closely related to the work done by Roger and Mal is that being undertaken by Professor Peter Twining from the Open University.

Peter is researching the evolving use of digital technology in schools, initially in the UK and soon in Australia.

Details of Peter’s early findings can be viewed at -