Tim Rylands 1963 – 2017


I first met Tim around 2006 shortly after he had deservedly won a Becta teaching award. We worked together on a series of conferences for a major ICT company and we quickly struck up a friendship as we travelled around the country, presenting on stage together, and sharing stories and jokes in preparation and relaxation.

I was in awe of the man, and maybe a bit in love… For his charisma, humour, creativity, zest for life, humanity, and his unique blend of professionalism and anarchic wit. I was struck, as were all who saw him at work, at how he could communicate, engage and inspire children of all ages – and teachers of all experience.

His passing leaves a hole in the world of education, his family, his friends and his partner Sarah. Together, he and Sarah toured the world inspiring thousands of others. Their stories, laughter, practical advice, and living example, illustrated perfectly the many positive and creative potentials of technology.

Tim, you are sorely missed.

About Tim Rylands


Creating a ‘squeaky’ classroom…

One of my favourite education-focused essays is, in fact, an old Charlie Brown ‘Peanuts’ cartoon strip.

It features Lucy arguing with her teacher about the grade she’s just received for her coat-hanger sculpture. I love Lucy’s arguments, especially the comment “Was I judged on what I had learned about this project? If so, then were not you, my teacher, also being judged on your ability to transmit your knowledge to me? Are you willing to share my ‘C’?”


In later years I came to learn more about teacher assessment following principles such as validity, reliability, usefulness (to the student) and fairness. Not always easy to understand, remember or apply. But in those days, I simply pinned the cartoon to the wall beside my classroom desk as a useful reminder of things to think about when assessing students’ work. Lucy’s arguments are still a good reference tool.

But the phrase that really struck me, it was the first time that I’d come across it, is Lucy’s final remark as she turns to face the reader, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

How right she is.

In many classrooms I’ve observed and worked in, it’s often the ‘squeaky’ students that demand more time and attention. This ‘squeakiness’ may come from behaviours, learning difficulties, extrovert personalities, an identification of need, etc. This attention imbalance hardly seems fair. And, if it’s not fair, then is it possible to enable those ‘unsqueaky’ students to get the same degree of consideration?

Technologies have the potential to help to make things a bit more equable, in particular the way they can make the experience of learning more individual and less generic. One way in which that can be achieved is through the use of tools that support formative assessment – that  enable every learner to come to the forefront of attention.

There’s now a rich range of free online assessment tools that make it possible for teachers to understand more fully where each and every learner is in their learning. From this array of tools, the ones I have in mind include Formative, Kahoot, Quizizz, Plickers and Socrative. Each has its own specific merit. Plickers, for example doesn’t rely on student response via a device. Instead, students hold up cards oriented to the answer they wish to give. It’s simple and effective. Tools such as EdPuzzle even allow the teacher to support students as they watch video, providing feedback on their attention and understanding.

These tools enable responses to be judged in terms of percentages (how many of the class have ‘got it’) and/or individually (which students need more support/challenge/time). They help to increase the ‘squeakiness’ level of the classroom.

That ‘squeakiness’ can even be increased by encouraging ‘back channel’ responses. Answer Garden couldn’t be simpler to use for real time anonymous feedback, while Google Forms provides one of the richest sets of back channel, survey and formative assessment tools. There’s a useful introduction to Google Forms here.

The great thing about these services is that they make formative assessment more insightful, achievable and real-time. Instead of trying to read body language, ask for a show of hands, ask meaningless questions (“Has everyone got that?”) or wait for students’ written work, that insight can take place instantly and, as a result, teaching can be adapted while the topic is hot.

Creating a ‘squeaky’ classroom has never been easier.


Image Credit: My copy of the Peanuts cartoon is old and tatty. 
The image on this page is sourced here

The Future of Educational Technology?

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Nils Bohr

Among the many treasures of the excellent Public Domain Review is a collection of illustrations of possible future technologies, as seen from the 19th century.[1] The collection includes this vision of technology in education.


Here the role of the teacher seems to be to select texts and, via some mechanical text-to-speech device, have the content of these directly piped into students’ headphones. It’s mildly laughable but it’s also interesting in the way that the picture also illustrates some of the ways educational technology has often been used.

First, there’s a focus on the novelty of the technology, as a new shiny gewgaw. Technology here also serves to support existing models of teaching. In this case, where students are passive, seated in rows and have no contribution to make to the direction of their learning. Then there’s the inference that education is merely knowledge-delivery and that the role of technology is to make this more efficient. If technology is to have a key part in education in the future, it will have to avoid these assumptions.

But the 19th century illustrator has also captured something important. The picture shows a large single device in the classroom and a crude infrastructure of wires to enable the contents of the device to be distributed. The illustration thus shows how technology can provide access to learning. In painting this picture, the artist is both right and wrong: right in that infrastructure will be important; and wrong in the emphasis on the classroom device.

Schools, now and in the future, will require fast, reliable and secure Internet connectivity. With this, schools have access to the cloud – and via the cloud – access to resources, tools and anytime/anywhere learning.

These tools exist now. They have the potential to develop even further with an emphasis on ease and speed of use – for all users. Google Classroom, for example, already enables teachers to allocate, collect and respond to students’ work online. For students, this means instant access to teacher comments, learning materials, timely support and peer collaboration.

Where the 19th century illustrator got it wrong was in the emphasis on the teacher-controlled classroom device. Looking at the experience of today, there’s a reasonable chance that in the future we will see more use of mobile Internet-connected devices in a blend of school and student-owned appliances. These will remove the need for students to be tethered to their desks, unlike they’re shown in the picture! Mobile connectivity enables technology to be integrated into every part of the curriculum and for learning to take place outside of the classroom. This ready access to resources and learning provides an opportunity for schools to personalise learning to a greater degree than today, and to develop a more independent approach to learning.

It seems clear that robust, speedy and safe Internet access and the adoption of cloud-based technologies will be the means by which educational technology will develop. Already, it means that, schools are not far from successfully adopting the following approaches:

  • Social Networking: Schools use social media tools for group teaching, and teach students how to use these effectively to develop learning networks; to connect with experts across the world; to build safe online profiles of achievement; and to support others. Teachers regularly use these tools and principles for their own professional and career development.
  • A Wider Campus: Schools become a combination of physical and virtual spaces. Students beyond the catchment area join specific classes their physical school is unable to provide; schools employ teachers from distant parts of the country and overseas to fill gaps in expertise, and provide classes that would otherwise be economically unviable.

But technology is disruptive. Across all industries, technology has displaced long-established, even cultural, practices and completely changed the way the industry works. In some cases technology has created completely new industries. Disintermediation (the name given to a process that provides a consumer with direct access to a product or service) has already transformed the way we buy insurance, holidays, retail products – even grocery.

It’s much less clear how this phenomenon of disintermediation will apply to education. Professor Sugata Mitra famously observed children using technology to teach themselves in his Hole in the Wall[2] project but an education system that minimises the role of the teacher seems unlikely (certainly at primary and secondary ages) – in any future. As one famous technologist is quoted as saying, “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.”[3] Perhaps the biggest conundrum when looking forward is how much the role of the teacher will continue as it currently is and how much it will adapt.

Painting a picture of the future brings the danger that it is as inaccurate as that of the 19th century illustrator but, in closing, here are a few technologies that perhaps we will we see schools adopting in the coming years:

  • Virtual Reality (VR): VR headsets will become a staple technology across the curriculum in providing rich, sensory experiences of real, historical and imagined places.
  • 3D Printing: Students will regularly design, prototype and make models, products and artwork using 3D additive manufacturing tools.
  • Internet of Things: Technology will be embedded to create ‘intelligent objects’. Buildings and devices will become ‘smarter’ in automatically recognising students, teachers and visitors for access authentication. Eye-tracking technologies will provide insight into student’s learning strategies, information gathering and the effectiveness of commercial and school-created resources.
  • Disintermediation: Since parents have online access to their children’s progress data, Parents’ Evenings have become much more consultative. Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cloud-based systems, enable students to access learning materials and resources independently of a teacher.

[1] http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/france-in-the-year-2000-1899-1910/

[2] http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/

[3] http://sourcesofinsight.com/lessons-learned-from-bill-gates/

Implementing school improvement through innovation in multi-academy trusts

Put simply, the argument for autonomy is that previous and well-established models for running schools have led to underachievement, underperformance and coasting. As Minister of State for Education, Nick Gibb, described it recently, “The only way to challenge such schools is innovation through autonomy.”

That linking of autonomy and innovation, that freedom to do things differently, is both liberating and potentially dangerous. The risk is that innovation becomes confused with novelty; that the potential for greater educational achievement gets lost in the quest for originality. To avoid such risks, innovation needs to be (i) visionary and (ii) informed.

1. Visionary

The importance of vision is recognised in many studies of successful innovation in business; for example, in one study reported in the Harvard Business Review1 the ability of business leaders to “Display excellent strategic vision” rated as the top of ten key characteristics: “The most effective innovation leaders could vividly describe their vision of the future.”

To return to Nick Gibb, he has also characterised the best MATs as having “…a clear vision and a distinct model of teaching. I would encourage all new academy chains not to see themselves only in terms of being effective administrators, or competent managers. They should also be bound by a philosophical and pedagogical vision.”

Although it is likely that they will share similarities, the distinctive nature of that philosophical and pedagogical vision will differ from MAT to MAT. Perhaps in one it is driven by a focus on inquiry-based learning; perhaps in another the focus is on empowering middle leaders. These differences emerge because the implementation of that vision is itself part of the vision – knowing how to get there is as important as knowing where to go.

To get there, successful and truly innovative MATs will adapt the pace and direction of change to the context of the academy and/or MAT. This isn’t just about the management of deficiencies but also about the ability of the Trust to adapt to change and to maintain and share momentum across the MAT as a whole. It’s something Sir David Carter, National Schools Commissioner, identifies as a characteristic of successful and leading MATs; that they can improve the majority of their “schools to the point at which those that were once weak now have capacity and strength to support new schools joining the MAT or schools beyond the Trust. They can also peer review with confidence other schools in the trust.”

2. Informed

Successful innovation responds to feedback from a variety of sources. This starts with the use of a range of quantitative data for different purposes: self-evaluation, accountability, target-setting, performance management, SEN, admissions, financial management, and so on… Key to this too, is the distribution and intelligent use of data across the organisation – for all members of the MAT. This includes governors and advisory boards using top-level dashboards to gain an aggregated view of MAT or academy performance. It includes subject teachers using it for formative assessment and target setting discussions with students. It should also include individual academy departments using data for cross-MAT comparison of subject performance and the analysis of specific pupil groups.

Running parallel to this use of quantitative data are other well-established feedback mechanisms such as internal inspections, peer reviews, lesson observations, learning walks and so on. These gain more traction and significance when deployed and shared across the MAT; for example when teachers from different academies work together to raise attainment for specific groups of pupils, agreeing what progress looks like, and sharing best practice to achieve this.

With an informed vision, the risk of aimless innovation is significantly mitigated. However, nowhere is that risk greater than in the deployment of educational ICT where too often schools (and governments) have pursued inventive (and expensive) technological solutions almost in an act of faith, believing that the investment alone will yield rewards. That’s an entirely avoidable and unforgivable position today. Indeed, ICT is now the basis of the essential tool set to achieve that informed vision for effective innovation. I would go as far as to say that Trust-wide innovation is simply not possible without the efficient use of ICT. As an example, technology can facilitate highly effective and clear quality assurance systems (both quantitative and qualitative) to improve consistency and performance across the Trust. And, as a final example, technology can enable and strengthen meaningful collaboration across the Trust for leaders, teachers and students through highly cost-effective and easily accessible cloud-hosted online platforms.

Autonomy brings both freedoms and increased responsibilities. The prevailing view is that school autonomy creates the most fertile conditions for innovative practices to drive improvement.  Perhaps it is not such a new view. After all, as Darwin himself said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

First published April 2016 at RM Education

Small Flowers Crack Concrete

This is an adapted version of a presentation given at the Digital Education Show, London, June 2015. The full presentation is here.

First published March 2016 at RM Education

Making the Most of Cloud Technologies… a non-techie view

Trust-Centred Student Collaboration