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A digital learning school: we can do it


Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant member publication: SSAT on Future Learning


We can do it, even though we have more constraints than those in the USA, writes Emma Smith, principal, Leigh Academy Blackheath, part of the Leigh Academies Trust

We can all identify events or activities throughout our career which are huge learning experiences. Some can be simple light bulb moments, which despite being relatively small can have great impact on our future actions and thinking. Others can literally change the way we think, and challenge us deeply as leaders to do things differently.

As principal designate of a new free school opening in September 2018, with a focus on digital learning, I didn’t need much persuading to accept an invitation from SSAT and Apple to join their International Leaders Study Visit to the USA in April this year. The promise of visiting schools in the USA to see digital learning in practice, combined with the chance to learn from Apple’s education leaders about cutting edge thought leadership and practices, had the potential to be one of those huge learning experiences. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed.

I arrived in Austin, Texas with one question: what does a digital school look and feel like? Walking the corridors of three different schools, an elementary, a middle and a high school, and visiting many classrooms, I saw digital technology being used creatively as a tool for learning in every classroom. Teachers, facilitators and leaders talked about their vision and strategy for creating a digital learning community.

Sadly, there was a huge disconnect between what they were describing and what I knew could be created within a UK school. The USA does not have the same accountability measures or formal assessment procedures as we do, so the freedom of how and what they teach appeared much greater.

There was a huge disconnect between what they were describing and what I knew could be created within a UK school

Every student in the Eanes School District, where we visited, was given an iPad in elementary school which they retained throughout their time in education. Education technologists, trained teachers but with no teaching commitment themselves, worked with their colleagues to plan, prepare and deliver learning opportunities in the classroom. It was clear that funding was very different here. I left Texas with a plethora of fresh creative ideas for using digital technology but with no real answer to my question.

Our study group, a team of education professionals from the UK, spent the next two and half days in Cupertino, San Francisco, exploring how Apple’s organisational values and the relationship they cultivate between culture and leadership could be applied to an educational setting. Listening to the Apple education leadership team, debating the relevance and possible application of the learning as a group to our own contexts in the UK, began to shape my thinking and to formalise an answer to my question.

Some of the key pieces of learning for me were:

Why? Framed by Simon Sinek’s model the Golden Circle, we were taken through their Why, How and What. An introduction to how the culture of Apple is created and how they achieve shared ownership of their values and vision, from the worldwide shop floor retail team to the executive in the boardroom.

Digital is not the future, it is the NOW. Year 7 students in 2018 were born into a world where the iPhone and Twitter already existed. We must focus not just on developing literacy and numeracy skills but also digital skills.

21st century learners require a different set of learning tools and skills:

  1. Access is no longer about getting online, using email or simply researching: it is about using auditory, visual or kinaesthetic tools to create learning opportunities.
  2. Our focus on skill development should be coding, design, critical thinking, communication and digital agility.
  3. Digital technology used for developing creators not producers.

Creating a climate for learning with digital technology. A successful digital learning community develops students who are curious, resilient, engaged, inspired and reflective. They don’t fear learning or making mistakes.

The learning environment should encourage anytime, anywhere learning. A virtual classroom provides the learner with access to content 24/7, it is a place where they can revisit materials in
their own time, at their own pace and as often as they like.

My learning on the SSAT and Apple study visit helped me to reach the conclusion that there is no blueprint for creating a digital school. Now undeterred by the constraints of funding and our accountability measures in the UK, I came home more determined to ensure we create an authentic digital learning community and environment for our 21st century learners.

Our new approach to digital learning at Leigh Academy Blackheath:

  • promotes safe online practice through an effective awareness and digital citizenship programme
  • creates virtual and traditional classrooms for all curriculum subjects
  • blends together traditional pedagogy and digital learning approaches to create 21st century learning environments
  • teaches thematically where appropriate to create strong connections across and between curriculum subjects, contextualising content and validating purpose
  • develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills through real life project-based learning activities
    engages with specialists, industry partners and education practitioners on digital projects, shared learning opportunities and research.

Although I didn’t come home with a definitive answer to my question, the huge learning experience I had challenged me as leader to do things differently. We now have a clear strategy to embed the school’s values and vision across all stakeholders, an even stronger passion than before to build an authentic digital learning community, and a plethora of ideas on how to do so. I feel empowered to create a digital school and show others what it looks and feels like.

SSAT on Future Learning

Discover more about innovation in education and the role of technology in SSAT on Future Learning. Members can download their copy from the library in The Exchange


Read on the SSAT blog: What can our school leaders learn from Apple?


Emma Smith, principal, Leigh Academy Blackheath, part of the Leigh Academies Trust

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