Educators are continuously seeking ways to improve student learning using technology solutions. Whilst not all blended learning strategies succeed, recent observations from Omaira Sánchez, a project partner school in Colombia suggest that technology is powerful in helping transform learner behaviour, and in turn is increasing learning outcomes.

Omaira Sánchez School and Community

Omaira Sánchez, a small school of 206 pupils, is located in a suburban neighbourhood of Cartagena, situated on the North coast of Colombia. Walking through the school, one immediately notices the lack of infrastructure and resources, poorly behaved students and tension amongst staff. Breteau Foundation Country Manager, Yhira Ibargüen, stated “Eruptions of violence in the school are commonplace and at times it can feel like a school on the edge”.

This school is not an oasis from the harsh social and economic realities from where the student population derives. Typically students are from families who struggle financially and many live in extreme poverty.  Within the community, education standards are low, with most young people having no hope or aspiration to progress to further education. Widespread poverty and a lack of opportunity breeds apathy among the community. Levels of teenage pregnancy and youth involvement in crime is high in this area, higher than the national average.

We chose to partner with Omaira Sánchez School because beyond delivering a school education, they aspire to minimise negative community influences on their student’s lives and increase every learner’s future opportunities.  The school is determined to drive change in the community through the reinforcement of positive life values amongst their students but, as Yhira suggests;It’s an ambition with a steep ascent.”

The Classroom

One of the most striking features in most Colombian schools is that learners are grouped by their academic ability, rather than age. Classes can be made up of learners spanning hugely varied age ranges, and with a wide diversity of needs. It is not uncommon in Colombia to have a five to 10 year discrepancy between learners in one class. This is one of the key challenges for teachers who must plan and deliver lessons to broad age ranges.

Teachers at Omaira Sánchez School have not had specific training for these circumstances. Even an experienced teacher with good training would find such mixed classes challenging in terms of breadth of content and pedagogy. Extreme behavioural problems such as bullying, coupled with physical fighting (which are usual occurrences) culminates in stressful and often unsafe classroom environment, leading to low levels of learning outcomes.

Our Theory of Change

The Breteau Foundation has been working in partnership with Omaira Sánchez since August 2016. Yhira, our Country Manager describes our first days spent at the school; “While we were surrounded by so much enthusiasm from the students, there was, without a doubt, great apprehension from the faculty.  They [the teachers], felt that our presence would mean more work.”

Given the day-to-day challenges in the school, and in particular the behavioural issues, the teachers felt they had little time to spend with ‘external advisors’.  Teachers also described past experiences of advisors going into school having minimum impact.  Yhira continued, “It was difficult to win the teachers’ trust and respect given they are so challenged in their practice day-in day-out, it is understandable that we were met with a level of resistance.”    

For our Theory of Change model to work, trust within the school community must first be formed. This is integral to our approach and we are more than ever aware that effective and sustainable outcomes for students stem from our partnership with teachers.  As relations with the teachers developed, we observed greater engagement in our teacher training programme along with increased technological competencies amongst the faculty.

Gaining trust takes time but as the confidence levels rose amongst the teachers at Omaira Sánchez School we began to see this reflected in the lessons delivered to students. These observations have been consistent across many of our other partner schools and while the impact differs from classroom to classroom we can see that overall our Theory of Change model works.  

Technology Transforms Classroom Behaviour & Learner Outcomes

What we haven’t seen so clearly before across our global programme, are the significant developments in classroom dynamics.  Yhira said, “what we are seeing very clearly, is how technology is having a direct influence on behaviour and therefore behavioural management.”

While our observations are at an early stage, we are collating qualitative evidence from teachers’ testimonies to understand if the tablets and apps we provided (as part of our delivery model) are a game changer in students’ self-regulation, task engagement and completion.

Within the first year of our programme, students showed consistent levels of motivation, evidenced by teachers describing students overall willingness to participate in technology-led reading and writing  activities including creative writing and the development of student’s own stories and books.

Other observations noted included reduced levels of class interruptions due to students’ poor behaviour and violence replaced with increased levels in focussed learning. While we have not undertaken any scientific monitoring, we are confident that the technology is key in this instance, as it has been the only changeable variable. As these positive aspects became more evident and shared amongst the school faculty, we saw an increase in teachers’ willingness to engage with our programme integrating technology in the classroom.  

Children at school in Colombia using preloaded tablets to enhance their learning.

Gaining the attention of the faculty also meant that we could take a further step with the school and work more collaboratively in the selection of apps.  Given the varied age ranges in the classrooms, we have been able to choose a variety of subject-specific apps and apps that support a wide range of ages. We have based our choices on our insight that the greater the connection the app has with the age of the child, the higher their engagement.  Apps like Book Creator or Piccollage offer a wide range of creative tools and allow learners to accomplish tasks in a creative manner. We found that these apps were popular among a wide age range of students who were more motivated to do their work using sound and images compared with traditional tools such as pencil, pen and paper.

This journey has been exciting for teachers and learners alike and teachers have reported that it has highlighted individual learner skills and talents. One teacher reported that several learners, who would ordinarily go unnoticed due to both their resistance to learning and their writing limitations, have shone because the technology has given them a voice and a platform.  

In addition, teachers who are typically challenged by extreme differentiation in their classrooms, found opportunities to dedicate more time to those struggling students due to better classroom behaviour. While we have observed the tablets supporting a better functioning classroom, we are now seeing tablets as a creator of teacher time: a variable we have not monitored before as part of our programme, but an element of great interest to future observations.  

Key Observations

From what we have seen at Omaira Sánchez School, the faculty believe that the technology has engaged their students leading to a reduction in behaviour that is obstructive to learning.  Below are some of the key observations:

  • Learners remained focussed from forty minutes to an hour, on average
  • Learners required no motivation to want to use the device and apps. They became immediately active as independent learners  
  • Learners were motivated to explore and create – they were less concerned about mistakes and errors, in fact they shared errors and mistakes freely with peers
  • Technology stimulated the learner, noted by learner’s interest in exploring the educational content of the app
  • The classrooms became a better blend of ‘technology and teacher’ – improving teacher and pupil engagement on a one-to-one level and across the classroom group
  • Given most learners do not have technology at home, technology instigated an improvement in the image of the classroom
  • Teachers noted they had more time to give to pupils with needs due to reduced levels of disruptive classroom behaviour
  • Individual students were highlighted as they became more willing to share their work using technology.  

Background Research: Violence and Education

While there is a growing evidence base around education and the correlation with peace in areas of conflict, there is also a great deal of research to suggest that schools must be non-violent, peaceful environments for educational outcomes to be maximised.  The following information has been taken from Stephen Thompson report for the Institute of Development, ‘Links to Education and Peace’.

Peaceful schools are unequivocally good for education, for children and for peace-building (UNESCO, 2011). The UN Security Council Resolution 2225 ‒ Safe Schools Declaration ‒ was endorsed by 49 countries as of October 2015. It states ‘education can help to protect children and youth from death, injury and exploitation; it can alleviate the psychological impact of armed conflict by offering routine and stability and can provide links to other vital services’ (HRW, 2015, p.41).

Violence in schools has physical, psychological and social effects and evidence shows it has a significant impact on participation and attainment in education. It increases the risk of children themselves behaving aggressively. Evidence showing a non-peaceful environment directly impacting education is often difficult to identify, but some evidence exists that shows that violence in schools can become part of a cycle of conflict (UNESCO, 2011).

Technology We Use

BookCreator is a simple way to make your own beautiful ebooks using technology.  There are over 30 million ebooks created so far including children’s picture books, comics, photo books, journals, textbooks and more. https://bookcreator.com/

PicCollage allows you to create amazing collages using photos, stickers, text with a variety of fonts and frames.  Once a collage has been created it can be shared to PicCollage, social media, emailed or sent as a physical postcard anywhere in the world. https://pic-collage.com/

Written by Annette Quinn and Jessica Villa Dávila

At the Breteau Foundation our mission is to improve academic engagement of disadvantaged children worldwide by empowering primary school teachers through digital technology and training. Please follow these links for more information on our impact, our teacher training and our educational programmes.

To discuss this article or to comment please write to annette@breteaufoundation.org