Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Brains on the tablet

I hope you’re not eating, with the question I’m about to ask. What do you think of when you hear “Brains on the table”? Probably something unappealing, I imagine. It was a peculiar thing for me to hear in my first week of a new job over three years ago...

When Ahmed (our director and a senior researcher at Newcastle University) gave me a research paper with this title, I’m 97% (no: 100%) sure that he wasn’t trying to put me off the office biscuits. He was actually introducing me to research that spanned back many years, all about the benefits of students externalising their thoughts.

The paper I’m talking about is this one, by David Leat, now a consultant to our company, and Adam Nichols. They explore how, with the use of a paper tool called Mysteries, they were able to see pupils’ “cognitive processes”. Hence their brains being on the table!

Other ways of saying it:
  • making students’ thinking visible
  • providing a window into students’ minds
  • externalisation of thoughts
The key benefit is that by understanding how students think, many things can be identified; such as what they’re doing well and what they’re struggling with. Plus how and why.

Mysteries were first developed by David and the Thinking Through Geography group. Small groups would be given lots of snippets of text, and sometimes images, that usually had a narrative thread to them. One main, open question about the snippets would be asked. Students typically read through the snippets first, then organised them into different piles, before laying them out in a chain to build understanding and form an answer. As well as hearing groups’ discussions, teachers could then also view their final layouts, which were a vision of how students had arrived at their conclusion. David explains “it quickly became apparent that there was something very interesting going on as students manipulated the little snippets of paper”.

Brains on the tablet

During Ahmed’s PhD, he came to work with David, and saw the potential of Mysteries. He gave it a digital transformation and the idea blossomed into what you may now know as Digital Mysteries, the iPad apps that have had over 350,000 downloads across 60 countries. These were developed in coordination with many different teachers, firstly for the UK curriculum then worldwide, and because of their popularity, we wanted to give people the chance to create their own! This is where Thinking Kit comes in - tasks can now be tailored exactly to your students’ needs, or even created by the students themselves.

When activities are completed by students on iPads, we call it ‘brains on the tablet’, and it’s an excellent source for formative assessment. As David and Ahmed say in their article, published in the Creative Teaching & Learning journal (email if you’d like a free copy of the piece), formative assessment “is grounded in talk about thinking and ideas - therefore, any serious discussion generated by the mystery or during the reflection phase, is formative, as it helps shape ideas and scaffold the sense making process”.

  Read more on Moseley et al.’s work here.

Things provided in the app:
  • a structure for collaborative learning. It flips between individual and group work throughout, meaning regular discussion triggers and openly expressed thoughts, as well as concentration time.
  • tools to emphasise cognitive skills, such as ‘named groups’ to visibly categorise information, ‘sticky tapes’ to show connections and ‘notes’ to express ideas/opinions.
  • an interactive playback of the session to go over alone, as a group or even as a class.
As this screenshot shows, all students must tap their name to agree they’ve read the instructions.

As a result of all of the above, the teacher can then:
  • see the current ‘state of play’ but also history (e.g. ‘deleted’ notes and groups).
  • tweak the difficulty of future tasks by removing slips or altering the question.
  • integrate the activity with other lesson planning so that those who finish early can move onto something else.
  • easily transition between a chat with an individual, a group or the whole class.
  • extend the outcome beyond a session (students can print off, email, and reflect upon, an automatically generated PDF report).
Thinking Kit also allows students to do the creating too. Activities could be based on something they’ve learned about in class, a topic they’re yet to be introduced to (so they have to carry out research - see students’ work on migration here), fieldwork or something they simply have passion for and want to help others learn about. In a previous blog post, we talked about how students of Broadwood Primary School created their own iPad activities on various topics; from Batman, to The Twits, to Minecraft! All the while, they developed key digital skills that some had never experienced before.

To see what types of activities we mean, explore our developer page on the App Store. We have many free pre-prepared activities and the Thinking Kit App is completely free. To create your own, or to get students to, have a 30 day free trial (no card details required) at

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