Abdul Chohan, director of development at Essa Academy in the UK, can attest to this. Harnessing the power of technology, belief and great leadership, Chohan and the Essa team turned the neighbourhood’s ‘failing school’, as it was known when it was on the verge of shutdown in 2008, into a great success. 

Situated in Bolton, just outside the city of Manchester, Essa Academy serves a disadvantaged community of low socio-economic families, and with 36 different languages spoken at the school, many are international new arrivals.

Nevertheless, the school now boasts measureable improvements in learning outcomes with a passing rate exceeding 95 per cent from its 900 students.

Chohan was a chemistry teacher at Essa Academy’s predecessor school when the transformation began, and he was recruited to join the new leadership team.

“As part of the leadership team we then started to make changes in terms of curriculum, learning and rebuilding, we got developers in, and so on. And that’s where our journey began in 2009,” he says.

One of the bold moves Chohan made as director of ICT that year, was to give each student an iPod touch.

Chohan chose the iPod touch because it was reliable, had minimal load time and was accessible to students both inside and outside of the classroom.

Also, they were inexpensive, meaning the school could provide them for the entire student cohort.

“Typically we were used to using laptop trolleys and laptop carts,” Chohan says.

“Whereas we discovered that with these smaller devices, for the same price as a laptop cart with 30 laptops in it I could buy 180 of these things.”

Despite these positives, Chohan says his idea was met with “uproar”.

“People were saying it’s a gimmick, it’s not going to work, they’re going to sell it on eBay, all sorts of stuff,” Chohan told delegates at a Learning Without Frontiers conference in London.

But, despite popular assumption, Chohan’s students didn’t sell their new learning tools to make a quick buck, but rather they used them to engage with learning in ways they hadn’t before.

“It was different from your typical learning management type systems, this was very student oriented, they could access content when it was offline as well, without any connectivity,” Chohan says.

“Within the type of community that we live in, we still have students who might not have WiFi or connection to the internet, so that was quite important to us,” he adds.

“One of the things that we found was that the learning extended way beyond school hours, and the way that we designed the learning meant that we drove the interest from students, we got a lot of authentic engagement from students, so they were able to continue creating videos, doing models … at home, after school and so on.

“So [there was] a lot of engagement happening beyond school hours.”

And for teachers, the iPods proved an efficient and versatile tool.

“I think there were two key ingredients for me – simplicity and reliability. And these devices were very, very simple to use and very reliable,” Chohan says.

“We were still in an age of that time where, you know, teachers came in the morning and switched the computers on, and then they went off to make a coffee, by the time they came back maybe the computer had switched on.

“Whereas we moved into this environment whereby you switch these devices on, and they immediately came on, you know?

“You can check emails, you can record voice, you can take photos … this new thing called the App Store was about, where they could download free software.”

While these nifty little devices played a key part in the school’s success, the real heroes were the educators who re-imagined the learning program.

“…it wasn’t necessarily down to the technology, but it was down to the way in which we designed learning through the use of technology that was really important,” Chohan says.

Staff at Essa Academy spent time looking at different pedagogies and according to Chohan, they decided to use tried and true learning models such as Bloom’s Taxonomy, while applying the new tools to “amplify” these models.

“So basically, looking at them with the new tools and new apps that were coming out, that actually allowed us to rethink how we could access higher order thinking, it allowed us to rethink what we could do with assessments for learning and so on.

“It allowed us to rethink how we could give feedback to students, so, all of these things really made a difference and had an impact on the way in which students were learning.”

Chohan has since gone on to open The Olive Tree Primary School, also in Bolton.

Through his vast leadership experience, one of the core philosophies he sticks by is that you need to change beliefs in order to change behaviour.

“For me it’s very much about changing beliefs. If you have the ability to change beliefs, then actually behaviour will automatically change,” he explains.

“Quite often in organisations we focus on changing behaviours, telling people what to do, what not to do and so on … a lot of my philosophy around the way in which we can impact and change behaviour, change culture, is based on changing beliefs.”

For school or technology leaders hoping to implement large-scale changes in technology use at their schools, Chohan says it’s important to know what your non-negotiables are.

“I think one of the problems that technology brings is variety.

“There’s so many different tools and so many different things out there, but in a school you could be using up to 10, 12 different tools, platforms and so on.

“You need to decide ‘what are your non-negotiables?’”

He also says regular professional development is a must for getting everyone on board, with an emphasis on ‘regular’ .

“Having a session once in three months or once in four months is not going to be sufficient in order to change belief, in order to change behaviour, in order to bring people on board,” he says.

“And for me I think a lot of the time, with these sorts of scenarios, it’s about change management and how we bring that change to the whole organisation.

“Because you always get people that are on board immediately, you get those that ask questions and will be unsure, and then you get those that just don’t want the change to happen as well. And it’s about how quickly school leaders can build a critical mass in schools.

“If you wait for people to say ‘we’re ready,’ that will never happen.”

At The Olive Tree, Chohan has changed the structure of the school week so that every week there is a professional development slot built in.

“What we’ve been able to show is … rapid change.

“Because people have time to understand what it is that we’re trying to do, they’ve got time to speak to their peers, they’ve got time to trial it out and so on.

“And it also allows for us to get things wrong, because when you try something new … you get things wrong.

“People don’t worry about that, but they have an opportunity to say ‘well, that didn’t work’, but it’s more about getting it less wrong.

“If there’s no opportunity for that professional development to be built in frequently, and the key is ‘frequent’, then actually you end up losing people along the way.”

Now that Essa Academy has well and truly found its feet, and The Olive Tree Primary School is off to a great start, Chohan has taken the opportunity this year to engage with schools overseas as a consultant.

“I’d been approached by large school groups in a lot of developing and middle-income countries like the Maldives, like India. At the moment I’m doing a project in India where there’s a school of 1000 children and every child is getting their own iPad.”

“My work with the leadership team there is basically creating the strategy for its effective use, ‘how is that going to work?’ and bringing the teachers on board and redesigning the curriculum and learning.”

One of the innovations Chohan and teachers at the school in India have introduced, is generating voice feedback on students’ work.

“So they’re using iPad to give voice feedback, rather than the traditional ticking and giving marks method.

“Students can listen to the teacher’s voice and can respond to it, and so on, so that is an interesting area of development, where actually, new tools are allowing the students to do things that we were just unable to do in the past.” 

Chohan says in many respects, his heart lies with helping disadvantaged schools to turn things around. However, he also enjoys the different challenges which come from working with more affluent independent schools.

“I’ve worked with an [independent school] in Jakarta, Indonesia, and that was also really interesting.

“I think it brings other challenges ... their reasons for having this sort of approach, I think in some ways, are very, very different.

“So it may not be about results and impacting what the outcomes might be like, because they’re performing very well anyway, but it may be more to do with preparing their students for the future.”

When asked to name three essential elements of the modern classroom, Chohan says ‘access’ , ‘creativity’, and a ‘change in the role of the teacher’ are key.

“I think access to the world is kind of important, that includes technology, but also beyond technology as well,” he says.

“I think another part would be creativity in the way in which students submit their work, it needs to be something that is authentically created by the students, so it’s not just consuming information but it’s creating information. I think that’s really important, I think that’s changed significantly.

“And I think the third one is, I suppose, the role of the teacher as someone who measures how well things have been understood, rather than someone that delivers information.” 

Chohan will be bringing his ideas about education to our shores in June, when he addresses delegates at EduTECH International Congress and Expo.

He says he’s looking forward to getting together with like-minded educators in Sydney. For those who attend his presentation, he hopes to inspire and provide a different way of looking at learning.

“I suppose they can expect to have vision around the way in which learning can be different, what can be achieved with limited resources. “I think that they will certainly be able to see tangible outcomes,” he says.

“One of the things that I will be sharing at EduTECH is the kinds of learning that we do at the Olive Tree, the kinds of things that we’ve seen at the school in India and how employing certain principles in different contexts can actually have some profound effects.

“And I guess there’ll be takeaways that people can begin to implement.

“Many schools have devices, but some teachers are using them really well, and some teachers are not.

“For me it’s about getting that consistency now and getting people to really impact things so you really begin to make that difference,” he says.