The magic of QR codes in the classroom

Poppy Gibson

Poppy Gibson is a lecturer in Primary Education in the Teacher Education Department, coming into HE after over a decade working in several London Primary schools. Poppy currently works on the University of Greenwich's Accelerated degree programme in Primary Education, and is the Modern Foreign Language coordinator, teaching MFL on the PGCE and BA QTS programmes. Key research interests include identity, motivation, and the integration of technology into our lives.

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QR codes are on just about every product you might want to buy. Poppy Gibson, a Year 5 teacher and ICT coordinator in North London, has employed this massively-used technology for fun use in her classroom.

What do tea bags, bananas and concert tickets all have in common? Amongst many other products, these are just some that have used Quick Response (QR) codes to help advertise, inform and link their consumers to further details.

Quick Response (QR) codes are a growing trend in our physical world, connecting us to the virtual world in a simple scan; this article will show you that the potential for using them to support and extend learning in the primary classroom is endless.

In this Aztec History lesson, most suited to Key Stage 2, we will bring QR codes into the primary school, showing how you can inspire pupils’ learning in a quick, easy and rather curious way by linking to a range of digital resources including websites, audio clips, images, questions or instructions. You will read about how my pupils enjoy the thrill of a 'QR History Mystery', using clues affixed to artefacts to take an active role in their learning; locating and critiquing their own learning resources. Please note, however, that the objects used could easily be changed to fit any subject within the curriculum.

Topic: The Aztec Empire

Lesson Objectives:

  • To be able to deduce, infer or interpret information from a range of sources about what living in Aztec times may have been like.
  • To ask and answer questions, and to select and record information relevant to the focus of the enquiry
  • Implicit ICT objective: to understand what QR codes are, to use them to access information, and to check that this information is relevant and reasonable.

Starter Activity: Investigate

As the pupils come into the classroom, their desks have been rearranged ready for group work with four students per group.There is a range of various items on each group of desks; empty cereal boxes, pages from newspapers, chocolate bar wrappers... the one thing they all share? Each has a QR code printed on it.

Up on the interactive whiteboard, I have one question written in large print: ‘What do these items have in common?’

I give pupils just five minutes to examine the selection of items, discussing with their group what the link between each could be. Then I invite answers to my big question: some answers widely miss the mark but my pupils are certainly thinking and engaged. One pupil suggests, ‘they all have a web address on them’. Yes! Getting closer; with a little encouragement, pupils realise each product also has a tiny black and white square - a QR code.

So then I turn the page on my Interactive Whiteboard flipchart to display two new questions: ‘What do QR codes do?’ and ‘Why are they useful?’

I hand each group of pupils an iPad with a QR reader on the screen (there are many different free QR reading Apps available to install). Pupils proceed to scan each of the QR codes on the items in front of them, and eagerly look at the screen to see where each code leads. Most often this is to a text based website, but may also go to a printable discount voucher, an audio file or a video clip. We discuss how these instantly scanned codes saves people remember web addresses or having to copy down long URL titles correctly.

Pupils put all of these items into a basket and a I store them on a shelf ready for a future lesson.

Main activities: Explore

Next, each table of four is given a set of Aztec artefact replicas and connected items such as masks, shields, jewellery, a bar of chocolate, and laminated images. Each of the items has QR codes taped onto the surfaces.Pupils are now instantly intrigued, not only by working out what each item is, but what each code scans to.

I tell the class that they will be using inference and deduction skills to research and piece together the clues to work out what each object is and what it tells us about life as an Aztec. To differentiate the activity, two of the groups have items with more QR codes attached to them, which will give them more clues about the role of each. The challenge is now for each group to explore the objects, scanning the codes and piecing together the information.

As I mentioned above, if you don't have actual artefacts to hand, printed images also work well. In this lesson, I have laminated images of the Aztec ‘glyphs’ (writing), a small clay model of Machu Picchu, and the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan.

The laminated image of the Tenochtitlan has three QR codes blue tacked onto it.The first QR code links to a photo I have stored on the DropBox website of the type of hut that was built in the village. The second links to a website about the location of the capital city and facts about the canals and harvesting system used. The third code takes the pupils to a youtube video entitled ‘Tenochtitlan: The Impossible City’. There is a pair of headphones plugged into each iPad to keep volume in the room to a minimum.

After they have had time to scan and discuss each item in their group, we will be reviewing each item as a class and I will tell the group of they were correct or not in their conclusions.

Depending on how competitive you want the activity to be, you could even employ a point scoring system; one point for each item they correctly identify, and one point for giving a summary of what that item tells us about living in Aztec times.

Using QR codes in this way allows for easy links to websites, information and videos, saving time on pupils having to type websites manually into an iPad or computer.

It also gives the added 'mystery' to the lesson, letting pupils self-differentiate in terms of how many QR codes they feel they need to scan before they are confident identifying and relating an item to the history topic at hand.

Extending the lesson

Pupils can even be shown how to generate their own QR codes, creating and sharing their own content based on information gathered during the lesson.

If a group manages to identify all of their items and images, they could find their own website and video links, and could generate extra codes that could be printed out and attached to the items.
I found this worked very well for one high ability group, who relished having their own codes added to our Aztec class display and then enjoyed watching their peers scanning their codes with iPads in a subsequent history lesson.

Sharing the lesson

While pupils are working, I wander around with my iPad, taking photographs of them scanning and investigating. I upload these photographs onto a new section called The QR History Mystery on class wiki page, then simply generate a QR code for that page. I then print out a class set of QR code labels for each pupil to stick into their Homework Diary, ready for them to take home for parents, carers or friends to scan with their smartphone or tablet.

Useful questions

  • What more does this information tell us about the object that we couldn't tell simply from examining it?
  • How did the ICT improve your understanding of Aztec life?
  • Which type of digital resource is most useful?
  • How can we critique online resources to compare and contrast the validity of each?

Further links and information

If you want to know more about the mechanics of using QR codes, you can find out further information on

Codes can be easily generated for free on

The scanning app we have installed on our iPads is Red Laser, but another great app commonly used is I-nigma; both are child-friendly and easy to navigate.

Do you use QR codes in the classroom? Share your experiences below!

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