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Is the classroom cramping your style?

The best technology provides support without drawing attention to itself, according to design innovation specialist Sean McDougall. Here he talks to INTERFACE editor Greg Adams about the perils of “totally archaic” classrooms.

How important is the physical space where teaching and learning takes place?
Most people will agree that it’s better to put a good teacher in a cow-shed than a bad teacher in a classroom. That said, many good teachers hamper themselves by choosing identikit classroom layouts, in which only a few teaching and learning styles are ever deployed. A couple of years ago I did a survey of the amount of ‘stuff’ in a classroom that could be moved. Over 80 per cent of the typical contents can be reconfigured, but hardly any of it ever is. We have a ‘set and forget’ mentality when it comes to classroom layout.

What should be our approach?
We would do well, in designing future learning environments, to ask the same questions as the Victorians when they invented our own, now outdated, system. What needs are we addressing in providing our educational service? What easily recognised and popular formats do we have available to us? What devices and equipment do we have on hand that might assist us with this task? If we did that in a genuinely open way, listing as many ideas as possible, we would soon realise that the ‘modern’ classroom design is totally archaic.

What impact is ICT having on this environment?
The main issue in schools is that it tends to be accepted only when it makes the job of teaching easier. An interactive whiteboard, at the end of the day, is a blackboard that never needs to be cleaned. iPods, on the other hand, threaten the teacher’s position as monopoly provider of information. Mobile phones challenge old conventions about everyone sitting silently in one place. It really is to all our shame that we have allowed Victorian notions of how teaching should be done to get in the way of really amazing projects that captivate and challenge learners. If you want a good example of how it could be done, check out Futurelab’s Savannah project (http://www.futurelab.org.uk/projects/savannah) – GPS enabled PDAs that allow children to use the school playing fields to mimic the hunting patterns of lions.

What are schools/teachers doing wrong?
I’m just back from speaking at BETT – the world’s biggest educational technology show. There really is nothing like watching thousands of teachers dragging suitcases full of ICT freebies to make you question the point of our existence. It always amazes me that so many teachers venerate technology as an object of worship or self-justifying acquisition. Great technology is bog-standard and provides support without drawing attention to itself – like a light switch or a fridge. We should make our purchasing decisions on the basis of what the technology allows us to do – like see in the dark or keep food fresh. At BETT it was clear that a large number of visitors were trying to get ahead of the game by ordering the very latest technology. With a few, very specific, exceptions I would argue that this is a mistake: the cost-benefit of the very latest technology versus cheaper, proven and more robust products is weighted firmly in place of the latter. Almost any piece of technology launched in the last five years (Wi-Fi being an exception) is already powerful enough to support almost any activity that might happen in a school. Replacement models, as well as being overly powerful, tend to be more expensive, smaller and trendier – which also makes them much more likely to be stolen. A final mistake that I see being made is that many teachers try to maintain a position as most knowledgeable person in the classroom. Unless you are under 30 you simply won’t be able to. If you are under 30 the idea probably seems silly anyway.

If they get it right, what sort of increase in performance and effectiveness can people achieve?
I’m lucky in that one of my clients is a former UK Headteacher of the Year, Iain Hulland of Alder Grange Community and Technology College in Lancashire. His school has moved from what we call ‘special measures’ to ‘outstanding’ and has achieved 40 per cent improvements in the pass rate in each of the last four years. A big part of the improvement is down to developing a culture of end-user participation, which translates as allowing students to make decisions as opposed to being consulted. Setting aside the idea that technology equals laptops, I recently built an intelligent fountain (one that can see and hear using stereo microphone and motion detectors) with staff and students at Luckwell Primary School in Bristol, England (http://www.luckwell.bristol.sch.uk/projects/futurelab.fountain.html). All 206 students were given control of the design development process, with teachers having to develop a new role for themselves as facilitators of the children’s learning process. The fountain is being installed this term, but already the school has reported that students’ focus has improved across the board, as has their ability to collaborate and problem-solve.

What would be your advice to teachers wanting to make the most of ICT – but not knowing the best way forward?
Ask the class how to structure the lesson using their favourite technology. Then do it.

What new ways of teaching do you think schools should be considering?
My own view is that, given the way in which technology makes it easier for us to communicate and to stay safe, we should be looking at distributed teaching. Here in the UK we have something called Notschool (http://www.notschool.net), an online school exclusively for kids who have been excluded from ‘mainstream’ education. Whereas the overall number of excluded students achieving five GCSE passes (our national minimum target) is around one per cent, Notschool is achieving over 50 per cent. If some of the worst performing students in the country can achieve this, we ought to ask why more schools aren’t looking to copy the good practice.

What ICT development is having the most effective impact in the classroom?
I’m a fan of wireless projectors. Linked to a wireless laptop they allow teachers the ability to range across the room while remaining in touch with their laptop. They can then continue to show a presentation while helping a particular student or even switch the source image to a student’s laptop.

What do you think will be the next major disruptive technology to hit the classroom?
If I could invent a disruptive device for schools it would be something that linked level of interest to the school bell, preventing it from ringing if people were really making progress. Last time I was asked this question, I suggested creating an employee congestion zone at work. After 6pm, people would be made to pay to stay at work. This would encourage them to go home. I’m sure the effect on performance in the classroom would be profound.

What does the future hold for ICT in the classroom?
I would expect to see technology fading into the background while enabling much more satisfying learning experiences – imagine pulling a piece of cloth out of your pocket, drawing on it and watching as the sketch appears on the wall. The cloth would, of course, be powered by wireless electricity. You would then point your drawing tool at the printer and a 3D model of your sketch would be built before your eyes.

Thank you.

WHO IS SEAN MCDOUGALL?
Sean was a keynote speaker at the Digital Future Summit, held in Auckland last December. He’s Managing Director of Stakeholder Design, an international innovation agency for education and public services. Based in the UK, the company builds working models of future practice, among them school science laboratories as part of Project Faraday.

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