Cast your mind back 40 years. The world was a different place: one of Rubik’s cubes, VHS tapes and TVs the size of a small car.
It was also a time of huge technological innovation, including in schools.
Computers first started to appear in UK classrooms in the early 1980s, after the Department of Trade and Industry offered funding for local education authorities to drive computer use in schools.
And it was 40 years ago this year that LEGO created its own educational arm, moving beyond the classic bricks – which had been a staple of classrooms for decades – to becoming a first mover in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) learning and educational robots.
Hands-on learning: The building blocks of Stem
And so, in 1982, the first LEGO Technic kit was released, bringing in new pieces, including pulleys and gears, to introduce children to more complicated engineering concepts in a hands-on, playful way.
In 1998, that developed into robotics with the launch of the first LEGO Mindstorms Education, which gave young people the chance to make their own fully programmable robots.
It took a long time for the curriculum to catch up, however, with the requirement for programming skills to be taught in schools only being introduced in 2014.
But according to Paul Tyler, a teacher at Kirkhill Primary School in Glasgow, the landscape of learning around Stem is now almost unrecognisable.
“I was at school almost 40 years ago, and the learning was very traditional, textbook-driven,” he says.
“I remember doing my computer science GCSE, and doing some very, very basic coding. But now we’re starting to use coding tools from a very early age, all the way through the school, with increasing complexity.
“We've got children in Primary 6 or 7 using Python and complex coding languages. So they're heading off up to high school ready to really embrace computer science and the technology side of things. It’s been a big positive.”
The jam sandwich approach
Tyler takes a practical approach to introducing his students to coding, starting with a lesson about the importance of precise instructions, through the medium of making a jam sandwich.
“I sit at the front of the class with the jam, the bread, the butter, the knife and everything,” he explains. “The children have to give me absolutely precise instructions on what to do.”
“We use Mindstorms further up the school, as it can take things to a much higher level,” he says.
“Students have to test each bit as they build it, and make sure that it works as they want it to. And then they write the programme and run it, to see if it does what it's supposed to do. Nine times out of 10 it doesn't. They then have to go back and rewrite bits of the code.”
The really crucial part of this process, he continues, is learning how to work through these challenges together.
“Collaboration is really important, so we normally work in pairs or threes,” Tyler continues. “That discussion that they have in their groups, working together and utilising each other's strengths to get the best out of the project, is really important.”
Interaction and exploration
Another benefit of this collaborative, hands-on approach to Stem learning, according to London-based maths teacher Susan Okereke, is that it allows flexibility and exploration for staff, too.
“What's great about a lot of these things – where you can interact with them and stretch things and move them around – is that it allows you to play, as well as the students,” she says.
“Kids are engaged when things go a little bit weird, which is great to test the extremes of certain maths rules. And that's quite fun for the teacher and for the students.”
But, she adds, integrating technology into lessons can be daunting for teachers, simply because of the sheer number of tools available.
She’s contributed to the teacher training textbook A Practical Guide to Teaching Mathematics in the Secondary School to recommend ways to enhance learning with technology, and co-hosts the Maths Appeal podcast, which aims to demystify the subject.
And the benefits are more than worth it, she says, explaining that she now regularly uses apps such as GeoGebra in her classes at The Hollyfield School, allowing her to demonstrate concepts (how to work out the surface area of a cylinder, for example) in a dynamic way.
But for those who lack confidence in bringing tech into their teaching, products like the new this year SPIKE Prime from LEGO Education offer hands-on learning opportunities with all the relevant hardware, as well as lesson plans and training videos.
In another world
Back in Tyler’s classroom, tech is also making the wider world more accessible. His students are able to walk through First World War trenches, visit the inside of an active volcano, and zip from their classroom in Glasgow to the Serengeti, Antarctica and Australia to learn about climate change.
It’s all thanks to the school’s VR headsets, which he says have fundamentally changed the way these lessons are taught.
“The engagement is just incredible. Instead of just talking about it, or putting a photograph up on the board, we can really immerse the children in [those situations],” he says.
And, as Covid-19 has resulted in schools across the world closing their doors, more and more students are experiencing virtual trips to support their Stem learning, taking in incredible settings from the Great Barrier Reef to Longleat Safari Park and even the International Space Station.
For Amanda Britton, head of design and technology at Twynham School in Dorset, forging links with local Stem experts has broadened students’ horizons in a different way.
“We had someone from the local university come about three weeks ago to do a LEGO robotics workshop, and they've done an animation workshop with us, too,” she says. “And there are lots of other places that’ll come in and show students what sort of careers they could have.
“When you say ‘engineer’, most students will think of a mechanic or somebody working in a garage. But engineering can be anything from medical engineering to mechanical or robotic, whatever they want. So it’s just showing them the wide variety of careers that engineering is.”
It’s hard to anticipate what the classroom of the future will look like, but there’s no question that schools need resources, reliable technology and teachers who have the support to evolve their approach, Okereke says.
“The key thing really is for teachers to start with what you are trying to teach. And then think about how the technology can be used to enhance that. It shouldn’t just be for the sake of it.”
Emma Sheppard is a freelance journalist specialising in technology, education, entrepreneurship and social affairs