Courage not caution

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Failure to exploit ict in the new generation of schools could be a huge waste of some key learning opportunities, warns Stephen Heppell

Building Schools for the Future (BSF) is an enormous programme of replacement and refurbishment; tens of billions of pounds committed by a government that has never flinched from putting learning first.

In that renewal, ICT is, or should be, a key engine for change in two ways.

First, ICT is radically changing the way that we can learn (with whom, what, or where); second, the impact of technology on our lives and work, including parenthood or citizenship, means that we need to learn new things and adopt new processes. In the 21st century we need more collaborative, more ingenious, and more engaged, wired learners. These changes have profound implications for the design and organisation of new schools.

ICT can open up many design opportunities. Whatever did, or did not happen, with Mike Tomlinson's excellent report: 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform, ICT means that students will learn in the many places outside school that he wisely predicted. Learning in the community, the workplace, remotely with peers abroad, in other learning institutions, or in the family will be the norm. ICT will make it straightforward to do this safely. Around the world, schools where "learning elsewhere" is normal are asking themselves "Why build capacity for every student to attend at the same time, when only 75 per cent should ever need to do so at once?"

Building a 750 capacity school for 1,000 students should mean there is a lot of extra resource available. We should be asking this question in the UK, too.

Another profound change is the large segments of time that 21st-century-technology-rich learning takes. When ICT is injected into the system children are more ambitious about their learning, delve deeper and take more time with their collaboration. Ringing a bell every 45 minutes is a huge distraction. Worldwide, we are seeing the 100-minute (minimum) period as the emerging secondary school timetable block. This impacts heavily on school design: as children move less, school design needs to put less effort into the corridors needed to move an entire school population every 45 minutes. Wider stairways can double as lecture theatres (above).

Schools which have limited the amount of time pupils spend moving between classes find they don't need corridors and thus have no unsupervised children rushing around. Discipline improves, stress levels fall, classrooms can be 20 per cent larger.

Children moving less is the final nail in the old computer lab's coffin. A combination of wireless connectivity and laptops with trolleys should have liberated the 21st-century learner from these 20th-century labs.

ICT has a key role, too, in celebrating school achievements. With flat screens less than pound;200 there is no excuse for not showcasing student work at every perimeter of the site. One solution is to ask one child per week to collect digital images of the best activities in school that week.

At night a projector is left running to focus these images on to an outside window. Suddenly the school is showcasing its excellence to every passer-by. New school designs hold this showcasing and celebration at the heart of their ICT and architectural designs. As one 15-year-old told me:

"The trouble with our school is, the people round here don't know how good we are." ICT helps show them.

ICT in these new schools is not just about transforming learning. To enhance management and administration schools have harnessed everything from "smart cards" and intelligent cameras through to text messaging. In Hong Kong, pupils' Octopus public transport cards register their arrival at school by triggering an SMS to their parents' mobile phones. Smartest UK implementations include limiting younger children's access to specialist areas like science labs unless older, trusted pupils are there already.

ICT is a key enabler to build new schools. But a concern for BSF is the way that contractual relationships with ICT providers are weighted and a net result has been caution just when we need courage. It would be a huge shame if ICT became BSF's brake, rather than the accelerator, after all these years of leading the world.

Professor Stephen Heppell is head of global learning research and policy consultancy at


Facts and figures

Even before you get to the excitement of your own new school this checklist is a must for every school today:

* Once your computer suite has gone and ICT is ubiquitous, get to work on the timetable and look not only to much longer blocks of time, but to the new teaching strategies that fill that time. You'll be amazed at the gains in performance, but it will open up a lot of new building design options.


* Start to collect great ideas right now. Don't wait until you only have last-minute moments with architects. Use ICT to explore possibilites.

Download trial versions of the wonderful architecural 3D tool "Sketch-Up". It even links to Google Earth so that you and your students can play with design ideas on your own site.

* The student voice is everything in this. Abandon your old 19th-century school council and harness ICT to provide a series of places for the learner's voice to be heard: online forums, an SMS noticeboard, a "hot seat" where children can discuss with experts everything from Sats to the school's funding model. Be transparent. Much of the software for this is free by the way.

* Harness ICT for radical and better ways to do things. Some schools now have irregular assemblies, relying on the pupils' "media team" to produce a weekly webcast of key news item, including video clips of sports and arts performances. Parents can view it to keep up to date, too.

* Doing a classroom "makeover" gets everyone thinking about learning and you don't need Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen to do it well: download the many Teachers' TV classroom makeover "All Change" programmes from the internet as a starting point:

Hellerup School

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