History with South Africa, maths with Japan. Video-conferencing is helping students on the Shetland Islands to look outwards. Karen Shead reports
History lessons for Advanced Higher students at Anderson High in Shetland are a little different. When they enter the classroom, they are transported to the University of Cape Town amid students their own age from South Africa.
In German lessons, the destination is Diepholz; for maths it is Nara in Japan.
The interactive lessons, carried out by video link, are the latest initiative in Anderson High's pioneering partnerships with schools around the world.
"It's a new way of learning and enables the students to see that the world is interconnected," says depute headteacher Stewart Hay. "It also teaches them that a classroom is not fixed within four walls. Your teacher can be in Cape Town."
Anderson High has a history of links with other countries around the world.
In the late 1980s it established links with a school in the Czech Republic, setting up short- and long-term exchange visits. Over the following few years, similar links were formed with schools in Sweden, Germany, South Africa and Japan, and in 1996 representatives from the schools met and established their formal partnership, called The Global Classroom.
One strand of the partnership is an annual conference, which sees 10 senior students from each school meeting at the end of the school year to discuss findings on a particular topic. A more recent strand is the video-conferencing initiative.
"The idea grew with the partnership of the schools to share learning and teaching," says Mr Hay. "In 2002, when the Scottish Executive was encouraging teachers and schools to think of education for the 21st century with the Future Learning and Teaching initiative, we submitted the idea of a virtual classroom for South African history, maths and German. Last year we piloted the three programmes."
Maths lessons, which are based on the SQA Higher and Advanced Higher maths syllabuses, are shared with Nara Women's University High school; history, which is based on the SQA Advanced Higher study of South Africa, is shared with South Peninsula and Langa High school in South Africa's Western Province; and German language lessons are shared with Graf Friedrich Schule in Diepholz, Germany.
"When you live on an island you have to look outwards and that's what drove us forward," says Mr Hay. "Our partners in South Africa, who come from very under-privileged schools, have been able to use the University of Cape Town's equipment."
The first conference of the new term, with partners in South Africa, was held last week. A question for the pupils to discuss - "To what extent did the 1910 Constitution lay the foundation for segregation in South Africa?"
- was previously posted on the Global Classroom website and during the lesson the students debated their ideas and opinions based on their research.
"It's different from just discussing a topic in a classroom in Shetland," says Mr Hay. "They get a South African perspective.
"When we did the first conference last year, one of the girls said: 'It's all very well to talk about the past but we are living the consequences.'
You don't normally get that kind of direct learning."
The maths conferences are held before the start of school because of the time difference. The students use a whiteboard to solve the problems, which is interesting because, in Japan, maths teaching has more of a geometric basis.
"In the German class, the students interact with students from Germany," says Mr Hay. "For the first class, our students gave a virtual tour of Shetland with video footage. It was a welcome pack in German, as if they were coming off the ferry and being shown around Shetland."
The pilot scheme has had benefits for both pupils and teachers. Teachers have had the rare opportunity of being able to see their lessons again, as parts remain on the Global Classroom website, and the students learn directly about other countries and cultures.
"At times the pupils felt as if they were guinea pigs," says Mr Hay, "but they all found it challenging and exciting. They now have classmates over 6,000 miles away."
The project has not made a big difference to academic results, but the pupils were asked to work in a new way and they rose to that challenge, he says. "I wonder about the purpose of being a teacher and I think one of the most important things is to make sense of the world we live in. This helps."
Learning Face 2 Face by Stewart Hay, Thursday, 12.45pm. He will be joined by students who participated in the programme last year, including from the Czech Republic. At 3.30pm at the Education Village, there will be a link-up with South Africa.