There was a time when the classroom table had a very simple function: it was a work surface. But a new generation of smart tables is changing our relationship with this seemingly basic piece of furniture, and with each other.
"Children who tend not to work in a team have developed team-building skills," says Mari Wallace. "Pupils who are normally reluctant to talk are communicating. It is also a powerful tool for problem solving."
Smart tables use an array of technologies, including touch-sensitive screens, to allow pupils to create and manipulate text and graphics and access website and video clips. Digital sensors mean they can be used by up to half a dozen pupils at a time.
As a result, they encourage pupils to exercise the "3Cs": collaboration, communication and critical thinking, says Mrs Wallace, headteacher of Isobel Mair School in East Renfrewshire.
Lynn O'Brien, ICT co-ordinator at Isobel Mair, a special school for children with a wide range of learning and communication difficulties, says the children took to the table instinctively.
"When the smart table arrived, we didn't have to show the pupils how to use it," she says. "Within seconds, they realised that more than one person could use it at the same time, and they were soon opening applications."
While an interactive whiteboard (IWB) is operated by a single user, with either a stylus or finger, the smart tables encourage multiple users. "It's about working together and coming up with a solution together," says Sarah Clarke, deputy head at the 77-pupil school.
In one activity, for example, children touched icons on the screen to learn about different mythological and legendary figures. Multiple choice options also encourage discussion, while pupils' work can be displayed on the screen. "Children loved seeing their own work, and we also showed videos we'd shot of the children," adds Mrs Clarke.
Smart tables do not come cheap, however. The VerTable-Interactive by Isis Concepts, for example, costs around #163;1,400. It can be used both horizontally and vertically and can be converted into an IWB, when used in conjunction with a projector and a receiver, which cost another #163;1,200 or so. The Smart Technologies smart table, costing #163;4,395, has a 27-inch screen and can be connected to a wireless network, allowing teachers to display websites and children's work. Pre-loaded applications include a multiple-choice function; hot spots, where pupils match words and images by moving them to the correct spot; painting tools and a media player, while a toolkit can create or customise activities.
Amy Walton, early-years manager at Wallsend St Peter's C of E Primary in Tyne and Wear, says the smart table complements the IWB.
"I introduce a topic using the whiteboard and then have small groups working independently on a task around the smart table," she says. She has been using the table to teach phonics and numbers and to record voices, with the help of hot spots, graphics and video clips.
In one activity, the children were given a collection of words and asked to drag all those beginning with the same letter to the middle of the table. "What's great is that the smart table provides feedback so the children don't have to wait for an adult to tell them that they have done something right," she says.
While she says the table is a good motivating tool, she also has suggestions for how it can be improved. Creating your own resources requires technical expertise, while accidentally pulling out the power lead - not unknown with an early-years class - can result in work being lost. Video clips would also benefit from being interactive, she says. Having said that, she has no doubts about the table's value. "It has been very beneficial for my children," she says.
Microsoft has its own version, the Surface, a table with a 30-inch display that can react to hand gestures, while putting objects on the screen can trigger different responses, such as opening up an application. This does not come cheap either: the Surface costs around #163;8,500, but Shireland Collegiate Academy, in Smethwick in the West Midlands, has invested in two. "It's a superb tool for facilitating collaboration," says Kirsty Tonks, director of e-learning.
"A smart table offers a more focused, deeper level of activity than a whiteboard, although there is room for both resources in the classroom." In one Year 7 activity, pupils used an interactive map to plot the Crusaders' journey across Europe.
At the moment, the range of educational applications is small and the Surface is not compatible with some software, such as Microsoft's Photosynth, which creates 3D images from digital photographs. It would also be useful to be able to link it to the IWB to show a group's work to the rest of the class, Mrs Tonks says.
Even so, the tables have already made a big impact in the classroom. "They have created a real buzz with the pupils," she says.
- Check what applications are available.
- How easy is it to customise or create your own smart-table activities?
- Can you easily access the internet via your school network?
- Classroom organisation for a smart table includes arranging pupils into groups and creating a rota system.
- A smart table can be a stimulus for an activity or an activity itself.