It's time to make room for learning
The problem with wanting to be modern and forward thinking is that you can sometimes lose sight of the real objectives - and how to achieve them. Take the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) Project, the government's major school building project. The BSF website talks about creating world-class, 21st century school environments that inspire teaching and learning.
Architects and designers have been encouraged to "think outside of the box"
and to abandon any thoughts about 19th century education. Instead, we should now think about the new technologies we can use in schools and the new ways of teaching. Sounds exciting, so why am I exasperated and frustrated by the way school design is developing and in particular, for ICT teaching and learning?
It seems to me we have a great opportunity to re-design and re-furbish schools so that they become even better environments for teaching and learning. But any design strategy should be determined by function and pedagogy rather than trying to dictate the pedagogy through designs. We want 21st century schools that support and enhance effective practice. Of course there will be some risk, but we should take care that we don't take undue risks with children's learning with design ideas that are untried and untested within the school environment So how can it achieve this? Well, for a start it should look again at the role of the teacher. The model of the teacher as someone with skills, wisdom, experience and knowledge has been with us since the ancient Greeks.
The value of a teacher interacting with groups of students in a classroom promoting discussion and debate cannot be exaggerated. You cannot replicate that with technology, except maybe with video-conferencing under special conditions. So why aren't we building classrooms with proper acoustics to enhance this? Why can't we have classrooms where pupils can spend time in silence for thinking? Why don't we have designs that support speaking and listening?
Instead, what we're seeing are new schools with open-plan spaces and weird and wonderful approaches to design, which do nothing to support the basic opportunity for teachers and pupils to look and listen. The design of teaching spaces needs to be flexible to accommodate different kinds of teaching - large group work, small groups and so on. The small size of a typical classroom does not facilitate the full range of teaching and learning episodes in lessons, which is why the classrooms in our new schools in Barking and Dagenham are around 20 square metres larger than the standard size recommended in the Department for Education and Skills'
We spent a lot of time investigating classroom design and visited schools in places such as Switzerland, Germany and The Netherlands. In these countries we observed the efficiency of the "horseshoe" arrangement of tables and have tried to replicate this in our schools.
The great thing about the horseshoe is that you can have eye-to-eye contact with everyone - you're not looking at the back of someone's head. Another benefit is that the computers can be placed around the sides of the room, allowing the teacher to keep an eye on every screen rather than the back of a monitor. Having a big screen display which can be seen by everyone is important. So is enabling students to be able to interact with what's on the screen from their seat rather than having to trample up to the front.
Computers can take up a lot of central space and the new classroom designs that include fancy features, like lagoons, make it harder for teachers, because you have the class facing in all directions. We've got a pound;45 million school PFI scheme in Barking and Dagenham and we're building schools with designs that enhance, support and enable pedagogy - that comes first. It's a challenge for architects to develop something that does this within a reasonable cost framework, but it can be done.
I think a big part of the problem with school design has been the assumption that somehow the traditional role of the teacher will change radically because of technology. There seems to be the attitude of "Let's leave it to the computer and let the teacher become a facilitator." But good teaching with a computer is different from handing over responsibility to a computer.
In my work as an inspector, I've seen some appallingly-designed ICT rooms and have been at a loss to give sound advice to teachers operating in those environments. It's as if someone had thought "How can we make life more difficult for teaching?" But it needn't be that way. It is OK to think outside the box - provided you don't come out with the wrong solution.
Let's design schools with spaces that reflect effective practice and that let teachers and students shine in the classroom. School design should not be about having to change your teaching practices because of some architect's dream.
Sheyne Lucock is general inspector for IT at barking and Dagenham Local Education Authority. He was talking to George Cole.