Does the DfES understand the results from its own experiments with ICT and school design? Patrick Kelly went local to get a glimpse of the classrooms of the future
Something odd is happening to the traditional school classroom. It's getting bigger for one thing - and developing curves where there used to be straight lines. This metamorphosis is only happening in a few places but the beginnings are already there even before the pound;40 billion Building Schools for the Future project produces fruit.
Take Djanogly City academy in Nottingham (above) where ICT is "wired in" to the fabric of the building. Every pupil has access to a tablet PC and each classroom has a wireless projector. Pupils can read their lessons on, and enter their work directly on to, the tablets, or write directly on to the screen. Oral work can also be relayed to the rest of the class via a built-in audio system.
Accommodating the projector and a rack cabinet for the Toshiba Portege M200 Tablet PCs has changed the layout of the classroom. So, too, has moving the teacher from the traditional position at the front of the class. Because the teachers' tablet PCs are connected to the wireless projector, they can deliver lesson content from anywhere in the room, even sitting with a particular pupil who may need extra help or supervision.
Indeed, according to Sanjesh Sharma, assistant principal in charge of ICT and core services at Djanogly, staff are no longer restricted to the same room. Teachers can project lesson information into another classroom, this is particularly useful if a member of staff is absent. "Computers are part of daily life. At Djanogly, we wanted to integrate technology into every lesson, and make using a computer as everyday as pen and paper. That's why we call it a learning space, not a classroom."
Many classroom changes are emerging from technology agency Becta's pound;20 million ICT Test Bed project, backed by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). The project, designed to demonstrate the high impact of investment in ICT, is more concerned with experiments in pedagogy than environment, but the programme is revealing the need to adapt the physical surroundings to the demands of ICT-based learning, says programme director Simon Shaw.
"I think it would be fair to say that up to now we have been attempting to shoehorn the technology into traditional spaces. Now we are realising that ICT is about transforming every aspect of learning and part of that is rethinking our approach to school design."
Becta is hopeful that the self-review process will encourage schools to look hard at the shape and design of their buildings.
In Barking and Dagenham, one of three local education authorities involved in the Test Bed project, classrooms are being designed to much larger specifications to incorporate some of the lessons already being learned as technology is adopted.
"The learning space needs to be adequate for a large display area," says Guy Underwood, ICT adviser for the outer London borough. Many of the schools involved in the project are using visualisers - a 21st-century version of the overhead projector, which allows three-dimensional objects to be projected on to a large display area.
If children are having problems with a project, then they can bring it to the visualiser and, collectively, the teacher and classmates can look at the display and help them solve it, explains Guy. "It increases the possibilities for collaborative learning. So we are designing classrooms which are bigger than DfES guidelines because you need to have space for a seven or eight-foot screen. We are designing horseshoe shapes - with good sightlines and, crucially, good acoustics."
Some specialist schools are also in the forefront of experiments with school design. At New Line Learning - a federation of three secondary schools in Maidstone, Kent - teachers, pupils and architects are currently designing a learning environment with space for more than 100 children where each will have their own desk, computer and lockable space. The project is an attempt to do away with what headteacher Chris Gerry calls the "lonely artisan" model of teaching. Team work will be at a premium in the new environment but it will also create the right atmosphere for a more personalised learning experience.
"We talk about treating people as individuals and then the first thing we do is put them in groups," says Chris. At New Line, technology is being harnessed to create an individual "profile" of every pupil so that teaching and learning can be adapted to those profiles. By adjusting its "offer" in this way, the schools can improve the experience of the pupil rather like the way supermarkets use data on customers to adapt their products and sales techniques. Indeed, New Line is consciously modelling its "data-mining" techniques on those of Tesco. From Year 7, pupils feed back via a tablet PC their own assessment of what they are learning and what their requirements are.
Schools should be looking at what is going to go on in the classroom and design around that. "At the moment we tend to take the conventional classroom and see how we can fit the new technology around it. That is no longer going to work," says Guy Underwood at Barking and Dagenham.
"Functionality should be the first consideration."
New technology will require a different size of classroom. Teachers will no longer be at the front of the class with pupils arrayed in lines or grouped around tables. "New classrooms will have no 'front' or 'back'. They will be based on the university seminar room or the boardroom", says Guy Underwood.
U-shaped arrangements allow everyone to take part, the teacher to sit with the class and to display work on a large screen.
Good audio equipment and acoustics are essential to the new style of teaching, according to the experts. The learning of the future will allow everyone to hear a class discussion and play back a recording of that discussion on their PC or MP3 player as a revision exercise or, if a pupil is absent, it can be emailed to their home. Larger classrooms could also have quiet areas.
Use the self-review
"Self-review assessments will give schools an ideal opportunity to examine their buildings' fitness for the 21st century", says Simon Shaw of Becta.
"They should take a long view of what will be the most flexible spaces for learning and adapt spaces accordingly."
* www.evaluationicttestbed.org.uk gives details of the Test Bed project and evaluates what has been learnt so far.
* www.bardaglea.org.uktestbedindex.cfm gives practical examples from Barking and Dagenham schools of ICT projects.
* Becta has also produced a new document, entitled Emerging technologies for learning, aimed at exploring the future uses of technology across the sector in years to come.