Putting ancient Eton at the cutting edge of research

27th November 2015 at 00:00
Inside the school’s futuristic new centre, where staff will explore innovation in teaching

‘“Broadbent”, “Edwards”, “Somerville”, “Waller” – among the most intriguing sights at Eton College is the historic graffiti. Generations of boys have carved their names into the heavy wooden benches, desks and beams that line the school’s first ever classroom, built in 1443. Outside on the quad, as teachers and pupils walk around in their elegant but archaic gowns and tails, the weight of history and tradition hangs heavy in the air.

The contrast with the school’s newly opened Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research could not be greater. According to Eton, this bold £800,000 development is designed to put the school “at the forefront of global teaching and learning developments”.

An Edwardian building has been redesigned as a futuristic education research hub, with a series of bright white rooms crammed with funky white furniture. Oddly shaped desks can be interlocked into neat units, or spread randomly across the space. Inviting and curvaceous sofas offer alternative seating; technology hums all around.

In an interesting echo of the ancient and graffiti-etched wooden benches, all the wipe-clean desks and some of the walls can be written on with board pens.

The ‘nerve centre’

When TESS visits, a group of boys are eagerly leading their own lesson in a “fish tank” classroom – reminiscent of a police interview room – where lessons can be observed behind one-way glass. The elegantly attired teenagers are scrawling a web of ideas about the foreign and domestic policy of Napoleon III on the wall, working out the success of his exploits. A teacher sits quietly at the back keeping an eye on things, as a boy scrawls “But trashed by Prussians” in a speech bubble. The glass classroom will allow staff to showcase different teaching techniques to colleagues.

The school describes the project – instigated by Mr Little, who stepped down as headmaster in the summer – as a “nerve centre” for researching new developments in education, from the usefulness of new apps and technology to improving classroom practice.

There is also a commitment to wider research. Lower master (depute head) Bob Stephenson has instigated a Cambridge University study into what motivates young people to take “legal highs”. Dr Stephenson said the research – part-sponsored by Eton but using university students – would help schools to develop a more effective drugs education strategy.

Teachers and other staff will also work alongside universities on projects at the centre, and researchers will be able to base themselves at Eton to help put theory into practice. A graduate researcher will be appointed later this academic year.

A key project this term, in conjunction with Harvard University, examines how equipping Year 12 pupils with “growth mindsets” will affect their behaviour in groups. Jonnie Noakes, the centre’s director, says this is the first time this aspect of growth mindset theory has been researched.

It is also hoped that the centre will encourage collaboration between Eton teachers on new teaching techniques and technology. “I put out a call across the school to say we are hoping to look at something, such as differentiation or lesson observation, and then teachers who are interested come forward,” Mr Noakes says.

In the physics department, teachers are using “flipped learning” to teach the first year of A-level. The technique – which involves pupils reading and watching videos on a subject before they attend the lesson – has raised questions about the pace of discussion in the classroom, according to Mr Noakes.

Other in-school initiatives encouraged by the centre include making better use of data and the creation of a “teaching society” for staff to discuss pedagogical issues. The facility is also designed to help Eton work with other schools, locally and across the UK, to exchange ideas and best practice. State schools are booked in to use the fish-tank classroom.

Eton is cagey about the budget for the centre, but the school says it would expect to spend around £50,000 per major research project, with two major projects a year. Mr Noakes says the centre will eventually produce its own academic papers.

Percy Harrison, Eton’s director of school administration and IT, sees the centre as representing a move towards more “research- and evidence-based pedagogy”.

“For years, people have thought they know what works in teaching,” he says. “But can we actually put some sort of scientific basis behind that and bridge the gap between the purely academic university-centred research and the practicalities of the classroom?”


Fresh ideas on teaching

Projects at Eton’s new educational research centre include:

Working with Reading University on whether teaching teenagers about their developing brains can help them to navigate the difficult adolescent years.

Collaborating with Harvard University on explorations of whether teaching pupils about growth mindset theory has an effect on their attitudes when working in groups.

Investigating the use of “blended learning”. A-level physics students are watching videos and reading resources prior to lessons, freeing lesson time up for discussions.

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