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Tomorrow in Tennessee

A school in Nashville is reaping the rewards of a primary teacher's extraordinary foresight. Sally Tweddle reports.

In 1986 a teacher working at Dodson School, Nashville, Tennessee submitted a proposal to Apple Macintosh which outlined how she would create a classroom of the future. Today, thanks to partnerships with Apple, the National Science Foundation, Metropolitan Nashville School System and Vanderbilt University, Faye Wilmore is still thinking about the future, but she is no longer working with hypotheses. Now she knows what the future can look like. Her mission is to see that schools in Nashville are provided with one computer for every three children and a high-capacity line to give them access to the Internet.

Anybody who is privileged enough to share in this view of the future would find it difficult not to be infected with her enthusiam and inspired by the promise that this school holds out.

The first Apple Classroom of Tomorrow project (ACOT) had one computer on each desk and one at home, recalls Faye Wilmore. The computers at home were brought into school when it proved impossible to keep upgrading them so that they were compatible with those at school. She talks about how the ACOT mission has changed. At the outset the aim was to explore how access to technology changed teaching and learning. The task now is one of spreading the word, through professional development.

For all involved, the findings about teaching and learning are clear. Ten years on there can be little doubt that this is a classroom that works, in which children are learning.

So what does this classroom of the future look like? Imagine a large, low-ceilinged, carpeted open-plan area with plenty of natural light. In the main working area tables are arranged in groups of three or four, busy work spaces with computers, books piled high, paper, pencils, drawing equipment. In a corridor, produced by partition walls, there are computers side by side available as a communal resource. All are Apple Macs. At the end of the corridor there is a television monitor large enough for video presentations.

It is only the quantity of computer equipment that marks this classroom out from any other modern purpose-built primary classroom. Books have not disappeared, there are colourful displays, all the other evidence of a rich classroom environment is here. For one of the consequences of having sufficient technology is that it becomes as invisible as other technologies pupils use in their learning. Computers being unemployed at any one time is no more reprehensible than not using books or art materials all day long.

And the children? Faye says that one of the things visitors comment upon most frequently is how quiet the children are. They are right, but the quiet is not that of children facing computer screens following individual programmes of instruction. It is the quiet of purposeful activity and movement, of engagement with the task in hand, of a community of learners.

On this occasion, the children in Connie Crowell's class were presenting their research on different geographical topics: the weather, minerals and stones. These took place in different areas of the classroom and all were primarily spoken presentations. But each group employed different media to support their work: the first used a video clip; the second books, posters that they had made, handwritten notes and visual aids; the third used their own HyperCard stack which incorporated drawn images, scanned photographs, writing and recorded sound. There was no sense that any of these presentations carried more status than another; the children demonstrated a high level of literacy in making choices about the most appropriate ways to create and communicate their message.

Collaborative approaches in the classroom raise difficulties for monitoring and assessment. Here in Britain the work of the National Oracy Project demonstrated the role of talk in both formative and summative assessment. In the Dodson classroom, talk was perhaps the most important, though by no means the only, mechanism for assessing the learning of individuals. Each individual had responsibility for presenting one aspect of the group's topic and he or she responded to the questions which other children raised in order to seek clarification.

Members of the group supported each other but there was a clear sense of the importance of the individual's particular contribution. This was particularly evident in the generous and supportive treatment of group members who found the task difficult. Questions from the class after presentations were focused and provided the teacher with evidence about the understanding that lay behind them. As the teacher widened the post-presentation questioning, children were invited to make connections with their own experience or existing knowledge, again providing the teacher with a way of judging who was learning what.

Other forms of assessment had not disappeared. One girl told me that they were taking notes during the presentations because they would have a test on Friday. Videos, posters, handwritten notes and HyperCard stacks could all be assessed in terms of the individual contributions and as collaborative texts. And the school's results in standardised tests have improved.

At a recent conference, the president of a car manufacturing company announced that it was ACOT pupils he wished to employ, for he saw in them problem-solvers, team-workers and potential life-long learners. The message that this is what industry wants of its employees is not new and the National Council for Educational Technology has established that many educationists agree (The Future Curriculum with IT, NCET). What is still far from clear, however, is how these aims should be realised.

What the ACOTs appear to demonstrate is that technology can be a powerful force in improving what happens in classrooms. But equally important as computers is reflective teachers. They need time to look at and learn from the children with whom they are working, so that they can build upon what is happening in the classroom.

Many of the elements in operation in Dodson can be seen here in Britain. And as Apple extends the ACOT initiative into Europe, we will have a chance to take a closer look. The significance of Apple's approach is that it has allowed the kind of development and study that is rare in education. This has given us a privileged insight into what the future could be like. The challenge now is to find ways for others to follow Dodson's example in order to reach out into the 21st century as they have done.

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