Monday, April 02, 2007

The shape of schools to come?

Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2007, 14:39 GMT
The shape of schools to come?
By Hannah Goff
BBC News education reporter

Ask 10 different experts what schools of the future will look like and you will get 10 different answers.

But one thing upon which they all agree is that the way that pupils are taught and the technology that is used must have a central role in the design.

Hellerup School, Copenhagen
Hellerup School has no fences

So planners have to understand what the education of the future will be like to prevent them designing something that will soon become outdated.

Education consultant Les Watson says there is a danger that those planning schools for the future create something that "constricts the learning of the future".

Instead of planning a new school with rows of 1940s desks in them, those involved in the process must "think outside the box".

Mr Watson says: "Currently we run education like a railway - everybody has to be at a particular place at a particular time to catch the learning train.

"With new technology it does not have to be like that."

Lessons can be beamed into classrooms by absent teachers podcasting on the interactive whiteboard.

No corridors

Pupils can use their laptops for independent study in wi-fi zones in the open air - weather permitting of course.

What was once a playground could become a highly technological learning area as well as a place to play and chill out with friends.

Learning consultant Professor Stephen Heppell sees the constant movement from class to class, that characterises today's schools, as a huge waste of time that is preventable.

He says: "When kids are working with new technology they put their head down and really go for it.

"And yet in so many schools we come to the end of the lesson - we ring a bell, we stop them doing what they are doing and then we take them into another box."

Passing a large volume of children through a narrow opening like a corridor or stairwell is bound to create friction and problems, he says.

All the major incidents of children being injured or stabbed in schools have occurred in corridors, he claims.

Western Heights College, Victoria
Corridors can make people feel penned in

But as technological advances allow children's learning to become more varied and complex, he argues, they will become more focused and will enjoy longer lessons.

And so they will not need to change classrooms as much.

"School design stops being about moving large volumes of children efficiently.

"Many corridors can disappear; learning space grows significantly and discipline improves too," says Prof Heppell.

Western Heights College in Victoria, Australia, saw a dramatic improvement in pupil behaviour after they removed walls between classrooms.

This has not only allowed more freedom of movement for pupils, but for teachers too who are now able to collaborate in lessons more easily when they want to.

Copenhagen's Hellerup School has developed a much more open plan approach than the typical Victorian or Edwardian secondary schools that pepper this country.

Hellerup School, Copenhagen
The wide staircase doubles up as an assembly hall and theatre

A wide, wooden staircase doubles as a central assembly hall and a lecture theatre where children use the stairs as seats.

The flexibility with which such a space can be used is key to its success, Mr Watson argues.

"When I think about what is the future of learning, what will education be like in 50 years' time - although I've been in education for more than 30 years - I have to admit that I don't know," he says.

This means schools of the future have to be large-scale open spaces with multiple uses and furniture that can be moved, re-shaped and tucked away, for when it's not needed, he argues.

His redesign of the library at Glasgow Caledonian University features inflatable igloo-like offices which can be blown up when a little bit of privacy is required.

Likewise movable canopies can be wheeled over tables temporarily for all-important acoustic protection from the noise that comes with open-plan space.

Director of the British Council for School Environments Ty Goddard agrees the key to planning schools for future generations is much more complex than just smashing down the walls.

His organisation has produced an Ideas Book to give a helping hand to teachers and officials involved in the process.

"To knock down walls is very refreshing - but it can be a nightmare acoustically too."

Today's pupils have IT-rich lives

Schools like Hellerup work, he says, because they and the pupils were at the heart of the design process.

He says: "Allowing them to have an input means the spaces are relevant and there is a sense of co-creation."

Interestingly there is no fencing around the school site - is the sense of community ownership that keeps it safe.

Mr Goddard says: "I am not saying let's create a 1,000 Hellerups, the design has to be relevant to where we are at."

"But if you give respect you get respect."

Another key feature of defining the shape of tomorrow's schools, he says, has to be the technology of tomorrow.

'Never finished'

"The internet generation already have ICT-rich lives, they have a sophisticated understanding of technology, and sophisticated gaming devices, but it is a sophisticated job harnessing technology for learning."

For Professor Heppell, the answer is not to compete with that technology but to allow it into the school and use it in a productive way.

"It isn't about the ICT system that we have built - it's about reaching out to the systems that are already out there," he says.

As the technology changes, so will the school.

As the headmaster of Hellerup School, Knud Nordentoft, puts it: "The school building is never finished; experience it and rebuild it over time."

Perhaps that is the key lesson for the future.

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