June 19, 2007

(Re)Building a school without touching a brick: my take

This morning I'm speaking to the Depute Heads in East Lothian at their conference, the theme of which is "Rebuilding Our Schools Without Touching A Brick", named by Don, the Head of Education, after the post I wrote on Hans Leganger's talk on his team's amazing turnaround of the Stovner School in Norway.

I'm going to be a bit cheeky, though, and show some of the stuff that we might be doing in the next few years if we did touch a brick. Or two. The video below gives a taste of some of my favourite slices of the TED Talks, where technologies designed for shops, office, home use or just because they're cool have an immediate application in the learning environment:

  • The multitouch screen of Jef Han, which I can see become a replacement for the traditional desk, or at least a vital edition to presentation areas in schools. The adjustable keyboard would make life easier, perhaps, in specialist schools and for younger learners (and large fingered teachers).
  • The latest magazine technology where pages come alive with video and audio, and we wonder why we ever thought of paper as two dimensional.
  • The polarised glass changing rooms in Prada, which made me think what might happen if that video mirror become a video wall - the walls of a classroom change for every subject we are talking about.
  • The feedback wall on the London Science Museum based around the London UNderground - what an amazing way to display the news from the pupil council, or for individuals to text 'live' about what they're feeling about their school.
  • The Bumpit computer interface, where we ask why things have to stay the way we think they should. Yes, I do want to hang my .doc and .txt from the 'wall' of my computer. Yes, why not have files which are more important actually looking bigger and feeling heavier?
  • The entertaining signs planted by guerilla teams in the New York underground. When no-one reads signs that start 'don't' anyway (and schools are full of them) why not have some fun and make the ethos of a school happy rather than just 'correct'?
  • Not included, but people should check out the possibilities for some cool presentations on place and geography through Photosynth.

Picture_1_4 I've also got some links to the latest BBC World Service advertising campaign, where individuals can text to the billboard and see their vote on an issue count immediately. Imagine the same thing in a school hall, where kids can take regular votes on issues or interact with a moral question by simple text.

All of these examples, (and some more ideas in this Futurelab paper on opening education spaces) which would require some touching of bricks or screens, are not intended to be carried out, of course. Their purpose is to set the level of imagination high, especially since some of them are along the lines of inventions the primary school kids in my colleague's Kathy McGrane's classroom were coming up with last week for their critical skills based enterprise projects.

The main thrust of the talk, however, is to see how we could make all our schools more learner-centred in their design and in the interactions that take place there. The Stovner post from a month or so ago will give some of the radical approaches to timetable and curriculum design that were undertaken there (arguably less radical, though, than some of the ideas from TED), including the idea of chunking subjects in blocks of several hours with no breaks to allow students to succeed in their tasks, and using computers for longer periods of time in one go for the same reason.

The flexibility afforded by these non-physical attributes is, however, being replicated in the flexibility I witnessed last week in our primary schools, with their open plan spaces, non-existent doors and corridors, their collegiate approach to learning (P7s work with P1s on a video project, P4-6 are working in the same room).

Maybe it is time we start to think about whether learning with people the same age and rough ability as us is really the best way to learn. Maybe it is time we start to think about how we use our communal spaces. Maybe it's time we think about the use of time in the day, not just the school day. Maybe we look at the progression through sixth year in secondary as a way to experiment with some of our ideas in a school sector which, by comparison with the primary sector, has struggled to innovate beyond the rigid period-by-period timetable for the last 400 years. Maybe Stephen Heppell's suggestion of East Lothian Campus is not so wild (there's only 15,000 students, the same as a small university), and his suggestion of increasing adult presence in classrooms in return for a degree would help turn some of this into reality.

The three main points I'd like to finish with, to set off some discussion are:

  1. What role is there for copying Stovner's outsourced education, where students go to another school to learn for a year or part of a year (East Lothian as a campus, international links, the role for blended learning to help students go to several schools at once)?
  2. What kind of learning spaces can we easily envisage in our schools? What's the line to be drawn between Open Source spaces (ones designed and adapted on a constant basis by the learner) and Open Plan spaces?
  3. Stovner's main success point was making that limited time with the students exciting, more exciting than it had been before. How can we make learning and teaching more exciting, for both the learners and the teachers?

Update: I hope that their challenge outcomes will be shared somewhere. I had to run before they were completed.


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Sounds good – I love the idea of the signs (I missed this one during the TED Talks?). Good luck with the presentation. OB

Juicy stuff to get my brain cells firing - looking forward to hanging with you next week!


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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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