Monday, 6 September 2004

Building learning

This was my Guardian column for Autumn 2004 and predated the current buzz of building schools for the future here in the UK. As usual, I'm still happy with what I put.

Recently I visited Grey Court School in Richmond upon Thames, again. Amongst the trees in the school's grounds and glowing like a great white alien spaceship, glistening in the late afternoon light, was one of the two extraordinary DfES "Classrooms of the Future" that I have been lucky enough to be a little involved with creating. The minute you see them you start to think that learning inside might be exciting, fresh and very different. It will be. A huge gang of people - from the architects, Future Systems, through to the pupils from the three schools in the project, have been involved pushing out the boundaries of what a classroom of tomorrow might look like. The classrooms are nearly finished and last minute touches are being made to the technology inside: mobile phones, smart walls, projectors, coloured lights, a really complex aural environment and much more. It all makes for a very agile, creative, fun, learning space. Not that the technology is intrusive; the guiding principle was simple: anything and everything should work as part of the whole environment, but learning should be central. Already the schools have been changed by the imminent arrival of these new classrooms. Teachers and pupils debated what learning could be like once some barriers were designed away. In terms of the change process the classrooms have been a brilliant investment.

I have also been involved in a huge research project for CABE and RIBA to determine just exactly what pedagogy in the future might look like, so that we could be sure that the schools we were designing today will continue to be useful tomorrow. The UK will be opening a new school every four days throughout next year, so the work was timely. One of the many conclusions from our research was a simple truth: if students and teachers and parents are involved in the design of schools then, even if the design turns out to be quite mad, the students' performance will improve. And where, like the buildings in Richmond, the design is rather good then their performance simply skyrockets. A tough question is: how can we build schools this fast, but still engage the learners and others in their design? Groups like SchoolWorks or Joinedupdesignforschools have plenty of good answers to thsi question.

So how do we recognise a good school design? It is easy for architects to measure the energy efficiency from double or treble glazing. But can they measure learning efficiency? How can we know how much potential learning has been lost? At the lab we've been helping the Design Council with a project to measure the impact of good design in classrooms, exploring lighting or furniture for example. Like everything else in learning, it turns out to be really complex, of course. Not impossible, just complex. And of course as a number of brave schools around the world are demonstrating, the organisation, pedagogy and curriculum are a fundamental part of that design. Which is why we need to trust teachers and learners as researchers far more than we do.

One last school project: i have been helping a little with the design of the Stepping Stones project school in Surrey. A converted chapel, again rich with unobtrusive technology, has been redesigned to provide a school, and a community, for a small number of children with hemiplegia. That same tiny school, with barely a dozen or so students, is also providing the central hub for similar children all around the UK. it poses real questions about what a school really is and shows quite clearly that one big impact of new technology is to allow tiny schools to be really effective. Today's school is much more "community" than "bricks and mortar" and Tomlinson has helped everyone to see that these communities must overlap and work together too. The school of the future is set to look very different from the schools of today, but if the excited and engaged faces of the lucky children in Richmond or Surrey are anything to go by, that's no bad thing.

© Stephen Heppell 2005