Thursday, 20 July 2006

5 ideas that work

this was my Guardian Column for Summer 2006

One of the joys of having working globally is that I constantly stumble across good ideas, that really work. These are rarely found in universities or central policy units but almost always in schools and many readers will know my passion to see schools much more closely identified as the engine at the heart of educational research and change. So, here are five of the simple but effective things that have impressed me already this year. Try any of them, they work:

(1) Big desktop computers might be robust and very cheap these days, but they pose an interesting dilemma. Teachers can either see the faces of their students, or see what is on the students' screens, but not both at the same time. One very simple solution in the old style computer suite needs a quick trip to Ikea and the purchase of some very cheap non-glass mirrors. Hang them all around the room and, hey presto, screens AND faces can all be seen. Perfect.

(2) While we are in the old computer suite, I surveyed them once and found, amazingly, that some 75% of the material on the walls was to tell children what they must NOT do. Hardly inspiring decor of a learning revolution. Like many others, you might care to review yours too.

(3) As secondary schools move to much longer timetable blocks - 100 minutes is increasingly the minimum - they find that a daily assembly gets in the way, often starting the day badly. Instead, schools are harnessing their student media teams to produce a weekly on-line broadcast. If you have information to put over, a netball victory to celebrate, or an event to advertise, make an appointment and become part of the weekly broadcast. An encouraging number of parents watch on-line too. You know the job will be done well; viewing compulsion is never needed. Everyone is excited to see the next "episode" and a huge amount of time is saved. You get to SEE the netball victory too.

(4) At the last local election barely one in three voted. There is something about representative democracy that doesn't work in the 21st century. But viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, or Big Brother txt votes their in millions. With Pupil Voice a topic in most staffrooms txting offers a way to move on from frumpy Schools' Councils. Why have representative pupils when they can all have their own voice? Try this: buy a £5 pay-as-you-go SIM card. Put it into an old Bluetooth phone. Give the new number to students and they can txt their thoughts to it 24/7. Free software allows you store or display their feedback onto a server (I use the free Cocoa UltraSMS). Because the phone only receives txts it won't cost the school a penny. The last evening student event I was involved in ran the TXT service for feedback and averaged better than one txt every half minute. Now that IS pupil voice!

(5) Asking students for views on the design of their schools, one of them told me "the trouble is, people round here don't know how good we are". That's a design problem of course, but one that is easily solved with another practical idea. Arm one child per week with a digital camera. Their task is to capture the ten "coolest" things happening in school that week. They get two weeks notice of this task, so have to plan and ask around a bit first. Then, at night (this is best in the winter, but nights are drawing in now aren't they?) swivel a ceiling projector to focus on a big outside window and beam a nightly slideshow of these cool images. It's a wonderful PR exercise, but also helps students to properly understand all that is happening in school.

None of the schools running these excellent ideas got written up in journals or books. Research today is about detective work; looking for the best ideas in unexpected places. I've found schools around the world to be just jumping with good ideas. If you have more, and I know you have, mail me.

© Stephen Heppell 2006