Mooted as a chance to work closely with Stephen, this started somewhat disappointingly in a medium-sized lecture room packed with about 80 delegates. Clearly there was going to be less ‘working with’ and more ‘listening to’ than anticipated. Nonetheless, what we were offered was a wide-ranging and coherent view on learning space design, primarily, and how student voice in that design was crucial to achieving better learning. Here are my records of his observations, sometimes through my own current workplace ‘filter’.
STEPHEN’S PRESENTATION TECHNIQUE! Throughout the day, and the keynote the following day, Stephen eschewed traditional presentation software such as PowerPoint or Prezi, and relied on a series of images – mostly pictures but sometimes slides of text – stored in folders which were arranged on his desktop in intersecting circles that suggested a unique organisational structure that allowed him to delve into topics by quickly locating and displaying those images. The message – never spoken – was clear: try to avoid linear presentational technology! Thinking – and communicating with others – is just not like that… or if it is, perhaps it could just as easily be delivered by a robot. Never was the importance of the human in creating a meaning-full learning experience more clearly yet unobtrusively made. The landing page of his website shows this approach albeit not as well as his desktop did! To Stephen’s points:
- His favourite building is the State Library of Queensland, apparently. Over the rest of the day it became clearer why, as he unpacked his criteria for stimulating learning spaces through illustration and analysis. He has photos of inspiring and effective learning spaces (and toilets!) here.
- ‘Teaching algorithmic thinking’ was an early line, almost thrown away in the course of talking about designing learning spaces. His point seemed to me to be that so much of existing curriculum is based on memorising what the teacher tells you, telling it back to them in a test, then forgetting. What gets lost is the need to teach how systems work – for example, how web-based technologies are able to compute your preferences from only a few interactions you have online. More simply than that, though, is the need to teach even very young children how ideas are joined up into logical sequence.
- We spent some time thinking about the ideal level of light for different activity. Some classrooms where the data projector is constantly on but the bulb is too dim require students to sit in almost constant gloom. 250-300 lux are required for effective learning – he suggested that we survey our learning spaces. Interesting…
- He proposed that students should do this kind of measurement, as well as measure decibels, consider colours, music, etc., as part of projects to consider and improve their own learning spaces. Too often we do design ‘to’ students in the belief that we are providing optimal conditions- they often think differently. Why not make a unit based on the project of analysing effectiveness of learning spaces and offering suggestions for improvement?
- The way we speak about 21st Century learning does not tally with what we still do in learning – short lessons, segmented curriculum, absorption of content with little focus on extending, refining or applying it. He pointed out that primary schools and universities are structured to allow for immersion and therefore deep learning – so why are secondary schools aberrant? He gave an example of a school in the UK – Dudley School – where immersion is making a difference.
- Stephen works in Spain a lot and he has seen the staffroom of effective schools become places where important readings are shared. In one school there was a weekly ‘menu’ of readings on the wall, with copies available on iPads (I think) or on paper left lying around. There were also shorter ‘readings’ recommended as a kind of ‘tapas for the mind’, down to the small document holders on lunch tables with the tapas ‘menu’ on display.
- Stephen commented on the prevalence of internet filtering and how it harms learning. His approach is to reduce filters to all but the nastiest material, but have monitoring software in place that is regularly checked for concerning events or trends. Summaries of browsing (without names) are displayed around the school and are accessible to parents. Pull aside students who may be doing something worrying.
- 3D printing was a major theme of his presentation. He claims that UK fashion schools/ colleges have more 3D printers than sewing machines these days!
- A supermarket chain, ASDA, has offered a service to customers who can have 3D models of themselves/ loved ones/ objects made within 24 hours.
- Stephen spent some time talking about how some of the southeast Asian countries that are so admired have moved in policy over the years. In particular he talked about Kenneth Chen, the current Secretary General of the Secretariat of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. He was appointed as the Undersecretary for education in 2008. In a country that many think of as a factory of learning, he was quoted as saying that their recent changes – which have brought such good results – shift the focus from content to the process of learning. A quick scan of his Twitter feed confirms this.
- An example of how technology can allow students to focus on learning is the Raspberry Pi – a small computer ‘core’ that can be programmed and for which a number of peripherals are being made.
- Quote about technology: Give teachers permission not to know everything but to learn from their students – who also don’t know everything but who may be more willing to experiment with it – while offering guidance and advise (about learning).
- The role of collaborative spaces was emphasised – students working together (and with others beyond the school walls) work better and learn more. We heard about different learning ‘modes’ picked up later in the conference by others – such as the ‘campfire’, the ‘cave’, the ‘watering hole’, and the ‘sandpit’.
- Several times throughout the day – and in a way that resonated with most of the other presenters over following days – Stephen spoke of the widespread policy in successful schools of having mobile phones out but off – unless their use was justified. time and again he explained how this worked not only as a useful BYOD, but also as a better way to minimise its inappropriate use. We all know, he implied, that students are carrying them around and sneaking them under the desk, so out on the desk and off unless their use can be justified (they have to be used on the desk) eliminates that ‘we know that you know but we’ll pretend’ situation. The value of social media in education was explored and an example – the Mark Oliphant College in Adelaide – serves to illustrate his points.
- Student voice featured strongly in his talk about designing spaces for learning, and his daughter, Juliette, a teacher in Hounslow (currently on maternity leave) illustrated this well. She explained the cyclical project she has deployed where students are given a (limited) budget to design their learning space. They have to research their ideas and present them with due analysis to the teacher before any change is made; she explained that they chose things she was not entirely happy with but that was part of the process – letting go. None of their choices impeded learning, though – she did not agree to any that might, but if students came back with valid reasons, she felt she had to. Students LOVED their space – so much so that they broke into the staff lounge over Easter to steal the keys to get into their space – to study for their GCSE exams! As she explained, they were happy to break into the staff lounge but they would NEVER break into their own space. Here is a link to a BETT presentation about this project.
- At this point we were entreated, in not quite as few words, to respect student voice as long as it was based on research and reason, not merely opinion.
- We were also offered the view that universities shouldn’t be trusted to run teacher education courses if they aren’t running a highly successful school themselves!
- At the end of the day, Stephen reminded us that we have been looking at the past even though we might have thought we were looking at the future. There’s something in that….
Stephen’s website offers interesting resources linked to these and other ideas. One that seemed useful for a staff meeting was a video taken at the end of a session in Hobart in 2010 where he asked participants to record what they were ‘taking away’ from the session.