What's new in classroom configurations

From: Phil Chappell (philchappell@mac.com)
Date: Sun Feb 27 2005 - 04:03:56 PST


This is a rather interesting idea - changing the spatial
characteristics of the classroom and and removing some of the
constraints on movement. Has anyone here any experience of this sort?

Phil

   Sunday February 27, 2005
The Observer

In this school, the classroom revolution is now a reality - all 360
degrees of it

Teachers circle the room in an experiment that could change the shape
of education. And the pupils love it. Vanessa Thorpe and Anushka
Asthana report.

   Inside a dingy-looking prefab hut near the Toxteth area of Liverpool,
an experiment is determining the shape of things to come; or at least
the shape of the world as British schoolchildren will know it.

  A new teaching system, revolutionary in more than one sense, has been
developed and tested in secret. Known as the 360 degree flexible
classroom, it challenges the techniques used by teachers down the ages.

  Although the year eight boys of St Margaret's High School in Aigburth
look conventional enough as they file into class in their ties and
blazers, they are effectively entering a Tardis full of futuristic
gadgetry.

  When their afternoon maths lesson begins, far from having to keep
themselves awake by flicking elastic bands at each other, they are
careering around the room on wheels.

  Instead of simply standing at the front, their teacher, Tim Wadsworth,
circles them on a curved 'racetrack', occasionally taking up a position
on a podium in the centre of the room. No longer can reluctant students
skulk at the back of the class or plant themselves on the periphery of
the teacher's field of vision.

  To the outsider the scene looks chaotic, but for the designers of this
prototype and the children who have studied in it for seven weeks now,
the classroom is a hit.

  Twelve-year-old pupil Daniel Pinder, who has maths and German lessons
in the new round room, explained the benefits of the pilot project. 'We
do much more group work now - it is better because of the shape of the
room. If the teachers ask us to get into groups of four we just take
the brakes off our chairs and move,' he said. His classmates sit at
their own Q-Pods, special table and chair units on wheels.

During a typical lesson last week the boys sat in sets of four, hunched
over large white boards, discussing work and gripping thick marker
pens. As Wadsworth circled his pupils, one boy chucked a board cleaner
at a friend, while another drew round the shape of his hand, but most
were clearly engrossed in their tasks. It may have been a maths class
but it could easily have been an art class, to judge by the level of
physical activity.

  The white writing boards fit back on to the walls of the classroom so
the class's work can be discussed. To see this, the boys swivel round
on their seats, before swivelling back into a semi-circle around the
teacher to examine a diagram.

  The wall boards can also become screens for computer projections,
while the temperature and light in the room are electronically
controlled. Mirrors mounted at three points serve as eyes in the back
of the teacher's head.

  Thirteen-year-old Anthony Robson is impressed. 'In a normal classroom
they cram everything on one board and you can't see it. The only bad
thing about this classroom is its location - if the teacher is late we
have to stand in the rain,' he said.

  The flexible classroom is one of 10 Design Council learning campaign
projects set up in schools around Britain. Constructed last year, it
has been in regular teaching use all this term. Now the Design Council
hopes the project will influence the way every school is built, ahead
of a huge national education investment programme.

  The government is to spend 5.2 billion on refurbishing and building
schools in the first major investment for three decades. On top of this
sum, each year over 1bn is spent on furniture, decoration and
maintenance. The Design Council team believe this money should be spent
with imagination, rather than just copying the old fashioned classroom
blueprint.

  'When schools are given money they think, "Great, we can have a new
computer lab," but they do not really think about the environment,'
said Toby Greany of the Design Council. 'This classroom works so well
because the racetrack around the room means there is no back of the
class. There have been some teething problems but this is only a
protoptype.'

  Consigning the teacher to a desk at the front is thought to stop him
or her thinking freely, while the cheaper chairs commonly used in
schools can cause back pain over the 15,000 hours spent sitting down in
an average school life. The round classroom also eradicates the
so-called 'attention zone', a triangle immediately in front of the
teacher which inevitably receives 90 per cent of his or her attention.

  David Dennison, headmaster of St Margaret's, said he had been unhappy
with traditional classroom design for some time. 'I felt it didn't suit
modern teaching,' he said. 'That doesn't mean we don't use modern
skills here, but it involves moving a lot of furniture. So we were
completely sold on the idea of classroom that would operate in many
ways at one time - for role play and for projecting on to a number of
surfaces.'

  Thirteen-year-old pupil Phillip Harper agreed. 'It is much better than
other classrooms, the chairs are better, you can spin around and see
the teacher.

  'It is also much more fun. We get the boards down all the time and
work together - before we would work more on our own in maths. This has
made maths much more fun than it used to be,' he said.

  The Department for Education and Skills has supported the scheme and
watched with curiosity. Mike Gibbons of the department's innovations
unit, which also supported the Joined Up Design For Schools project now
on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has been
impressed.

  'What you need is as much flexibility as possible when building
schools,' he said. 'What you don't want to do is to trap yourself into
one design. The 360 degree classroom is wonderful. It offers maximum
flexibility.



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Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005



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