‘The architects of tomorrow are in the sandpits of today’
A colleague Headteacher once shared this quote with me as he walked me around the early years setting at his school. He was passionate about children learning through exploratory, first-hand experiences – as are many of us. Too often, he argued, this approach to learning is one which is limited to the Early Years setting and children soon lose the opportunity to learn independently and through enquiry once they make the transition into more ‘formal’ instruction in Years 1 and 2. More time in the sandpits perhaps?
In November, I travelled to London for the launch of the Microsoft Showcase Schools programme. I’ve written previously about how this experience contributed to our revised digital strategy at Simon de Senlis; it was also the catalyst for a project to develop a new learning environment at the school which we were pleased to open last week.
Microsoft have worked closely with ISIS Concepts to create a stunning ‘Showcase Classroom’ at their London offices. It’s a really interesting space – hi-tech and hi-spec whilst remaining thoughtful and playful. As you would expect, the room is packed full of technology and flexible furniture and this surely played its part in helping to inspire and open minds throughout our day there, where we got to grips with new devices and technology. It includes lots of different break-out spaces and we were able to work in different ways together at different times during the day, in different size groups, with and without technology – some of which is captured on this YouTube video.
Whether or not this type of design would ever be replicated in schools in scale is a great discussion, but not really the point. The point (as I see it) is for spaces such as these to challenge and provoke us to think differently about ‘what might be’ back in our own organisations. For me, it was a similar experience to visiting the RM ‘REAL centre’ 5-6 years ago or the Silverstone Study Centre, Northamptonshire which expanded my thinking and led (in part) to the classroom refurbishments that we have made at Simon de Senlis in Years 1-4 so far. For further provocation around learning environments, read the excellent ‘Clicks & Bricks: When digital, learning and physical space meet’, by Ewan McIntosh (or listen to Ewan present it here).
The big question for me when reflecting on all this on the train home was simple: Why not have one of these resources in a school?
Yes – a school! This would mean that children and teachers would be able to use it every day and evaluate its worth, shape its future. Instead of a ‘showcase’ or ‘classroom of the future’, rather a perpetual prototype which we can tinker with, carry out research in and learn lessons from with real children. We could share it; invite other teachers and their children in; other people who have nothing to do with school and see how they learn?
And so, with thanks to ISIS Concepts, BENQ and Microsoft Education UK, the concept of ‘The Sandpit’ was born – and without a grain of sand in sight. As well as the flexible nature of the room – designed to allow different types of physical spaces dependent on the learning, it’s also equipped with a one to one Windows 8 (soon to be 10) deployment and two moveable screens
We were delighted to launch the space in its first iteration last week, and look forward to the tinkering, the prototyping and the learning that will come in the future.
There will be opportunities for other schools and teachers to come and visit and more information including dates will be published shortly; follow the school’s twitter account to keep up to date.
PS – For those interested, this next section is taken from our teaching handbook which sets out some of the vision and also the ‘nitty gritty’ around learning environments and display at Simon de Senlis.
“Environment as the third teacher…”
We believe passionately that the learning environment plays a crucial role in enabling high quality learning. To be happy, we need to have bright, welcoming spaces that promote community; to be creative, children need clean and collaborative spaces to get messy, explore and generate ideas; to achieve mastery, children need individual quiet spaces to consolidate, apply and reflect.
At Simon de Senlis, our learning environments are:
- Flexible and Functional
- Designed to Make Learning Visible
- Cluttered rooms clutter thinking. Surfaces should be clear. Bookshelves should be neat and organised. Everything should have its place.
- Walls should be clear and free from ‘wallpaper displays’. Space around displays is as important as the content of them as it draws attention and avoids not seeing the wood for the trees.
- Glass is glass – it was designed to let light through and shouldn’t have notices, posters or prompts covering it. This applies to doors and both internal/external windows.
Flexible and Functional
- Furniture should be minimal to allow as much space as possible for movement, creativity.
- Furniture should be flexible in its layout to allow for different configurations at different times for different size groups/ways of walking.
- All core learning resources should be clearly labelled and accessible to children inlcuding pencils, pens, rulers, paintbrushes, paint, maths equipment (including rulers, tracing papers, protractors etc.)
Making learning visible…
We have three types of learning based displays:
- Celebration Displays
- Working Displays
- Virtual Displays
Celebration display are where high quality work is presented. This is displayed using the following guidelines to ensure that it its the quality of work, not the frills of the display that draw the eye:
- Muted colour backgrounds and clean crisp backing and borders ensure that the eye is drawn to the work.
- Only work of the highest standard (in relation to the child’s current ability) should be displayed. This is to model what good work looks like in our school.
- Each final showcase display should be labelled with an engaging title and a brief insight into the process behind the finished piece.
Working displays are used to make learning visible. The following displays should be evident in each room:
- Maths working wall
- English working wall
- Project wall
- Art display
Virtual Displays allow learning to be shared, presented and interacted around through online spaces which add another dimension to traditional display. Use of blogs, social media and online tools can increase engagement, make learning more visible, give an authentic audience to final work and give parents opportunities to engage in learning where they otherwise may not.
Each class will keep a blog as a way of offering an insight into their working week as well as being a place where communications take place with parents. Each class blog should be updated at least once a week with post sharing some of the learning that has taken place in the class that week.