As my class are currently writing a piece on ‘Schools of the Future’, I sit at the back and observe both them and the room itself. If walls could talk, my Year 11 English classroom would have something to say. It is 30 square feet of floor space that has seen a lot in its 50 years of service.
Actually, I think the room would embrace the opportunity to voice an opinion on the subject of the future of education. I imagine a cranky, aged voice, like that of a battle hardened war veteran, whose rasping tones stop you dead in your tracks as it says, ‘So, you want to know ‘bout the future do yer?’ Well guess what? The classroom of the next century looks just like me! I’m tellin’ yer, everything will be new but nothing will change.’
It’s just as well they can’t talk really. No one needs a lecture from a brick wall that thinks it’s Nick Fury and sounds like Oscar the Grouch. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of evidence before me to suggest that my imaginary tough old timer has a point.
Truthfully, 644 is not an unpleasant space. The walls are painted cream and the carpet is blue … well, ‘greyish-blue’. There are new aluminium framed windows down the side with new blue blinds. On the wall opposite the windows are pin boards painted teal. There’s another pin board at the back and an enormous white board at the front. Probably best not to spend much time describing the stuff pinned to the boards. It’s furnished with sturdy steel framed tables and chairs. There’s a grey granite laminate finish to the table tops and the chairs are a gunmetal grey. The room is air-conditioned and there is a projector attached to the wall that uses the whiteboard as a screen. There’s cabling that allows teachers to connect their computer to the projector, and there are speakers that link to this and the schools public address system.
Then there are the remnants.
There’s a clock on the wall that hasn’t worked since the battery ran down. It sits there untouched, inoffensive and obsolete in an era where every student has the time in the top corner of their computer screen. A cupboard looms behind the teacher’s desk that once housed audio-visual equipment and is now locked and utterly ignored. There’s also a long thin casing that runs the entire perimeter of the room just above the standard desk height. This houses the plugs and cables that once connected computers to the LAN or the net. Now that there’s wifi capability on the building however, this feature is more aesthetic then practical. A bit like the off road gear on city SUVs.
Finally, there is an array of power plugs to be found all over the room in seemingly bizarre places. Two or three dot the wall around the whiteboard where TVs, videos, and DVD’s were once fixed in place. Another is near the door where the original PA speaker, long since replaced, was once positioned. My personal favourite is the plug that looks down on us all from the centre of the roof. Last year it was practical and functional, powering a computer projector that hung there. This year an upgrade has meant the new projector rests just above and 1 foot out from the whiteboard. I expect this too will be replaced before long with a fully interactive smart board and there will be no projector in 644 at all. Once that happens, I wonder how long it will take before a student looks to the heavens and noticed it. It should make for an entertaining and spontaneous exercise in lateral thinking.
Truly 644 has a point if it wants to assert ‘the future is me’. Without knocking down and beginning again, the classroom of the future will, in all probability, look like the classroom of the past with retrofitted upgrades. Thus far history has repeated itself with blackboards replaced with a green blackboards (retaining the old name regardless) and inturn replaced with whiteboards that are replaced with smartboards. From time to time improvements will mean new furniture, more pleasant colour schemes, more durable surfaces and greater mechanisms for controlling light and climate.
It’s a prediction that I know doesn’t thrill some educators who are quick to whip out black and white images of nineteenth century students straight backed in precise rows. Personally, while I’m not in love with it, I think looking at these sorts of images and saying ‘Nothing’s changed!’ has some validity but misses the mark a little. If schools aim to be progressive and innovative in a way that meaningfully improved the quality of education, I think more effort should be made to use the space provided rather than worry about how to fit it out.
Remember, I’m sitting at the back of my class right now. I have the student’s eye view (come to think of it, I have the disengaged student’s eye view). From here the implication is that what matters is up the front near the Whiteboard, and the teacher who (currently isn’t) standing there using it. Over the years I expect those teal pin boards have had wonderful classroom displays but they are literally on the periphery and out of sight and mind. Then there’s the furniture in 644. In optimizing durability, what has been sacrificed is flexibility. Therefore, it’s very hard to make use of the other walls or position students another way.
I’m not really trying to suggest that swivel chairs and wall art are the true way of the future. I do think though that the future of education lies in genuinely empowering students and making a system that gives them more of a focus. 644 has always been set up to focus on a teacher. A successful strategy of the past might need to be tweaked a bit for the future.