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Stephen Heppell On Addressing The Needs Of Students And Encouraging Team Work

Stephen Heppell

Professor Stephen Heppell is Professor of New Media Environments at the Centre for Excellence in Media Practice at Bournemouth University, the Felipe Segovia Chair of Learning Innovation at Universidad Camilo José Cela, Madrid and CEO of heppell.net

A school teacher for more than a decade and a professor since 1989, Stephen works internationally with learner led projects, governments, international agencies, Fortune 500 companies and schools and communities. He is credited with adding the 'C' to ICT (Information and Communication Technology).


Do you feel that current education methods fully prepare students for the needs of the 21st century?

No, I don't think they do very well. We're in a millennium that's going to be full of surprises, and technology brings a lot of those surprises. Kids need to be able to cope with solely unexpected problems, it’s really important. At the moment they probably sit in exam rooms and think ‘I hope there are no surprises' while the teacher is outside saying ‘I hope I've prepared them for everything.’ Nothing could prepare them less well for the world they’re going into.

Lots of people spend time talking about 21st century skills. I don't think any of that has changed very much - in the last century we thought about 20th century skills. I think pace is the thing that has changed, the speed of change is so great.

In Finland the new curriculum is now all about project based learning, about topics. Project based work has been booming around the world for the last twenty years so I think Finland is doing the right thing, but I don't think many people have taken their lead and are doing it as well. There is a big mismatch there. We put everything in boxes - we've got lots of biologists, we've got lots of technologists, but we've got a world shortage of biotechnologists. They've all done their A-levels in biology or A-levels in technology but they've never put them together and it just doesn't work.

I was in one of my schools in Australia where they merged art and mathematics together to create a collage, abstract art piece - you've got to be able to do linear equations because they generate the lines that divide up the artwork. So to be an artist you've got to be a mathematician and if you're a mathematician you can be an artist, which is just lovely. We need to do more of that.

Problem solving and collaboration are really important. We should get to the point where kids are opening their exam certificates on results day and four kids are opening one envelope together and saying 'we got an A!' A big part of schools is teaching kids to work together in a team.


What is the role of the teacher?

You hear a lot at conferences about teachers changing from the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side.’ We did a lot of survey work in the 90s asking people for their best learning experience, and for most people it was when they were doing something with others. It was when there was a teacher, or a coach, or a guide of some sort present who was really passionate about what they did. They really cared about poetry, or they were a bit nutty about terminal moraines. They were eccentrically passionate about their subject.

I think the role of the teacher is to be passionate about learning. If you look around the world, teachers have become more and more driven to just deliver the curriculum, mark the books, organise the children, to do governance, and some of that passion has been lost.

Are there any aspects of traditional teaching that we should keep going forward?

I think that passion is important. There are times when the teacher wants to talk to the whole class and capture their excitement, and say: 'look! When I was in the Antarctic we saw this, this is why global climate change matters!' You want those moments. 

Also, what do you mean by traditional teaching? If you look back to the 1950s, traditional teaching in England certainly was mixed age. Most primary schools had kids of different ages all together. Sometime after the baby boom kids hit all that got lost and we ended up with thirty kids in a class, all exactly the same age doing exactly the same thing. I think there was just a panic of how are we going to deal with all these children? That wasn’t traditional teaching, that was industrial teaching.


What is the most effective and exciting learning environment?

There are two things that characterise it.

The first thing is that it has zones. These are places where different learning activities can occur. The zones have very clear protocol, so if you're sitting at the family learning table that's where you work in silence. If you're sitting on the comfy seat on the floor that's where you read, for example. The protocols are what make it work for teachers because the kids know that if you're over here this is what you do, if you're over there that is what you do, and the teachers set activities that are appropriate for each zone.

The second characteristic is that somebody has taken the trouble to ask the children how they can do it better, and that should be a constant question. However, you're not asking the children for their opinion, you're asking them for their research. If you say to a teenager: 'what would you like in your class?' They might say black walls and a bar! But if you ask what works for them, what makes learning better, if you ask them to go and look in other classrooms and tell you what the best ingredients are, then you get kids who are reflective practitioners. You get that burst of metacognition - kids who are learning about learning while they're designing better learning.

The traditional classroom, the 'cemetery classroom' where the desks are all laid out like graves, with the kids all facing the front, that's one sort of zone. But you want five or six sorts of zones, not just one.

The traditional classroom excludes so many different teaching approaches. Kids helping each other for example. A trivial thing would be reading - if you look at any child reading voluntarily, they sit on the floor, they sit on their beds, they sit on the sofa, they relax. No child in the world would ever read on an upright chair with a hard back. If you go on holiday you don't see people dragging chairs down to the beach so they can finish off a novel. If you tried to design a chair that was anti-reading, that actually stopped kids from reading, you would come up with a design that is pretty much today’s school chair.

So why have we bought them? Because they stack well. That's the only reason. But if you ask the kids they will tell you immediately that you could do it better. They'll survey each other and they'll say: 'when we read, this is how we read, so this is what our reading space should be like.'

There are 2.2 billion children in the world and no one is really asking them how they can make learning better. That's a waste of an opportunity. Given the number of children we've got and the circumstances of the world, it's very hard to not see education being transformed by children rather than for children.

Another problem with the ‘cells and bells’ classrooms with the doors shut is that teachers don't learn easily from other teachers. It's a very odd thing really.


In what way does education policy need to change?

Well that's a big question and there are probably two parts to the answer.

A lot of education policy has been based on opinion. It’s politicians saying: 'well when I was at school…' or: ‘I met somebody at the bus stop…’  and then they try to look for science that seems to confirm what they should do. But it's very hard, you can't really use scientific testing on children. You can't have a control group of kids who do really badly so you can prove that tablets work, for example, because you try to do the best for all children always.

Secondly, I think we've got to be brave with our policy. I don't think anybody knows how good our kids can be. Too much of our policy has been about limiting kids.

I'll give you two examples:

The age limit thing of saying ‘you can't do this until next year.’ There's nowhere else in your life where you're held back on the basis of age. We've got this stupid horizontal system which is very handy administratively, but every year at school is full of kids who are either being held back or wish they could slow down a bit. Nobody is going at the right pace.

I was doing a study in Australia - we asked 227 children what age they thought they could go to university to study the subject they were passionate about. Not one kid said they should wait until they're eighteen. They all thought they were ready from about fourteen or fifteen onwards. And I think that’s probably true, they probably are. So instead of Stage not Age, which works very well, we keep on repeating the old mistake of same age groupings, because that is very convenient.

I work with the British Olympic Team coaching some of the elite coaches. One thing that's very clear with Olympic athletes is that before their final they know what to eat for breakfast. And similarly, the week before, the morning of, the month before, the four years before their diet is very clear. But if you asked what the best food to eat the morning of an exam is, there's no research at all. I know what you can eat for well being, but if you are a mum and your kids have got a multiple choice test at 11am, what do you give them? Do you give them a Red Bull energy drink? A banana? Fish? There is simply no research.

We've pretended to be doing the best for kids but we haven't really. We've just done what is convenient for ourselves, and that has to change. We've got to start by wondering how good kids might be and then go from there, rather than wondering how convenient things could be.

I've been into fifty-five exam rooms in the last year and haven’t found one room that wasn't damaging the kids prospects. The light levels are too low, the Co2 levels were too high, temperature was wrong. We know all the details about this, but we haven’t applied them.

Personal Memory

Do you have a favourite moment of your own formal education?

Funnily enough it was my first year of teaching, when I was teaching in East London. I started teaching before I qualified as a teacher. Obviously I had degrees and things, so I did my teaching qualification part time.

My first kids were a large group of boys. They'd only been entered for one subject and nothing else - in those days schools were judged by how many of their kids were entered, not whether they passed or not. I said to the boys: 'look I can get you through the subject, I really know the subject, but I don't know much about teaching so for five minutes at the start of each lesson I want you to watch other teachers in the school and tell me what really works.'

Two things happened. One is I learnt more from those kids than I ever learnt from my teacher training. Secondly it changed them because they started looking and learning as reflective practitioners. All but one of them passed the O-level, as it was then. They weren't supposed to pass, they were just entered as a token.

There's something about that ‘have a look at other teachers and see how teaching could be better’ that transformed them and indeed transformed me. I think neither of us have looked back since.

The next 100 years

The next 100 years of Finnish education should… be agile. 

We don't know what's going to happen to schools and learning, but just at the moment schools have become pretty dangerous places. Kids are getting shot in America, barrel bombs are dropping through the roofs of schools in Syria. The graph of terrorist attacks in schools has gone up sharply from about 2005 and it's continuing to rise steeply.

I think one possible scenario is that putting our most precious things, our children, together in one place is about the daftest thing we could have thought of when people are trying to hurt us. Education might have to be much smaller and more nimble. Schools might need to be built at the end of people's roads and dissolved into the community because that's safer.

But indeed, you don't know what's going to happen, so I think learning has got to be agile enough to cope with the new things we discover. That might include new things we discover about cognitive science and nutrition.