What does the future of learning look like?

Jane Lunnon, head of Wimbledon High School (WHS), pens her thoughts on the current exam system, technology and why she is placing focus on STEAM

Imagine this: you are watching a production of Hamlet online. Gertrude is betraying her son, Ophelia is going mad. Claudius is hiding things and Hamlet is doing (or rather, not doing) his thing. And you, the viewer, are not only watching this on your PC, you are also, right there, in the show, a reflection in a gilded mirror – daubed with blood and looking pretty ropey (your part is the ghost of Old Hamlet).

And so, you are there and not there. You can see yourself – as watched and watcher. How brilliant, how extraordinary, how game-changing is that? This is happening, right now. In the US, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company have teamed up with Google, which means VR tech teamed with great creativity, enabling viewers to inhabit the text. That’s what’s happening in learning today.

The impact of technology on the way we learn is seminal and astonishing. As a school, we adopted BYOD (bring your own device) several years ago and this, when combined with our new VR headsets and Google Expeditions, means that our pupils can journey to Africa, to Jerusalem, to Tudor England, to the inside of a black hole, to the inside of their own bodies… the impact on our students is immediate and palpable. This is not just gimmicks and game-playing; this is sentient, dynamic, visual learning in ways those of us who became excited by the potential of PowerPoint in the late 1990s, could barely have imagined.

But the technological revolution in education is not just about the flashy, painting with coloured light sort of stuff (although it’s very hard not to get terribly excited by all of that). As a Microsoft showcase school, we have adopted wholesale software such as Microsoft Teams (useful virtual baskets to keep all our meeting/lesson/admin resources) and Onenote (seamless collaborative working and library spaces). Like many schools, we have found that the truly revolutionary and transformative development in IT in education, was the cloud. The learning environment is no longer just in the classroom or the library. It can now be everywhere: in the playground, on the bus, in the kitchen… and this has made a real difference to the way children learn and the way we all teach.

My Year 7 English students, for example, do their homework in their own folders stored in the class team basket and I mark it (using the clever pen that writes on the screen) the night they do it – (or, at a push, the next day). That means, that I can see at once if they are not quite getting the point about enjambement or the impact of verse form on the meaning of a poem and I can adapt my next lesson plan accordingly. It’s not radical but it brings more efficiency, more pace, more targeted planning. Which, of course, leads to more opportunity for stretch and fun and better outcomes all round.

Collaborative learning

What the C21st doesn’t need, I feel sure, is for our children to show that they can sit in rows of desks and write, on paper, with a pen, regurgitating facts they have carefully learnt, for three hours at a time

Technology doesn’t just allow you to do things in a more colourful or more efficient way. It also, clearly, changes the way that children approach learning. Much of their work in the classroom, for example, is collaborative. It is as much about team-building and communication, about effective listening, careful research and powerful articulation of ideas, as it is about the causes of WWI, or how to integrate fractions. The skills our world now requires (as the Hamlet example above suggests) are not just technical expertise and versatility, not simply the acquisition and application of key facts, analytical thinking and problem-solving but creative flair – the ability to connect and link ideas, fields of knowledge and curriculum areas. These are skills necessary for a dynamic, technological and connected workplace, and it matters that our young people are encouraged to develop them in school.

That’s why we are developing our STEAM programme so enthusiastically at WHS. Our STEAM room, staffed by scientists in residence, is not just the base for our girls to engage in scientific research and inquiry (with external partners as well as internally), it is also a symbol of our cross-curricular approach. The job of our scientists in residence is to facilitate inter-disciplinary connections. RS meets Science when Year 7s try to make the dyes in Joseph’s dreamcoat, English meets Psychology when A-level English students engage in psychological exploration of the characters in To The Lighthouse, Geography, Physics and Technology combine when Year 9s design wind turbines – the list goes on. The ability to think flexibly, imaginatively and with resilience and integrity when confronted with tough problems, this feels like the urgent pedagogical focus for us now and it feels like the best way as we prepare our children for the future.

What the C21st doesn’t need, I feel sure, is for our children to show that they can sit in rows of desks and write, on paper, with a pen, regurgitating facts they have carefully learnt, for three hours at a time. And yet that, of course, is what our examination system currently requires our children to do, and indeed, it has done, to a greater or lesser extent, for the last 100 years or so. Learn this, commit it to memory, show me you’ve done so by writing it out on paper. How absolutely extraordinary, that in a world that has made so much progress and right in the middle of a technological revolution, here we are, still fundamentally assessing our students’ talent and achievements at school, with pen, paper and serried rows of desks. 

WHS adopted BYOD several years ago.

We might take comfort from the fact that there has been significant reform in our exam system recently, with ‘fatter’ A-levels and GCSEs. Gone is the endless re-sitting of modules and the emphasis on coursework. But reform is not revolution. This assessment system is not a radical re-think for a new(ish) century. These exams are not modern – as those of us who are old enough to remember the very old O-levels and A-levels can testify.

Perhaps there’s more academic rigour but in the context of the Google school of innovation and reform, it feels more like rigor mortis than bracing, academic stretch and dynamic aspiration for our young people in a new century. As a society, we clearly have a lot more thinking to do on that.