At Shireland Collegiate Academy in Smethwick, West Midlands, a group of children are playing Minecraft at 11am on a Thursday and there isn’t a single textbook in sight. Each pupil is equipped with a personal device acting as their own portal into a 16-bit digital world projected on to a wall-wide screen. The students aren’t bunking off, but are tasked with building a fully functional virtual city. So, what’s the subject? Geometry? Art? Design? ICT, perhaps? Mark Grundy, the executive principal, replies with a wry smile: “All of them.”
“The city-building task,” he explains, “tests the students’ ability to work within a budget, their artistic skills and makes them communicate with each other on how best to complete it. Different students will be assigned a different part of the city and they have to take into account the impact of what they’re building on the environment or other parts of the community. They work to a deadline and have to present what they’ve done to the class.”
DEVELOPING A SKILL SET
A thematic rather than subject-specific curriculum and a readiness to embrace the latest technology, Grundy feels, are at the heart of Shireland’s success. The school, rated “Outstanding” by Ofsted in 2011 and again in 2013 following a no-notice inspection, has a long-standing partnership with Microsoft; the aim is to tailor the teaching for practical application from the outset.
As Steve Beswick, Microsoft’s director of education, puts it: “We’re increasingly moving towards a skills-based and demand-led economy. As industries continue to digitalise and evolve, they actually want schools and universities to teach skills from an early stage. Companies such as Microsoft want students to finish their education and be trained in not just how to use technology, but how to harness it with particular skills. Collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking are key.”
TURNING THE TABLES
Shireland, which uses Microsoft’s Office 365 as its central operating system, has reaped the benefits of cloud storage and Exchange servers. Students and staff are able to access shared workspaces and emails from home, affording an autonomy Grundy believes is enormously useful for both parties, particularly in a drive towards “flipped learning”.
Flipped learning, he clarifies, “reverses the way in which teaching is delivered. We have class ‘sites’ which are a shared space where staff can post the work they want the students to do and they’ll be expected to complete the tasks in advance of the lessons without being told how. What the teacher can gain from this approach is seeing where the students’ strengths or weaknesses lie and respond accordingly. It also lets the students think for themselves about their own strategies.”
There are striking parallels, Beswick is quick to highlight, between this method of teaching and the growth-focused training that Microsoft uses on its own rising stars. “A fixed mindset is one that assumes intelligence is static. It accepts that things can only be done a certain way and will avoid being challenged. Failure is seen as categorically bad and negative feedback isn’t taken constructively. A growth mindset, however, encourages people to fail fast and learn fast. Failure is essential on the route to mastery.”
Isn’t this risky? Can Shireland’s or indeed Microsoft’s willingness to tolerate mistakes be viewed as too passive? Grundy counters: “The whole idea of teaching to a mark scheme is incredibly constricting. Telling one child they’re a level 5A and another that they’re a 4B means absolutely nothing to them. What we’re trying to create is a skills-based and competency-based structure which shows that you can be exceptionally good at one part of the task but might need help with another. If you’re teaching within these very narrow parameters, then you’re neglecting the potential of a student outside of them.”
Catherine Hutley, the principal of Philip Morant School in Colchester, Essex, took the decision earlier this year to ditch homework in a bid to let students better direct their learning. Hutley said at the time: “This new approach allows us to more carefully track and monitor students not only academically but also against skills critical for their lives ahead.”
While Shireland hasn’t gone to quite the same lengths, Grundy is trying to encourage teachers to take a more progressive attitude in the way they set their assignments. “We have obsessed over homework as a country and in the traditional sense it’s largely just served to placate students’ families. Actually, though, if you let the students themselves highlight their own needs and interests, then the teacher can plan a lesson that suits.”
The Irish journalist and children’s author Shane Hegarty, meanwhile, has also lent his support to student empowerment. Best known for his popular Darkmouth series, he has recently launched a creative writing competition as part of BT and Barclays’ “Wifi in our community” programme, which offers young people across England the chance to contribute a chapter to a new book he has started. Hegarty thinks students’ imaginations should be harnessed by their schools and urges staff to react to them.
“Adults simply need to guide that creativity and allow young people to find different ways to express it,” he says. “Children can do it through multiple channels: film-making, animation and computer games, as well as more traditional methods. In the digital age, children have access to limitless resources through which to find inspiration.”
Grundy’s vision for Shireland has many similarities. “We’re about giving students choice and using the latest technology to deliver that. Minecraft is just one example of our creative approach; we’ve also got a state of the art on-site TV studio. Students script their work, score it, perform it, produce it and direct it. They’re given insight into various aspects of a range of industries and see how important communication and collaborative efforts can be.”
FIT FOR PURPOSE
Grundy’s ambition is unquestionable and he has no intention of just reaching for the low-hanging fruit. “We want our students to have the skills to become the sort of person who Microsoft or Lloyds Bank or KPMG would want to pick up – someone with the ability to join things together and think laterally, the ability to manage a team and pool resources. It’s not about rigid knowledge and doing things in a set way, it’s about blending inter-disciplinary skills together.”
Ultimately, Grundy hopes that education and learning are on the brink of a paradigm shift, one that moves away from exercise books and towards greater innovation and interaction through technology. Beswick sums it up nicely: “It’s not necessarily about what you know, it’s about how you do things.”