Let students learn: why we shouldn’t take cues on classroom design from tech giants

There is not much more likely to cause controversy on Edutwitter than discussion of classrooms whether that’s their layout, furniture, displays or, rather infamously, the views from the window. The physical spaces in which we teach are naturally close to our hearts so imagining life with no projector or a suite of white sofas or a ‘collaboratorium’ instead of a classroom is bound to pique the interest of teachers. The theme behind some of these discussions that I think is more worthy of note is the move in some sectors of education toward classrooms, schools and even curricula modelled and influenced by the offices of tech giants.

Tech companies and tech evangelists have long had a cynical motive to get more schools using iPads and Chromebooks (and BBC Micros before that) and to have more learning focused on screens and apps. The more recent trend is less obviously cynical but possibly more insidious because of that and it is the growing clamour to turn classrooms and schools in facsimiles of tech offices with flexible classroom spaces, project-based learning, freedom from timetables and uniforms and a focus on collaboration and tech. I do not mean to imply that teachers or even schools where this is happening have bad intentions or malice in mind, it is more that I think allowing huge multi-national corporations like Apple and Google to influence education would be just as much a mistake as giving Shell free-run of the National Curriculum.  Scratch below the surface of shiny tech and ’21st century skills’ and I think it becomes clear the tech companies should not be a model for classrooms at all.

A high-tech “collaboratory” in Denver, CO

We would not turn to call centres or supermarkets or law offices when seeking design advice for classroom or curriculum so I am unsure why, in certain pedagogical corners, there is a desire to take cues from tech companies. Though tech giants may want us to believe that their offices are happy, smiling temples to the free-flow of ideas they are rarely anything of the sort. In Against Creativity Oli Mould argues that the whole idea of creativity in work has been co-opted and bastardised:

“Rather than freeing us from the shackles of monotonous, non-creative labour, it has become clear that the rhetoric of ‘creative work’ is merely a ruse that allows ‘work-like’ practices to invade our leisure, social and non-economic lives” – Oli Mould, Against Creativity

I find myself looking at the likes of High Tech High in the US or the XP School in the UK and feeling sorry for students who will be trying to learn in these tech-inspired teaching environments. Not only are open-plan spaces notoriously noisy, especially when work done there is mostly going to be group and discussion focused, but it must be difficult to be focused at all when the traditional educational lines are so blurred. In my classroom I stand at the front and teach, students listen and then they can have quiet, focused time in which to read or write or work in another way. Project-based learning in open plan spaces erases all that and instead replaces educational narratives with the narratives of modern, creative work: collaboration, self-discipline, planning and research.

What Mould observes in the apparently creative office spaces of media companies and tech giants is, in fact, “an increase in the precariousness of work, the destruction of home life, and the slow erosion of socialised labour models”. I find it difficult to see how importing this corporate culture into the classroom is not just the 21st century version of Gradgrindian education preparing factory workers and coal miners for a life of drudgery. The XP School’s motto is Preparing our children to be successful in the modern world, which again sounds admirable at first pass but when you think about it in an educational context sounds more like the mission statement of the Job Centre than a school.

School should be about education, knowledge, learning and wonder not mimicking corporate culture and gaining skills at the behest of future employers. Letting children be children is about protecting them from the demands of the market and the world of work, it’s about letting them learn for its own sake and giving them safe, structured environments in which to do that. I find it unsettling that there seems to be such positive coverage of schools where students are being denied the chance to just learn in favour of training in 21st century skills and methods of “creative” work. We should let our kids be kids and that means letting them sit and learn in calm and purposeful classrooms.


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