Is your voice being heard at school? Elizabeth Hartnell-Young explains how a project undertaken by a team at Nottingham University revealed that teachers and students have a lot to say about the learning process, and that they should be heard

‘I like something where I can be in the middle: circles would be good, a big circle would be good, but squares are what we are made of.’ (Secondary teacher)

Learner voice is a popular topic (addressed in Learning and Teaching Update in April 2007), but there seems to be less emphasis on teacher voice. This article looks at how teachers and students can be involved in ‘designing for learning’, and reports on activities undertaken in conjunction with the Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF). Peter Senge (1990) suggests that the most important leadership role in learning organisations is that of designer, yet teachers are often left out of the process of designing educational facilities and resources, as are the students. Research in schools (Hartnell-Young, 2006) has identified designing as a key role of teachers, involving designing the physical space of classrooms and communications networks, and planning curriculum and activities to develop learning and build knowledge. However, their experience and expertise is not routinely gathered and used to inform developments in school and curriculum design at a large scale. The BSF programme offers a wonderful opportunity for consultation with students, teachers and other community members about designing for learning, but once a school is built, will consultation continue?

Space and design impact on people, as Pouler (1994) expressed very strongly:

‘Space is neither innocent nor neutral: it is an instrument of the political; it has a performative aspect whoever inhabits it; it works on its occupants. At the micro level, space prohibits, decides what may occur, lays down the law, implies a certain order, commands and locates bodies.’ (Pouler, 1994, p175)

School communities are becoming very aware of the effect of the building and environment on people and learning. Yet social constructivist approaches to teaching and learning suggest that teachers and students do interact with their context in a dialogic way, personalising it for their specific learning purposes. Wenger (1998) argues that communities of practice, such as classes and school communities, must be involved in the design of their own learning. It is important to involve these people because they can create a meaningful curriculum that is responsive to learners’ needs and interests, they can develop tools and resources for particular purposes, and they can interact with, and shape, the physical environment rather than being constrained by it. Kenn Fisher, who has worked on school design in many countries, argues that school communities should incorporate design tasks in the curriculum. In a small project called Circling the Square, a team from the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Nottingham developed a set of techniques to prompt teachers and students to think about their past and present experiences, and their hopes for the future of their school. We designed activities to engage the participants while eliciting responses to three aspects: roles and relationships in schools, uses of space and time, and ideas for technology design. However, our main intention was to generate useful conversations between the participants and to leave them with techniques they could continue to use in their schools.

We undertook the work in an authentic setting: an area of Nottingham selected for BSF redevelopment as a learning precinct. We invited students and teachers from the primary and the secondary school involved to participate in two workshop sessions two weeks apart. We wanted to model and test the activities with primary and secondary people sharing perspectives on authentic topics, and to document the outcomes. Teachers and students did the same activities. The sessions were recorded on audio and video, by the participants as well as the facilitators, and all generated many ideas on paper. A selection of the activities has been published in a useful format for schools (Hartnell-Young and Fisher, 2007). Some are discussed in more detail below.

Generating conversations
The warm-up activity involved discussing and writing responses in speech balloons on paper. The stimulus questions were: What’s good about primary schools? What’s good about secondary schools? What’s not so good about primary schools? What’s not so good about secondary schools? Figures 1 and 2 show two examples. While the responses were not surprising, they provided an opportunity for the participants to get to know each other, and revealed some of the benefits and disadvantages of each school culture.

Figure 1: A primary student’s negative view of primary school

“You don’t get to show your full potential.”

Figure 2: A secondary teacher’s positive view of secondary school

“Watching young people grow and grow up.”

In another activity, participants were asked to choose from a set of pictures, mostly taken in schools, to discuss these questions: What are all the things you like/dislike about this photograph? Where is the photograph taken? Is it a school? How do you know? What does this photograph have to do with learning? What might people learn here? One photo showed two boys in a school using a mobile phone to capture evidence for their e-portfolios. A student who chose it said: ‘It looks like they’re just mates messing about when they should be learning. You wouldn’t be playing on your phone in lessons. You wouldn’t learn anything.’ Another did think it was taken in a school: ‘He’s showing his friend a picture’; while a third said ‘It makes you wonder what’s happening: it makes you think.’ This provided a valuable opportunity to discuss an important issue in school culture and policy – the use of mobile phones – as well as having conversations around the nature of learning.

Several participants chose a photo of young people stilt walking in a London parade. One teacher provided rich and thought-provoking commentary that could start a professional discussion or a reflection on learning:

I think it’s taking place on a London street, and I had to really think about it because there aren’t many clues about exactly what these children and young people are doing. Perhaps they’re learning to cooperate, to learn to walk on stilts, and perhaps they’re performing in front of people. It isn’t obviously a learning situation, but in any situation, learning is always going on. It’s actually identifying what learning is taking place here. It might just be about being out there and having fun… I didn’t immediately notice this, but looking at it I would say that it doesn’t look very inclusive. That doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t some people who are less able in the background that we can’t see, but if this is an activity for all children to engage in, how would children with disabilities be coping?

We showed all participants a photograph of new and colourful school toilets (Koralek and Mitchell, 2005) as a stimulus to sketch their own ‘beautiful toilets’. Here we were modelling fun ways to capture opinions and engage in conversations about much more than toilets, as well as generating design ideas. The overwhelming requirement from students was a clean toilet, and as one said: ‘It would be that good you could do your lessons in the loo.’ Meanwhile, another group explored the school site, with a researcher in tow, collecting images and audio files about places that represented these words: welcome, fun, dangerous, boring, cool and safe. In one spot, both teachers and students agreed: ‘It’s boring, it’s dark and dingy and not colourful’ (student) and ‘It’s dark, dingy, dismal, unwelcoming. Generally clean, but very damp and boring’ (teacher). One student said, of a sensory classroom, ‘I think this is a really cool place to sit and you haven’t got people to annoy you’. Another said: ‘I love it in here’. Through this activity teachers revealed a need to be valued: ‘People now need office space within primary schools and we’re very fortunate that this is an old building and we have been very creative in making spaces.’ On the other hand, another spot was ‘untidy, maybe even unprofessional because there isn’t the storage space. You wouldn’t find this in a company. I went into a company building. It was all very smart, and streamlined. It gave a very professional finish which you don’t get from this.’ ‘Professional’ was a word that arose several times, with one teacher also feeling that students deserve a ‘professional’ environment in school settings.

In a short plenary session, we used large pieces of coloured card representing the colours of Six Thinking Hats (de Bono, 1992) to encourage parallel thinking about three questions. The white hat requires a focus on facts; the red on feelings; the yellow on benefits; and the black on concerns. The green hat represents creativity, using tools such as brainstorming, while blue hat thinking involves reflection and metacognition.

We used three questions: What if your school day started at 11am? What if students wrote the curriculum? What if the floors were made of chocolate? (Inspired by the title of a report on a consultation with primary school pupils to build a theatre – Magee, 2005). A researcher presented each question separately, and guided participants to respond using one type of thinking: yellow for the benefits, or green for a creative idea, for example. Coloured card, cut as a type of mask, was a visual reminder of the thinking required, and students particularly enjoyed using the card in this way when speaking in front of the video camera.

Designing technologies
The second set of activities, two weeks later, focused on teachers and students designing technologies to help them work and learn. Tools to help their literacy skills were a focus for the primary students, perhaps reflecting their forthcoming SATs tests. One boy designed a wristband spellchecker, another a pen where ‘you’ve got an earpiece, and you’re thinking of a song or a spelling, and it will write it for you’. One girl thought of a computerised hat ‘so you could use your imagination when you’re writing stories – instead of using a computer, you could use the hat, but it deleted everything else and it wouldn’t mess your hair up.’ A secondary student came up with a watch with a barcode scanner ‘so you can keep an eye on your bank balance’. It included a camera, a phone, voice activation, email and internet access and could tell you where to shop and where the bargains are. A primary student designed magic glasses with a built-in TV, that shows one year into the future: ‘If you’re just inventing something, and you think you’re going to give up, then you turn that on, and so you see into the future to see if your invention will happen, if I’ll carry on with the invention’. Another designed a teaching tool called the ‘Disco Teacher Robot’.

In contrast to the students, teachers found it hard to start this activity, reminding us that simply putting a group of teachers into a room for ‘consultation’ and ‘brainstorming’ needs to be scaffolded. We used the students’ ideas as stimulus, and the resulting designs revealed some of the teachers’ preoccupations. One was an anger management bangle, which led to a discussion which began with teachers managing their own anger, and ended with them managing students: 

‘I can imagine somebody wearing something, if you weren’t doing something right, makes you stop and think: I’ve got some kind of warning straight away so I don’t go on and on. Like in Star Trek!’ ‘If we’re not doing it right, how could we expect the children to do it? It could be a wristband, and an orange light comes on.’

Towards the end of the second workshop, deeper concerns began to emerge. One teacher spoke about the many initiatives that come from above:

‘You sort of lose a bit of your professionalism I think. You become somebody who is responding to targets and you’re not actually serving the best interests of all your children, because you’re saying ‘which ones can we get to this level?’ and the one’s that can’t, well we just need to keep them.’

Another spoke of relating with parents: ‘I’d like to have something, that we could, not educate in a talking down to them way, but be able to help them, you know.’ A secondary teacher said: ‘I was just thinking about ours… and you know, a lot of the parents don’t know how to communicate with the children, so how can we get them to communicate to the staff at school?’

This led another teacher to comment:

‘Wouldn’t it be nice if you were in class, and you had something that you could send [parents] – an instant photograph of the child doing a really fantastic piece of work or you know, getting their prize in assembly?’

A group of students reflected on their ‘perfect school’:

‘We want the lessons to have more role-play than just doing all writing. Because we think if you’re able to role-play, then you might be able to understand what’s going on more, and it will teach you how to work better in a group. Basically it’s, get our hands on, instead of having to just sit there: the teacher says something and you just copy it out of textbooks. We’d like to do more creative things to help us work it out.’

Designing for learning is much more than sketching ideas for a dream school. It can take place at a small scale, in modifying a lesson or a classroom, as much as at a large scale to inform policy and practice. It is perhaps easier to find ways to do these activities with students as part of the curriculum in many areas, than it is to make time for teachers to do so. But the results of this small project indicated that is it very important to acknowledge and capture the experience of both teachers and students. When we asked participants what they had learned from these activities, most focused on relationships with others. ‘How to communicate more with people’ said one student, while a teacher commented ‘How little we are consulted about the decisions you are talking about’. The last word belongs to a teacher: ‘We’ve learned that there is something we want to say, so please involve us more, hear our voice, hear our children’s voices.’

Download a pamphlet about Circling the Square.