Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Roof space motif

I'm a great fan of high ceilings - natural light, scale, proportions
with a large learning space, etc. And these big spaces lend themselves
to "installation" size objects that also do a remarkable job in
deadening noise. Most recently I was suggesting to teachers from
Knowsley's new learning spaces (where technology ans science together
need some careful sound engineering) that a pterodactyl in the roof
would be a useful sound control device and an enjoyable science /
technology project. Anyway, here up a mountain in France skiing and I
find the same solution - and the same powerful sense of motif. Not
sure what our Health and Safety folk would make of the rusty chains
holding it up though...

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Westminster Hall

Sorry about the blurry picture - I was passing through in a bit of a hurry...

This huge hall was built in 1097, which is going back a fair bit! The famous hammerbeam roof was put up in Richard II's reign. It is the largest clearspan medieval roof in England - no pillars, huge floor. It has housed a few important trials to say the least: Charles I at the end of the English Civil War, Sir William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes...

And it has housed coronation banquest - last one was for George !V in 1821.

So, you don't really need me to spell this out do you?: large open multifacted, agile building, still valuable almost 1,000 years on...

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Big fulcrum

Just returned from the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha. #wise09

The Summit was very helpful - so many useful conversations and Twittchats! It also provided a fascinating contrast between the World Economic Forum typeview - "let's build system on systems, make big admin even bigger..."; and my (+others') view that this is a bottom up people's century / self organising communities / mutuality kind of time.

My favourite question from floor to illustrate the gap was "how do you systematise bottom up change"; lol. Favourite moment was a four-on-stage panel. One speaker, a nice chap from the WEF was chatting on about the need for systems and big gov and other last century stuff; also on stage - looking very bored indeed - was Biz Stone (of Twitter) and Professor Mitra (of Hole in the Wall, and other projects). Aftwer a while Biz and the prof started chatting in a whisper, then business cards were exchanged and rather nicely, as the WEF speaker embraced Systems, these other two were illustrating the 21st century's core process of "helping people to help each other" right there - hopefully with Twitter throwing a bit of support to Prof Mitra's fab projects. Fun to see real change happen in front of our eyes...

WISE is going to be a significant annual event - not the least because Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al Missned opened with a real call to action to everyone - get on with it!

...and that is what is needed, isn't it?

Monday, 16 November 2009

Museum of Islamic Art

The new Museum of Islamic Art, Doha is a remarkable building - as you can see. A treasure trove of Islamic art artifacts are inside and of course the repetitive patterns and tessellations of Islamic art are everywhere. Perhaps less obvious at first sight is the way that the top of the building is symbolic of a woman's eyes looking through her burqua - her veil (can you see the eys at the top of the building?).

It's only when you look close up at Islamic texts - I was enjoying the blue Qur'an from the 9th century - that you see how important the rhythm of the caligraphy is - a little like looking at  Labanotation describing dance (is that Kinetography? I think so).

Inside, the Museum does a remarkable job of displaying the collected works. Since I am now excitedly involved in building a new school from stone in the Portland Stone quarry in Dorset i was very interested in the use of stone everywhere inside - and to see the British Museum's relationship with MIA - Brit Mus is built from Portland stone too. Small world.

Barrow transport

Dohar is a magical, delightful place.

In the heart of old Dohar, the Souk Waqif boasts a mass of tiny shops with hand blended perfumes, tailors and much, much more. The passageways between these shops are so narrow that deliveries of goods will always be problematic - or rather would be if it wasn't for the small army of bespokely quilted wheelbarrows that provide that service.

A "barrow rank" so to speak is seen here - and you can see one of the many narrow passage ways beyond. Each barrow is carefully owner-secured by a padlock and chain by the way, although Dohar is one of the safest places I've ever been. You can see from the flat worn on each tyre (solid rather than pneumatic, by the way) that these barrows to a fair old mileage!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Space to think

Some years back I was part of the team assembled by Balfour Beatty to "transform" Knowsley schools, just outside Liverpool.

We took them to see Hellerup School in Denmark, connected them to Sheree Vertigan in Reece High School in Tasmania - pioneers of Home Base learning, showed them ideas and designs from all over. A wonderful local authority were ambitious enough for their children that they sought to replace some 11 comprehensives with 7 Learning Centres, against much controversy and, what was in my view, a backward looking, "alternative" plan by the then existing headteachers.

Fast forward, and it was a joy to be there today and see how well the new designs - this one is the Halewood Centre for Learning - are working: chatting to students they reported the remarkable changes in behaviour and motivation, the open, agile home base spaces were being used exactly as intended, the huge "amphitheatre" in the heart that doubles as a staircase (shown here) is now the premier cultural performance facility in the area, with the Liverpool Philharmonic playing there shortly. This has been the experience in Knowsley, where the council has taken the bold move of closing all of its 11 secondary schools, transferring them to 7 new Centres for Learning, using £150 million of government money.

A big 1,000+ school would be impersonal - too easy to coast or be lost. Like so many schools I'm associated with this one is designed around several ‘homebases’, with unique-colour carpeting, and their own designated toilets, study rooms, and a Commons for meeting friends and tutors.

I asked the articulate and thoughtful students who showed me round what was best about the places: the community sharing the space? the sense of intimacy in the home bases? the teachers' open areas adjacent to the home bases? the cathedral like hugely high ceiling?. "No", he said, "it is just that here, you have space to think".


Friday, 6 November 2009


this was fascinating - a prototype session over two days to learn from in preparation for tourhe Great Learnover event in 2010 (www.learnover.net). One of the Harris academies hosted this prototype session and watching children from around the world discuss each others learning, in detail, was compelling. Here by the way you can see a useful trick which is to stick postie notes on the screen you are watching to remeber who the various faces are!

To take one example converstion: Swedish children: "how do you organise your learning days?" UK children were puzzled "we have a timetable, someone else organises it". Swedish children surprised.
UK children "how many exams do you do?" Swedish children - we do four at 16, but mostly we have teacher assessment. UK children "How do you get a job with only 4 exams?!!" and so on.

On the other hand, the overseas children were much taken by the collegiality of the Harris Children's Commission and the sense of "belonging" that they all shared although they came from multiple academies. So much to learn from each other, but we need to really break this sense that this only one way to do learning - it is so unfair on our learners.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Rites of passage...

three for one here - (1) this is Oxford Street - the heart of London consumerland - and a novel traffic experiment where on the lights' cue folk can cross on the diagonal.. and tonight (first night) plenty of people were there just to watch ("they'll all be killed..." etc). And (2) some London red busses for those of you not in UK who think the are cute and don't ride bikes around the city.

But also (3) the Christmas lights (turned on this week) set me thinking about cues and clues and signification again. There are very few markers left in our lives of the passage from childhood to adulthood. They really matter, but we seem to be left with only these two: (a) you get a phone at about 9 or 10 ready for "big" school, and (b) you get a High School prom at the end of compulsory exit exams.

Somehow that doesn't seem like enough - cue frantic reading on anthropological texts. Folk in Oxford Street tonight (as they watched the diagonal crossers collide) were remembering being old enough to come up to see the lights etc., and I have reflected elsewhere on how education should be central in devising these markers in the newly secular world that we now inhabit. In UK schools, where uniform is prevalent, the "moving out of uniform into "work standard' clothes might be one such marker...

Fresh ideas for what learning related rites of passage to adulthood might be effective are welcome...

User generated?

Interesting experience tonight: I did a TV interview on the BBC's 24/7 news channel - with a huge global audience I was told - on the old chestnut of exams. It seems that wise Denmark (see last week) are allowing internet access in exam rooms for 14 school / colleges and will invite all schools to participate by 2011. I'll post the interview here later. I mentioned our eViva project from some years back.

But the Millbank studio was not where the interviewer was - so i sat facing this camera, noone else around, no technicians (huge contrast with the 28 folk in the room when I did Newsnight live!) - and the monitor on the camera was off (broken?). So staring at a disembodied voice of the interviewer, chatting to a lens alone (through a glass darkly?)... and yet it all felt so straightforward after all those podcasts, twitcams and other USG stuff.

For a sense of audience you only need an imagination....

Sunday, 25 October 2009

As time goes by

I have visited so many schools lately with a Great School Clock that people had almost forgotten, but that somehow was rediscovered... and anyway I love clockwork things (my watch is clockwork even) - so when I found an 1820s grandfather clock with it's chains and weights and pendulum, I couldn't resist buying it. It was very affordable... only problem is, it needs a case - you can see it here nailed inelegantly to the workshop door (being measured up for its new finery).

So there's a winter project - I'd better make it a case.

When we started exploring Nano Nagel's convent in Cork (the Presentation Sisters were exploring making it into a community learning resource - a great project), I couldn't resist winding and starting the old grandfather clock on the landing. It ws a mesmeric moment, as though the whole building's heart had been restarted. Clockwork clocks can do that, not everything digital is perfect!

Friday, 23 October 2009


Engaging visit to Silkeborg in Denmark - a town of some 50,000 folk - to explore ICT in learning. Their largest school of some 700 students is, like so many others now, subdivided into about 10 smaller "communities", but I was most interested in this new primary school...

The evening that I arrived I visited Hans-Jørn Riis' lovely house and was captivated by his complex, brick, traditional fire and stove right at the centre of his family home (not the least because of the tasty pizza which came out of the oven bit!). It has a complex flue which powers the oven too, and gives the home a warm heart. Hans-Jørn mentioned that their new primary school Lansgøskolen also had an oven of this traditional brick design, and here it is - it gives the school community a warm heart, but also serves as a focal point - you can imagine on a cold morning the youngsters gravitating to the centre, and to the embracing warmth.

Great idea...

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Any degrees but 90

One of so many insights from the remarkable Leigh Technology Academy (schools within schools, vertical age groupings, so much responsibility given to older students, project based work, etc etc) was this:

so many of the 21st century schools that I have seen leaping forwards in ambition and performance have a certain "wow factor" when you walk in - it is part of the self esteem growth that you always see in the students. A big part of that  "wow factor" comes from an absence of what the US calls "cells and bells" - the old boxes and corridoors of the factory school era.

However, not only are the tiny boxes missing (Leigh Technology Academy teaches a lot of classes in groups of 60 in big spaces, but with three or sometimes four adults present) but one design feature that stands out is the complete lack of right angles! It seems like a small thing in design terms but the impression it gives is of a series of interlinking agile spaces that are a very long way from boxes.

And watching the teaching and learning that results, reading the research too, it clearly works.

Sunday, 11 October 2009


In designing learning spaces I talk a lot about Agility - and now many others do too. Agile learning spaces, usually multifaceted, allow the organisation of learning to respond rapidly to learners' needs and to their teacher's plans. I often describe such spaces as being like a stage - architecturally bland (and thus SO affordable) but able to rapidly offer a different vista of learning - Act 1 scene iv, Act 2 Scene i, Act 2 scene ii etc. People seem to understand this analogy.

But wandering through Brightlingsea at the start of Autumn I walked past pal Gary Constable's boatyard and reflected on the way that boatyards re-configure themselves seasonally. At this time space is at a premium as boats start to appear for winter refits and work, prior to formally laying up - by Spring it is all pre-season preparation and of course summer is space and time. Not only do each of these functions require a different space layout - for which the yard needs genuine agility, but each offers a different social environment too - folk this week were positively relishing the social chit chat of Autumn in the shed. No doubt many other physical spaces have traditionally been comfortably agile - it makes you wonder even more why we seem to have locked so many schools down into the constancy of cells and bells...

..and then seem surprised by the boredom and disengagement that results.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Visiting Sydney, as I am lucky enough to do from time to time, I stay at the Hilton - which is apparently "chic and central" - but more importantly is over the street from the Pitt Street Mall - which is a joy to wander through with its cafés, toy shops, fashion windows and almost complete absence of chain stores. Rather like Glasgow Caledonian University's Saltire Centre it functions differently on different levels - the bustle and rush of the train-commuter related base up to the chilled pauses offered towards the roof - with a macchiato and decadent nibble of some sort. The deep atrium centre gives a sense of unity to the place, but preserves somehow the unique social and aural character of each floor.

I've been involved in designing prisons from time to time and the old "open centre" design has rather given way to complete floors - with of course a significant additional cost in security as each floor is then a unique sealed entity - it just seems wrong to me. Designing spaces that have on the one hand a sense of what I like to call us-ness, but on the other hand offer some character and intimacy - without opening a door to the bullying and boorishness that often accompany intimacy is a huge design task - and a task for schools too.

But as we try to get that right, sometimes it's just a joy to sit back and bask in the spactacle of the Pitt Street Mall. Now, perhaps I should try the lemon meringue pie next...

Staff rooms...

What is it about school staff rooms? You find 35mm slide rolls, books and resources from the 70s (Connexions!!) and barriers that would probably be banned as inhuman in a prison.

Of course resources are tight and because ideas come n go you're never sure what to keep, but even so...

In education, everything is escaping from its boxes: subjects, timetables, classes... Surely we should let the staff out too?

Monday, 21 September 2009

Making notes...

Oh this is really interesting: a group of young children in Drummore Primary School, at Scotland's most south westerly point are learning brass instruments from a video-linked teacher. Now as a former chairman of the European Teleconferencing Federation, I'm used to video-linking, but in this instance the link wasn't just a "nearly" version of face to face, it was actually substantially better: the distance from the tutor meant that the children needed to support each other too and the headteacher was confident that this resultant mutuality runs into the classroom when the children are away from the link. Watching, I could see that she was quite right about that. All sorts of little practical details about how to do it effectively emerged too - invaluable.

I could write tons about this, but Alan Cameron - who has made all this extraordinary work happen - recorded a conversation we had together, reflecting on the whole experience a little later that same day. It covers a lot more detail...

Friday, 4 September 2009

Seat of learning

As regulars of this phone blpog will know, I'm a bit obsessed by school seating - and how poor it often is. Chairs designed to stack well are not always good for learning... (no surprise there then).

Today, working with the excellent staff of schools in the Upper Shirley area (outside Southampton) who are really going somewhere together, there was a a moment where over lunch everyone tried to get the 'standard' chairs to work for their informal chats and discussions. As you see in this picture people there were twisted on chairs, moving chairs, half on chairs... and you get to see just how bad the standard school chair is for collaboration and indeed for learning.

As schools move into and through BSF or other rebuilds we seem to keep on coming back to the whole issue of furniture and its design. This is a HUGE opportunity for a business somewhere. Where are they?

Monday, 31 August 2009

Jolly jellyfish

Hmmm. It is amazing how tiny temperature changes are seen so quickly in flora and fauna. Around our coasts global warming is having an impact and East coast fish are now including species that we commonly only ever saw on the South coast. Jellyfish are a very visible and real reminder of the fact that the water is, simply, warmer.

Here passing through a marina in our annual August of racing the little 4 ringed common Moon Jellyfish (aurelia aurita) is in evidence everywhere - a denser population in the marina than I can ever remember. Not good....

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Mount Gay party, Cowes Week 09

Not the most useful photo, but a few hundred red hats and a lot of rum
inside seems to beat the rain outside in this hectic week of sailing
on the Solent.

And a great band; cue debate about live music matters.. And how
education doesn't really make enough of it's huge number of live events.

Now, where's my rum...

Sunday, 19 July 2009

70 years young

As well as our newish big carbon and kevlar and exotic bits sailboat Cracker, we also have this lovely old Bightlingsea One Design - one of a fiercely competitive local class of 18' open racing dayboats with cast iron (=heavy) centreboards; currently the BOD fleet is enjoying something of a boom.

Ours, Aina, was built in 1939 and promptly garaged for the duration of the war and she is thus 70 years old this year - cue party later this summer. As you see, she is in pretty fine condition although when we bought her she'd been in a greenhouse for seven years and had her decks chain-sawed off...

She's a bit late being launched this year, but then she is most years (!). I think at that age you are allowed to be out and about a little later than most. She's pretty quick though, and wins things from time to time. Hope I do too at 70!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Community community community

I visited the stunning new St John's Catholic Comprehensive School in Kent. It opens in a year. Like the best of the 21stC schools - and this is certainly one of the very best - they have listened, thought, designed and built and not been deflected by value engineering and other nonsense. It's on budget too.

The school is almost entirely corridor free. And with the colossal saving this brings they have created a HUGE build which is subdivided into three Communities - very much a cross between the proven schools within schools and Home Base models. There is joyfully specified specialist space - gym, dance studio, media centre (ceiling height raised to allow trampolining outside of the gym!) etc but science, maths and more are all taught within the Communities, which are all age, with vertical pastoral structures. The building is open, multifaceted, and has acres of glass but very few internal walls. As the levels drop rows of steps provide little natural amphitheatres and seating for each community. It looks very much like our Caribbean schools in the Cayman Isles - even to the "Nair-esque" Da Vinci studios that mix subjects - science with other explorations. natural llight is everywhere.

All this begs a question: why on earth are schools being allowed to be built with a third of their budget wasted on corridors? How can this waste of money be tolerated? How can architects be allowed anywhere near these designs if they just do cells and bells? Part of the answer is that the wretched Building Bulletins can be seen as encouraging this specialist circulation space. Time for a re-write and clarification surely...? One improvement for St John's? Like many others, they will find they probably haven't got enough mains sockets... The front face of the steps would have been a good place to put them maybe.

Meanwhile St John's has one more year to explore new pedagogies, new structures and new ambitions... having spoken to the staff and exceptional Head I'd simply say "safe in their hands".

Wonderful. Watch their space...

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Henry VIII's blockhouse

At Bawley Bay in Gravesend a lot of history comes together in one
place. This is one of 4 blockhouses built around 1539/40 by Henry VIII
to defend the Thames and London against Spanish warships. There also
guard the ferry crossing to Tilbury, still running today.

But Bawleys were salied to catch brown shrimps and we still see plenty
of them racing on the East Coast.

The blockhouse (with walls added in the late 17th century to make a
living space, and the now racing Bawleys remind me of how well our
ancestors repurposed things - makes our retail-space-into-schools
project even more interesting.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Time and relative dimensions...

... in space.

Here's why I love Bournemouth University. Its media rich, creative heart just makes mine sing. Andrew Ireland - seen here - has a PhD focussed around re-shooting Doctor Who - using a contemporary script but with a retro-tiny 60s studio, all analog processes. It is hugely interesting work and there is much to learn from it.

Here he is engaging in his research (!).

But it set me thinking about these agile, simply reconfigureable spaces we are building at the heart of new 21st century schools. Tardis like springs to mind... Hmmm, maybe if I put Andrew in touch with PfS...

(see also Dalek)

Saturday, 4 July 2009

A lot of sanding...

Having nudged the Varvassi wreck as we rounded the Needles, west end of the UK's Isle of Wight, we thought we'd better get Cracker out to see if we'd done any damage. Phew! A glancing blow only had scrapped the side of the several tons of leaf at the end of our 9' keel, but nothing had moved. So had a very pleasant Saturday filling and sanding and keel is now even faster than before.

It's curious how relaxing hard manual work can be. And how satisfying looking at the result. Interestingly, Unskilled Manual and Skilled Manual jobs are surving well, as are Skilled Clerical. But unskilled clerical jobs are the ones that have vanished - sadly the school curriculum forces children to become really good at this now useless unskilled clerical work: copying, taking dictation...

Clearly the curriculum should have more sailing in it!

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Underwater learning

Now, I know I go on a lot about how we know more about learning these days, which means new approaches can often be remarkably effective - as have seen in a host of projects, and I constantly worry about how often education can under ambitious be for the children in it... and of course we are seeing now so many breaking through the artificially low ceiling of criterion referencing and thumbing their noses at the foolishness of Incrementalism (just one variable, a tiny bit better.... hah!) so that in so many ways we are really now starting to see just how good our learners might be...

...so pictures like these have become less exceptional. But it still impresses the heck out of me!. This is granddaughter Amelie, under water and completely as ease - she's been swimming underwater from 6 months and is nearly two now. Unthinkable 15 years ago, every-day-normal now. Science + learning = remarkable progress for so many.

Sorry about the photo quality - being under water blurs things a bit.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Round the Island, again

Well, once again it is the HUGE annual Round the Island Race as close on 1,800 boats race anti-clockwise around the Isle of Wight on the UK's south coast.

Here we all are at sunset the night before, all ready to be up-at-dawn for a tense start with all computers blazing! So many boats ready here gunwhale to gunwhale that you can walk right across the haven. We had a very good race, but hitting the rusting boiler of the Varvassi wreck at the Needles was a bit scary (and very loud below decks our navigator Carole assures me), although it puts us in a very exclusive club.

For those of you who don't race these things it is interesting to reflect on how little weight there is on board: a very little diesel, water, enough food, but jars through sleeping bags to cutlery are all gone. Our rig - mast, boom, sails even - is largely carbon - the "pitching" inertia at the mast tip is the square of the distance from the axis of pivot (ie the hull) so weight aloft with a big rig really does slow a boat. As my son at 10 once memorably said in a TV interview sailing has a lot of physics, meteorology, chess-like-tactics, engineering, computing and more. Plus it is flippin hard athletic work with scary bits too.

Nice though...

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Boldly go

Wellington International School in Dubai has this amazing "space themed" floor with mirrors lights star trek (bzzrrrppt) doors, astronomical telescope and more.

Having just worked here with a very engaged, thoughtful, group of school students and their staff it is a reminder of how important play will always be in learning.

We had great fun too.


Cruising down the creek in Dubai on a splendid 68' motor yacht (!) it is hard not to be struck by the constant contrast between old and new, wealthy and not so. So much trade in the region is still plied by traditional sampans and junks like these and close up to them you realize what HUGE loads they are capable of shifting, as well as providing a home for a family.

About 75% of building here in Dubai is currently paused, although as you see in the background of this photo there are still lots in cranes about. Other than a slowdown in building and quite a lot of overseas workers going home for a while, the economy seems to be booming still.

Fascinating, and captivating, place.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Global Classroom

Up in Shetland for 10th year of their wonderful Global Classroom
Project. Children here from AUS NZ Japan Sweden, USA, Shetland, and
all debating the future of learning whilst immersed in Island culture
for 10 days.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Sky's the limit?

Arriving at national sports and athletics centre Crystal Palace, south of London, I was reminded of climbing these rather tall floodlight towers years ago on a school-aged coaching weekend as a dare (and as a race!). Scary fun.

coincedentally the mornings papers today were full of a story of a pick-your-own fruit farm being closed by safety inspectors who wanted to see safety railings installed!!

I do wonder how long this wonderfully patient generation of children will tolerate this nonsense of being banned from everything - from YouTube to gooseberries? How can we put self reliance, confidence and a bit of scary excitement too back into learning?

Looking up again at the floodlight towers I was also reminded of how fit I was back then too. Time for a change of life style...

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Unexpected treasure!

Gosh! Came across this clock locked away inside the (predictably enough) clock tower in St Mary's C of E Primary School in Shenfield. We were exploring the tower as a perfect site for a webcam - the view is amazing.

This robust 19th century clock mechanism drives the clock face (just being restored) by way of a long cable and has not-quite-as-long pendulums and a wind twice a week escapement. Interestingly almost noone I spoke to at the school had ever seen it (it is the "other side" of the caretaker Steve's room) but cue long debate about what an asset for the school and could / should the children have a chance to climb the Tower, supervised and harnessed of course.

Maybe the webcam should justwatch the mechanism ticking...

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Sometimes it's the simplest things

...like Granddaughter Amelie's "under-the-table" house sewn from a sheet and some other material off-cuts by her Mum. It's even got window boxes with fabric flowers in them!

Play is so important isn't it? I'm looking very hard at the moment for fresh and further ways to make school buildings, new or refurbed, more playful too. Watch this space...

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Some things never change

I love the pace of the 21st century and the new opportunities it brings, but sometimes, just occasionally, of is nice to feel a community's timelessness.

Sailing today with friends in the annual Wivenhoe Regatta we raced up river to Wivenhoe to find, as we do each year, crowds, blindfold tender rowing, raffles for good causes, free beer (for sailors), Punch
and Judy, home made cakes, a barBQ in every balcony, smiles, friends - and this year even a Viking longboat...

Sun and wind were perfect, and so of course was the regatta. Again. You had to be there - and how many times have we heard that already this century? "Live, social and "community" are all back!!! But in some places they never went away.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Car factory

In Sweden to deliver a keynote to a soul searching conference exploring education futures in the context of a government that has lost faith in ICT - curious since Sweden was at the heart of pioneering and hugely effective work back in the era of multimedia.

The conference was set in a remarkable conversion of an old car factory - which had been reconfigured as an exciting and agile space, but keeping the functional features of manufacture. I liked the "catwalk" shown here, that encouraged presenters to walk away from the screen into the audience. i also liked thw scrapwood trees two of which cn be seen further down the walkway, at the end

The conference also enjoyed a remarkable debate between children and politicians...

Monday, 4 May 2009

Corridors of Dour

Sigh. I won't name the university - it is full of good and well meaning folk - but this endless, dreadful, soulless corridor exemplifies what is an absolute crisis of mismatch between the new 21st century schools, mostly corridor free, agile, full of community and collegiality, designed for a broad portfolio of learning styles, that are springing up all round the world - and the frankly dreadful Higher Education buildings that are appearing in parallel.

I was talking to an HE conference, by video link, just recently and mentioned that HE buildings are too often the analog product of a room allocation spreadsheet, so that the cells of the spreadsheet become the cells into which students are decanted, linked by ghastly productivity-corridors. All the emphasis is on moving people and knowing who is in (and thus should be paying for) each space - no sense of what might be effective for learning at all. I added that architects find designing these cells mind numbingly boring, so they usually add a flourish - typically a grand atrium. And often a sponsor kindly gave the money for all this, so a "statement" entrance, with sponsors name prominently displayed, is a final touch. The conference folk laughed a lot and for an unpextedly long time. I was puzzled but an email later explained: they had just had a presentation of the drawings of a proposed new building... with cells, corridors, atrium and grand entrance. Oh dear.

If UK HE is to survive in a global world, the design of our learning spaces will be a major contributor to that survival...

Friday, 1 May 2009

Ready Steady, slightly late

The company's office is a bit late onto the race course this year but Cracker goes back into the water today (hurrah!) after spraying with her new Teflon® antifouling - and very fab she looks too, as you can see.

But tall. Of course one problem with having 9 foot of keel plus a very-large-lump-of-lead hanging underneath and a berth on the really-jolly-shallow UK's East Coast is that you spend a lot of time avoiding the jolly- shallow bits!

But it's worth it though eh?, I mean LOOK at her... sigh.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Trim Tram

I love the whole complexity of the public transport system in Hong Kong, the little red and green mini-buses, the Toyota red n white taxis, the upstairs (and cheaper downstairs) on the Star Ferries, the regular buses and the VERY cheap trams.

Best thing about the trams is simply how skinny they are as you can see here. They get through the tiniest of gaps and their narrow railtracks look almost like a model train line.

There is no one size fits all and the diversity of provision really works. On their underground network, at one point if you get out and walk around a very busy junction / station, you can swipe your fare card as you walk and it credits you (!) to say thanks for reducing the pressure at a busy time...

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Light and scents

Visiting the Canadian School of Hong Kong to find a real emphasis on natural light. And look no blinds. Actually the best bit was coming in to the building early (for breakfast) and opening the door to this space to find it filled with the scent of all this structural maple (Canadian, remember).

Wonderful impact olfactory, which raises some interesting thoughts about what smells are good for learning (I mean, if pumping fresh bread and coffee smells around supermarkets is effective, what works for learning?...)

Monday, 20 April 2009

No place like Dome

Sailing down the Thames this weekend - a gentle start in the sun to a horrific gale tossed battle across the North Sea up to Shotley marina by Harwich - we inevitably passed by the Millemmium Dome, or the O2 as it now is. And that reminded me, once again, of the excitement and the battles, of being part of the Dome's birth.

Looking back it seems curious that so much of the Dome focussed - rather as the Festival of Britain had apparently done years before in 1951 with its Skylon - on what had gone before, when in fact we were about to begin a decade of unprecedented change and surprise.

In fact, I liked the Dome so much I tried to buy it - we made the last 5 (in fact the last 3 I think), but our bid wasn't finally chosen. With hindsight, perhaps it was probably as well!

Friday, 17 April 2009


Working on the boat with some very smart and thoughtful students from King Edward VI College in Nuneaton who are busy researching learning experiences (lessons, lectures etc) to see how they might be made more effective (more compelling, etc) ... before taking their research back to universities to suggest how their teaching might be improved too.

I really like the idea of presenting universities with research about learning - and exploring their responses - don't you?

Anyway, since we were meeting on the boat when we broke for lunch we headed for the Pizza Dock (2nd floor on the Dickens Inn at the St Katherine Docks) where as you can see in this picture the researchers were really quite hungry! All the pizza went...

Friday, 3 April 2009


I have a simple little ap on my iPhone which turns it into a decibel meter (it's called Decibel, unsurprisingly...).

I like to use it to explore the ambient sound in various new classrooms - they vary amazingly. Since decibels double every ten (ie 60 is twice as loud as 50) it is perhaps a surprise that a well designed room with sound baffling and a design that reflects multiple learning styles, even when it is a "home base" type space with 100 or so students in it and three teachers, can be comfortably in the mid 60s, while a similar sized space, with some of the pedagogy less well thought through (so that for example the teachers need to use microphones and their undirectional voices make it very hard to students to pause, focus and reflect), can be in the 80s, a huge difference.

These big, agile, multifaceted spaces can be very tranquil and calm places to learn. But only through good design and thoughtful attention to detail. I was in a school just recently where a huge screen; opposite a large window, offered a way for sound to bounce and reflect in a way that made it really quite unpleasant, while nearby another big three-classrooms-into-one new learning space development was tranquil and a joy to teach in.

As schools try out 21st century spaces, often in preparation for their new builds, this kind of evidence based action research really matters.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Goodbye London

Cracker's joyful but long winter at the Tower of London is over and this weekend she's back to the race course (which means all the clutter has to come off, including the bike (it's mostly carbon, but still...).

The Ivory House behind her by the way, where she is moored at the St Katherine Docks, used to be FILLED with ivory tusks. Such reckless slaughter...

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Animal Magic

Seeing the world through the eyes of a one year old re-awakems the mind to the detail of a daisy, the shimmer of a shubunkin or (as seen here) the slobbery gobble of a goat.

Isn't learning a marvel. This is granddaughter Amelie...

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Chair in Learning

Continuing this phoneblog's theme of comfy collaborative seating for learning, here are just few of the playful seats that serve well for students working together...

These are in the library of the Dubai GEMS World Academy - filled with everything from a professional music technology studios to a skate park.


Sometimes, well quite often actually, a new school design is characterised by the old school's timetable defining lots of little boxes whilst bored architects put a grand atrium on the front to disguise the fact that it is, in fact, just another 20th century school - what the American's call putting lipstick on a chicken.

So I was more than a little delighted to be visiting the GEMS World Academy in Dubai - which has this wonderful entrance of spiral ramp and water feature - to find a fresh look in architecture throughout the building. The building is a mass of curves and textures, with ceiling feature delineating social areas rather than walls and very large, really quite agile, spaces. It is also designed to support the learners' esteem, as this grand image shows..

This is an international school, with a real mission to be global. I'll be doing some work in there tomorrow and am really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Oo what a whopper!

Not sure which of many images to offer from Gainesville in Florida - home to the huge Florida University where I am currently involved with building a new 21st century lab school in the heart of the uni. , which is America's 3rd largest and set on a tranquil leafy campus.

I'm staying in a charming and photogenic olde cottage, even if I am armed only with the iPhone's camera. However, popping out for a meal I was a bit amazed (= gobsmacked) to see this planet guzzling beastie parked in town, with a stretched Hummer parked behind and fully dwarfed by it. I suppose it shows that some things change quickly, others take a bit more time. The ghost of George Bush's USA is not completely erased, quite yet.

On the other hand the folk here are wonderfully keen to make their school make a real difference. Many of you will know that I argue only that people should be properly ambitious for their learners. Here, folk ARE ambitious; the ones I am with are pretty embarrased about the monster limo-truck too.

Monday, 23 February 2009

21st century schools (2)

... I'd spent a fair bit of time in and around Parramatta, near Sydney in New South Wales, before going on to Tasmania. Talking to Parramatta children from four schools (two primary, two secondary) I asked them all if they could bring just ONE item of furniture from home what would it be. Cue a long chat about how they find it hard to read sitting upright in an office / school chair (does ANYONE on the planet ever do this at home?) and how they prefer "relaxed" seating, or sitting on the floor. One said he'd bring his bed in!!

It is also pretty hard to be collaborative or sociable on the standard school chair isn't it? It isn't built for conversation to the left or the right. And the secondary children also spoke of how they missed the playfulness of their primary school lives.

Well, goodness knows I've said all this often enough and in this picture here we are again at the blessed St Aloysius in Tasmania where they have playful and comfy and social all in one go with these sofas which they found, affordably, in a library catalogue. You could read, learn, collaborate in this school, couldn't you?

21st century schools: here's a really good one

I've said so often, for so long, about losing industrial "bullying ante chamber" toilets, about agile transparent learning space, about light, about small sub communities of children in learning bases, about losing expensive wasteful corridors, about displaying work externally by projecting onto windows, about shared space for science, food science or whatever, and so much, much, much, more. And yet I still see the emergence of dismal new factory schools. Mercifully in many of the places I'm lucky to be working, things have moved on hugely and 21st century learning is a fact rather than a distant aspiration.

And here's a wonderful school, in Tasmania, that's done it all and done it SO well. Staff and students love it, parents are reaping the dividend of commiting their children to a new design. It came in under budget, it really shows the thought, leadership and debate by all involved and it is quite, quite lovely.

Why do people STILL build cells n bells factory schools when for less money they can do this and then see substantially better learning as a result? And why don't inspection systems criticise schools whose lack of ambition fails their students by continuing to embrace a model of factory learning with a dull incrementl targets?

St Aloysius, I salute you - what a wonderful and ambitious place to be learning - I'll post a lot more images soon and then link them from here.

Meanwhile, these are the toilets: doors that fit the frame top and bottom, glass means no place for bullies, the toilets are small scale and everywhere. These folk LISTENED and reflected and it shows, everywhere.

Saturday, 21 February 2009


As someone who doesn't even eat meat (just seems wrong to kill them somehow, even worse when you consider the global warming implications of animals for food) I can't help but admire the brave folk on the anti-whaling ship the Steve Irwin, which has arrived in Hobart to refuel this weekend, skull and crossbones proudly flying.

The ship docked in Hobart this afternoon after pursuing Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean for several weeks and the bow bears testament to just how tough that pursuit has been. Plenty of video footage on youTube. Anyone who knows the sea will know just how tough this kind of action must be. Just like the late Steve Irwin, these are brave folk.

Friday, 20 February 2009


Tasmania - where i am currently - has some wonderful period architecture. Coming from a village in England where the oldest house is from the 1300's nothing much here is really old unless it's aboriginal, but these charming features and scale make for some really delightful houses (and of course they are not cheap!!). They help people in Hobart to really feel part of a community.

In building schools around the world we have used local culture groups and children with cameras / phones to capture the feature that say "us' most strongly and then try to capture the angles, shiplap, details, textures, colours, heights etc., in the new school designs. It really works, of course, but how could anyone ever imagined that one size might fit all?