The End of Education Is the Dawn of Learning

How to design schools that can help change the face of education? A conversation with Stephen Heppell, one of the world’s leading education reformers.


If you want to know where Professor Stephen Heppell is, don’t call his house or email his assistant — check his Facebook page. Stephen has been known to fly around the world in ridiculously short amounts of time, stopping off at multiple locations to demonstrate how children of the third millennium are learning differently. His emphasis: Rethinking the impact of digital media on pedagogy. Stephen’s voice is the loudest in asking educators to move away from the factory school model of the 20th century and toward a more agile learning environment of constant adaption.

Last May, while he was city-hopping through North American on a string of speaking engagements, I caught up with Stephen in Chicago and asked him to reflect on what he’s been up to, what he’s been thinking about, and what’s next for the Yoda of learning. His message is simple: The last century of education has ended and the new millennium of learning has begun.

Trung Le: Give us a quick refresher on the situation going on in the UK with the Building Schools for the Future program being scrapped. 

Stephen Heppell: The U.K. government began awhile back with a “Classrooms of the Future” project, which produced some outstanding learning spaces. I was particularly proud of our fiberglass Ingenium classrooms in Richmond on the Thames, completed in 2004. The government followed that project with a commitment to rebuild every high school in the country — a £60billion “Building Schools for the Future” program. The resulting schools produced mixed results — some genuinely stunning and effective third millennium designs, but quite a few “shiny versions” of 20th century cells-and-bells schools.

However, as the program matured ambition rose and corridors had finally all but disappeared; we were getting real insight into just how good our children might be and understanding how many had been disengaged or were only coasting before. The new government, with an austerity agenda, has stopped Labour’s program dead in its tracks. However, the government does remain committed to new schools and they have pried open the bureaucracy to allow just about anyone to open their own “Free School” while outstanding existing schools can redefine their autonomy by becoming new academies. Having been part of a group that opened a hugely successful but tiny parent power school in the UK, I have to be excited by the potential of what this might mean. We are beginning a new journey.


Stephen Heppell lecturing about education reform

Tell us about the Portland Academy model and the all-ages academy concept.

I am lucky to see new learning emerging all round the world. Regions and communities throughout the world are embracing and developing new “ingredients” of learning: superclasses of 90 to 120 students; vertical learning groups; stage not age; schools within schools or ?Home Bases;” [all education concepts Stephen talks about more later] project-based work; exhibition-based assessments; collaborative learning teams; mixed-age mentoring; children as teachers; teachers as learners; and so much more. Obviously, in a world where every culture, context and community is unique there will be no one-size-fits-all solution, however enlightened that solution might be.

“Schools are full of things that our descendants will look back on and laugh out loud at.”

The trick is to pick through these tested ingredients to assemble a local recipe for learning.  In Portland, Dorset, in the UK, I was approached by local headteachers of some excellent local schools who wanted to really step up educational performance on their delightful little island community. With a few caveats — we would proceed with all of the existing teachers, children and families — I agreed to be the school’s lead sponsor. We are currently assembling an all-through school from birth to university graduation with students remaining in “Home Bases” of about 300 students throughout their time there. Research shows that the damage done as a result of phase changes — for example, a student changing schools at 11 — is pretty damning, so we have no phase breaks and there is a consistent model of learning throughout. We have some pretty significant partners in this: Eidos to retain our playfulness; Pearson doing some radical things with transparency in examination, assessment practices and enabling the stage-not-age approach; Teachers TV to help parents and teachers explore and validate new models of learning; and so on. We are trying to do this affordably and in a way that is easily replicated and versioned for other contexts. With the government change we lost about £28 million in funding from the project but we are going ahead with more conversion and less rebuild work. 


Ingenium Schools, London, United Kingdom; Image Credit: © Peter Cowley / Future Systems

Let’s talk about the teaching and learning environment. What should the third millennium school look like? 

I have a simple rule of three for third millennium learning spaces:
?No more than three walls so that there is never full enclosure and the space is multifaceted rather than just open.
?No fewer than three points of focus so that the “stand-and-deliver” model gives way to increasingly varied groups learning and presenting together (which by the way requires a radical rethinking of furniture).
?Ability to accommodate three teachers/adults with their children. The old standard size of about 30 students in a box robbed children of so many effective practices; these larger spaces allow for better alternatives.

None of this is about fashion — it is about effectiveness and, of course, there is a great deal more detail to give regarding building this environment: detail about the 24/7 nature of learning; the value of learning outside the classroom; the acceleration of stage-not-age; or the inspirational role models derived within vertical age structures. Perhaps most important of all is the sense that each year — as is the case with medicine, car design, technology, even cooking — if we feel we have not made progress in our approach, there is a palpable sense of wasted opportunity and of slipping back. For 30 years in education, it seemed as though each year was judged only in direct comparison with the previous year — the curse of criterion referencing — as though there were some merit in not progressing. How foolish!


In reality, what do schools today look like? What can we do to change that?

Schools are full of things that our descendants will look back on and laugh out loud at: ringing a bell and expecting 1,000 teenagers to be simultaneously hungry; putting 25 children together in a box because they were born between two Septembers; assessing children based on how well they work alone; and so on.

But schools can be wonderful places — just think of the Christmas production, or school musical, and you will see a large hall filled with children of all ages, determined to create the best ever version of Grease (or whatever), with youngsters chasing the older ones, their role models, who in turn gain from working with the youngsters. Small groups are working on the front-of-house details, the choreography, painting the set, rehearsing scenes, sorting out the lighting technology, and doing all of this in parallel. If things are not going too well they will stay late, come in early, work though weekends…it is a clear vision of just how wonderfully seductive learning might be, yet schools seem not to notice this and put the same children back in their boxes, only to be amazed at their disengagement.

This might have gone on forever, but mercifully the great Trojan horse that is technology has forced us to think afresh. Back at the dawn of technology in schools, folks struggled to imagine what it might do that was useful; today it can do anything you like and the tougher question is, “Well, what would you like learning to be like?” And whilst some have simply harnessed technology to some dreary productivity solution (kill-and-drill multiple-choice testing is a prime example), many have embraced the extraordinary world of new possibilities now on offer. To hurry things along, we need only to take time to swap effective ingredients with each other and then you see hearts and minds changed quickly. Consider this group of Tasmanian teachers after we spent two days together — watch the excitement in their eyes as they go back to learning at the end of day two.

Speaking of technology forcing us to think afresh, how do you see new media and social networking impacting the physical environment? 

Well, I am a professor and hold the chair in New Media Environments at Bournemouth Uni — the UK’s premier media university — so you’d expect me to think that media and social networking matter! And they do. There may be times when media is not part of the learning process, and similarly when speech or movement are not appropriate, but it is a case of deciding when to leave it out, rather than when to include it, surely.


However, one really useful insight is this: With others in my research lab, I built a host of online learning media rich communities back in the 1990s?from Talking Heads for all of the UK’s 21,000 headteachers, to Tesco Schoolnet 2000, which the Guinness Book of World Records listed as the then largest internet learning project in the world. These projects back then were 24/7, mixed-age, stage-not-age, collaborative, engaging, project-based, hugely ambitious and highly successful. The physical learning environments that we are now building, 15 years later, are all those things, too, and it is my clear certainty that to see what learning environments look like by 2025 we only have to look at today’s cutting edge online learning projects. We have a heads-up on the future right in front of our eyes.

I’ve made a lot of predictions about learning in the future, since the 1980s, and so far I have been spot on. This is not because I have special insight or have been consistently lucky, but simply because I know where to look to see the future already happening. Media and social networking are a key part of that future, of course, but teachers’ common sense still has a place. For example, a short note about using Facebook in the classroom is something I wrote with my daughter Juliette, who is now a teacher.

© State of Victoria, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development

What’s next for you?


Two things: I think we have made learning too expensive. Developing nations and nations with a desperate need (Afghanistan, for example) can only watch and wish as they see the schools we have created. Technology has made so much of our lives more affordable that I think it should do the same for learning. I’m part of a group really pushing this concept forward — especially looking at the extensive reuse of retail and other redundant space — in order to create new urban campuses. I like to think that soon, when we see a disaster like the flood in Pakistan or the earthquake in Haiti, we might see new flat-packed, but bespoke, globally linked, culturally relevant schools dropped in almost as quickly as the emergency food aid. When disaster strikes, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to offer a better learning opportunity than before, and we should be able to it within days, not decades. I’m determined to make that happen despite the design and logistics challenge.

My other big challenge is with sailing. My wife and I have swapped our state-of-the-art carbon and foam-racing sailboat for a big 1907 Oyster Smack, also for racing. I’m loving the excitement of looking at what a century of effective solutions can evolve into. Not everything from the past is wrong, but to win races we need to continue to evolve it. Just like learning, really!


About the author

Trung Le is a principal education designer at Cannon Design. Over the past two years he has helped lead an interdisciplinary group of designers and educators from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Germany, to collaborate on a research project that resulted in the publication The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning