‘An altogether better place to learn’: Immersive learning at Shireland

Charley Rogers visits Shireland Collegiate Academy to view their immersive room, and to learn about their innovative approach to edtech and a flexible curriculum

Established in 2007 – one of the longest-established academies in the country – Shireland Collegiate Academy is a high-tech school with a focus on fully embedded technology to help aid both learning and teaching, not to mention administration. Located in Smethwick, just outside Birmingham city centre, the school is sleek and impressive from the outside, and even registering at reception (via touchscreen) is somewhat of a high-tech experience.

Part of the Shireland Academy Trust, headed up by CEO Sir Mark Grundy, the secondary school prides itself on its competencies-based learning model, and its use of technology to supplement inventive and innovative teaching.

One of the most impressive pieces of technology at the school, and the reason for my visit, is the large, purpose-built immersive room. Used for a variety of classes, the room consists of three walls which are floor-to-ceiling screens, a furniture-free space for group working, and a high-spec AV station at the back of the class, from which a technician controls what appears on the screen, and can pump in audio and even smells to complete the experience.

The lesson I observed was a Year 8 class on the ancient city of Pompeii, and combined competencies from history, creative writing, and drama. When I walked in, the class was already in session, and pupils were sitting on the floor in groups of three, huddled around laptops working on a task, the instructions for which were displayed on the centre screen, laid over a cartoon-like image of ancient Pompeii.

There was no fussing, no asking to leave to go to the toilet/nurse/back to the classroom. All pupils were sufficiently engrossed in their work, and were getting on with their tasks peacefully together, under the guiding presence of two teachers. The pupils were genuinely interested in the subject, and were interacting brilliantly with the technology.

The thing about technology, it’s always advancing, so when we think we’ve learned something new, there’s something else that comes along, and that’s amazing.
– Rushma, Year 8 pupil

It’s the relevance and modernity of the technology that seemed to engross pupils. Speaking to some of the class, I heard about their personal views on the immersive room. One pupil, Rushma, said: “The thing about technology, it’s always advancing, so when we think we’ve learned something new, there’s something else that comes along, and that’s amazing.” The fact that experience with technology will also prepare them for the working world is also important, explained Rushma’s classmate, Abdul-Ahi: “Every time something new comes out on the market, our teachers go and get it for us, so we get used to the real world [for] when we do leave school, and it’s awesome to see that if we’re prepared for it now, we can do it later in life.”

The whole lesson was incredibly impressive; pupils tested their historical understanding, as well as their creative writing skills through writing dialogue for ancient Pompeii citizens, and even incorporating drama by acting out their scenes. One of the first things that struck me when observing the lesson, however, was that there were two teachers and a technician present. In a time when we are bombarded with news about teacher shortages and a lack of resources, how is this possible? Speaking to Mo Cusworth-Yafai, a teacher and Director of Research at Shireland, I learned that it is a certain curricular flexibility that allows for such resource: “The reason that we’ve got extra teachers, is just that we’ve deployed them in a different way,” said Mo. “Obviously, Peter as a technician is additional, we have that luxury at Shireland.” This luxury, however, appears to be the only ‘extra’ for the lesson, staff-wise. Mo continued: “The way that our curriculum works, is that we team-teach, we rotate, we put two classes together, or we break classes down.”

It appears, then, that impressive tech such as the immersive room is exciting for pupils, allows a more creative experience for teachers, and isn’t a drain on staff resources. So far, so good. But what do management think about the deployment of tech across the academy? I spoke with Kirsty Tonks, Primary Director for the trust. She explained that impressive-looking tech isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all. You need what’s right for your pupils, and your staff. She said: “If you’re planting seeds, you need to make sure you get the conditions right for growth, and that’s exactly the same with a piece of technology.” The process for deciding what your school needs is a lengthy one, explained Kirsty, and there will inevitably be stumbling blocks along the way. However, a good plan is essential; “You have to make sure that you think: How do you want to use it, what do you want your ‘plant’ to look like at the end of it, and how do I get there, and plan backwards,” she advised.

How you then use the technology your school acquires is also essential. Mo commented: “You need technicians, you need creative people, you need pragmatic people, you need a whole team of people to put these things together.” Tech also has to be bespoke to a certain extent; rather than just throwing gadgets at a problem, there needs to be a clear reason for implementation, and a strong follow-through plan. Kirsty explained that the software we saw on show in the immersive room was in fact adapted specifically for the space: “The piece of software you saw in the immersive room, the Inspire, that was for writing, and [we work with] the person who created that, and he never would have thought that it would be used in the way that we’re using it.”

If you’re planting seeds, you need to make sure you get the conditions right for growth, and that’s exactly the same with a piece of technology.
– Kirsty Tonks

But surely these things are expensive? Kirsty explained that Shireland deploy their budget strategically to favour supportive tech rather than supportive staff, and emphasised that this model works for them, but may not for other schools. She also stressed the fact that tech was not implemented to replace teachers, but rather to accentuate their work, something Mo echoed: “Your mindset [needs to be] ‘how is this technology going to make the job that I’m already doing – because teaching is teaching – easier?’”

Kirsty also went on to say that, despite the draw of the immersive room for pupils, it is often the less flashy pieces of tech that can be most effective: “If we’re going to have systemic change, and systemic impact, it’s often the less ‘sexy’ pieces of technology that have the most impact.” This behind-the-scenes, multi-functional technology is what makes the impact of the grand spectacle of the immersive room last. It’s the ‘mundanely clever’ pieces of technology, said Kirsty, that really bring everything together, and allow for a streamlined system. For Kirsty and Mo, this is their Office 365 program. “For me as a teacher, it’s about how immediately can I give feedback to students,” said Mo. “Because that’s the key, the gap between the doing and the feedback, and the acting on feedback, is where teaching happens. That’s what [Office 365] has done for me; it’s shortened that process.”

“The gap between the doing and the feedback, and the acting on feedback, is where teaching happens.”
– Mo Cusworth-Yafai

One of Shireland’s goals is to share what they’ve learned on their edtech journey with other schools. They already do this through the Academy Trust, where they have delegations from primary schools coming up to use the immersive room, and through the specialised curriculum, ‘Learning for Life’, that they have developed for primary. However, their hope is that the scope of their expertise can be cast wider, something which CEO Sir Mark Grundy is very passionate about: “My challenge before I go is [to] see how many other people we can help. We focus on process management, and we use technology to deliver it differently,” he said.

One of the ways in which the team hopes to expand their reach is through the Bett community, of which they are a part. “We’ve used [Bett] as a forum to meet and to network, especially for those of us outside London,” said Kirsty. However, in order to be able to share best practice and continue developing innovative teaching, things need to change, suggested Sir Mark, and commented: “Edtech’s not ‘sticky’, because it costs too much, there’s an aura around it.” There are things that can be done, however, and the team at Shireland have a few ideas up their sleeves, including producing research on efficacy that is based on more relevant criteria than the current randomised control tests, which Sir Mark dismisses as an ‘utterly pointless mechanism’ for education.

But for right now? The focus is on learning, and if the reactions of the children are anything to go by, Shireland are “spot on”*.

*Direct quote from Year 8 pupil, Yusuf, describing the tech at the school.