Go configure

Ben Toettcher explains why a roundtable set-up in a classroom is an important configuration for developing teaching

The classroom design and setup at Newland College, our International Baccalaureate secondary school in Chalfont St Giles, Bucks has three inspirations. The first is the family dinner table, where I learned so much as a child growing up. The second is my observations of the methodology at some of the most successful schools in the world. Third is the findings of the most comprehensive summary into education research we have at our disposal.

Growing up, our dinner table was a place where I felt I was learning most of what I would need to know. My parents, both teachers, and my older sister would share what was happening in the international schools that they ran, how world events were likely to affect enrollments, and other issues that would impact on our family business. I was immersed in this from a very early age and began to see how everything was connected. It was our job growing up to figure out how all the world’s moving parts went together. This is something that is essential to all young learners. 

Later, when I took over running the schools my parents started, I found myself spending quite a bit of time in meetings. A few years ago, I came across the ‘Harkness’ method of teaching. This is a round-table set-up in a classroom that was pioneered in the 1930s by the Philip’s Exeter Academy in New England, USA. It resonated with me. I felt that their method of teaching – around an oval table for 12 students – was an important configuration for how we could develop our approach to teaching the International Baccalaureate (IB). 

‘A round table discussion has many rules that allow the students in the class to teach and learn from one another’

A round table discussion has many rules that allow the students in the class to teach and learn from one another. The first is that the teacher sets expectations and advocates certain behaviours in such a way as they become habitualised among students. These habits include learning how to listen actively; learning how to interject in a way that builds the conversation in a way similar to the techniques used by improvisation theatre; learning how to monitor the amount you talk in a session; and most importantly of all, learning how to prepare well for the forthcoming discussion. The teacher turns seated conductor, and the students make the music, much like a very good dinner party. 

The third inspiration for our round-table set-up is the insight that an important way to make learning happen is to make it visible to the learner. It is estimated that our visual and spatial cortex represents two thirds of our brain’s sensory processing power. Visible learning takes many forms. John Hattie’s now seminal evaluation of education research on teaching strategies named, appropriately enough, Visible Learning, can give clues to schools, teachers, and interested parents on how to employ the most effective ones. 

This idea is translated in the Newland College classroom to give students and teachers as many surfaces as possible to make that learning visible. We have up to five surfaces: a wall to wall magnetic white-board, enough mini-whiteboards and laptops for each student, a smart TV, and finally, a central-console screen sitting in the centre of the round table and visible to all students and the teacher. As lessons unfold, the teacher chooses which surface will be used for each part of the lesson:

1.     The whiteboard is usually the mind map culmination of each lesson and is the mainly written on by the students, so the teacher can assess the degree to which they understood the lesson.

2.     The laptops allow students to research during the lesson – if you can google the answer to something then do it. Students then try and set a question that you can’t google as part of their enquiry, a fundamental building block of the International Baccalaureate, the chosen curriculum at Newland College.

3.     Mini-whiteboards allow for one to many question and answer sessions, allow the teacher to ask diagnostic questions to evaluate how each student is encoding the content. They also allow the teacher or student to group the class through surveying the class on a particular area.

4.     The smart TV can bring what’s happening right now into the classroom, or can be used by the students to share their laptop screen with the class.

5.     Finally, and uniquely to Newland College, the central console sits in the middle of the hoop of tables. It holds 4 screens linked together, displaying content to the students seated around it. It is usually controlled by the teacher and is used to introduce topics and keep the pace of a lesson. It works because every student gets a front row seat.

Our technical solution to make this possible was to run an HDMI cable into a 4-port HDMI Splitter which displays a laptop’s screen simultaneously onto four screens.  We constructed a small scaffold to support the screens and housed it in a box with wheels so the teacher could arrange the classroom as they liked. At the refurbishment stage, we ran power to the centre of the room to avoid cables running to the edge. We also ran the HDMI Cable from the Smart TV to the centre so students could share their screen easily, again, without trip hazards.

Our teachers have been involved with the development of the Newland College classroom, and are now reporting that student engagement is higher. It adds a level of complexity at the planning stage, but provides teachers with more resources for capturing and analysing new moments of interest in a lesson. The integration of technology within the ‘Harkness’ round-table discussion have been welcomed by both teachers and students at Newland College. 

Ben Toettcher is Director of the SKOLA Group of Schools and Founder of Newland College in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire.