Classrooms should be more like the cafe

COMMENT: We should be re-thinking the layout of our schools and classrooms, said Erica McWilliam at the annual Girls’ Day School Trust conference last week

The Girls’ Day School Trust annual conference featured a variety of interesting speakers including Helen Fraser, chief executive of the trust, Alex Peterken headmaster at Cheltenham College, and Tim Oates, director of assessment research at Cambridge Assessment. But what stood out most on the day was Professor Erica McWilliam’s vibrant and though-provoking speech on pedagogical spaces. An internationally recognised scholar in the field of pedagogical innovation, she discussed the importance of providing a stimulating, functional and inspiring environment for teachers to teach and children to learn.

Her speech took us through the history of the “industrial classroom” and how the traditional teacher-in-front-of-class model has somehow survived the test of time, despite not being the most inventive, nor conducive to learning. “The industrial classroom remains unsurpassed as the educational anachronism of our times”, mused McWilliam. She suggested that the concept of school as we know it; a school with teachers standing at the front of the classroom, preaching at students, needs to be ‘unlearned’. McWilliam instead proposes a model that she likens to that of the café: a “robust space for experiencing the pleasures of self-managed learning.” She points out that centuries ago, cafés allowed people to share information and literature in a non-restrictive environment, and were a melting pot for society with different classes mixing and conversing with one another. “Lifelong and lifewide learning opportunities were available in coffee houses and cafes…The coffee house provided a convivial space, a place of sociability and public display, where learning opportunities transcended social class barriers.” She also referred to her own concept of meddler in the middle’ by which the teacher is not stood in front of the class, nor moving from student to student monitoring their progress, but is actively involved in the lesson and discussions within the classroom, moving freely and seamlessly “in and out of collegial collaborations”. This, she says, is a method that is nurtured most successfully in spaces (both real and virtual) that can be likened to the café. She later expanded on this analogy by adding, the ‘kitchen’ (a functional clean space where students can be creative) and the ‘caravan’ (an adaptable room that makes the most of space with folding/multifunctional furniture). A combination of all three of these concepts she argued is “optimal for enabling the modes of engagement that should characterise 21st century pedagogy”.  To this she adds ‘colonisability’ and access. Colonisabilty she explains as the ability to completely transform a classroom using technology. The example she gives is projecting moving images onto walls and playing sounds portraying the trenches in WW1 in a history lesson, allowing the students to become completely immersed in the topic by adapting their surroundings. She also stressed that classrooms and schools should always be built so that those with accessibility difficulties are catered for and get as rich a learning experience as other students.

To close, McWilliam introduced us to Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School, where she is author in residence. The building, a colossal yet aesthetically pleasing modern structure is a very open space, with visible uncovered stairways and classrooms that can be seen into from other floors. Finally, she shared a video with us that the students put together themselves, which showed the entire population of the school singing and dancing their way around the building to the soundtrack of Hall & Oates You Make My Dreams Come True, flash-mob style.

McWilliam’s concept of the user-led learning environment, which encapsulates the distractible nature of students in an age dictated by social media was a refreshing and thought-provoking approach to tackling school design.

For more information on her work, visit her blog at

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