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From TV programmes showing folk learning to dance, bake, or even ski-jump, to companies now describing themselves as Learning Organisations, our world has gone learning crazy; that is a Very Good Thing.

Blog by Stephen Heppell

For me, an element of that change has been work with elite sports to support their high level coaches in making sports’ learning one more marginal gain in their search for medals, championships or PBs. Working with Olympic sports, or most recently with the England Rugby team, some interesting contrasts emerge between learning in sport, and learning in our education institutions. Perhaps the most stark contrast is that in sport everyone asks “how might we do this better?” where too often (and perhaps most often at the policy level) education is saying “why should we change?”.

Last century, back at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games, sport was coached and led in a very predictable, formulaic way. Coaches would expect athletes to know fixed things, often penalising them (“give me 100 press ups”) for not retaining precise instructions. Teaching in sport was by numbers, coaches were full of certainties, but in the case of Great Britain, it all started to fail because the sports themselves became more complex and less certain. Rather than “the right way” to train, athletes needed to evaluate, and learn from, others’ approaches. Major events were full of surprises, and athletes needed to be prepared for the certainty of uncertainty. In Atlanta, Team GB rowers Pinsent and Redgrave won our solitary Gold medal. 1996 was a nadir; gradually a philosophy of seeking and aggregating marginal gains – seeking every tiny thing that might make a difference – became mainstream, led by cycling’s Dave Brailsford who turned Atlanta’s 2 bronze cycling medals into an astonishing medal for every single Team GB cycling team member in Rio 2016. A significant part of those gains come on the back of better learning.

Suddenly, our elite coaching spaces are transforming to look like some our very best current schools. Light levels are up – always above 500 lux, windows are blind and paper free, bright white walls and tables are writeable, temperature is stimulating rather than soporific, CO2 levels are very low, zones offer cues and clues to the learning activities on offer, plenary sessions see everyone shoulder to shoulder on intimate tiered seating, engaged, collaborative, listening. The gains are immediate of course: athletes who want to learn, brains ready and eager to resolve unexpected situations rapidly and effectively, set pieces that are second nature, deeper learning, and better results! The agility of the rooms mirror the rapidly changing sports themselves. The coaches didn’t need hours of expensive CPD to use their new learning environments. They saw right away how they could work and loved the outcomes that resulted.

You don’t need me to join up the dots on this analogy with sport. Education isn’t the Olympics – it is way more important than that, and more complex too, but “How might we do this better?” is not a bad starting point when exploring how our learning spaces might help every child to reach their own learning Personal Bests.