At Cambell Junior School in Dagenham, Year 5 pupils are deep in discussion. They are considering the work of eminent scientists, and it does not take an Einstein to work out that the lesson is going famously.
The focus is a giant projection screen at the front of the classroom, which today is showing a series of biographical websites. The children are seated in horseshoe formation, a grown-up arrangement that not only gives them a good view of the screen, but also encourages everyone to contribute to the class discussion. And discussion is vital. At Cambell and other primaries across the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, it is a key factor in a phenomenally successful whole-class teaching approach which has raised standards dramatically over the last decade.
The screen-and-horseshoe setup was proven early on, without the aid of ICT. A normaloverhead projector was used to show acetate transparencies, giving both teacher and pupils the opportunity to present ready prepared and off-the-cuff material. Now the time has come to enhance the approach, reaping the benefits of computers and the internet. And after a careful evaluation of how best to provide the vital focus at the front of the classroom, schools such as Cambell are installing traditional projection screens rather than interactive whiteboards.
Ten years ago, Barking and Dagenham Local Education Authority cast its net far and wide in a search for best practice, and homed in on Zurich, where primary achievement in numeracy was particularly impressive. Sheyne Lucock, the LEA's general inspector for information technology, says:"The whole pedagogy was so different. A class would work together in a horseshoe and the overhead projector played a critical part in the process. Unlike a blackboard, it allowed the presenter to face the class, and keep well out of the way of the display."
The Zurich approach was adopted in the borough, with the Swiss maths curriculum and support materials adapted for local needs. Lucock says:
"Between 70 and 80 per cent of a lesson is now based on talk, with individual pupils given the chance to make contributions about the context and content of the lesson. From this pupils gain the confidence to think aloud in front of their peers, and learn to work through problems together."
Soon teachers were employing the maths model for other subjects, including ICT, with machines in ICT suites arranged in the familiar horseshoe. Lucock says: "The challenge we still faced was how to embed ICT in this whole-class teaching. It had to support and enhance the pedagogy, which worked very effectively."
When interactive whiteboards appeared on the market, Lucock secured a couple for LEA staff and teachers to try out. Lucock says: "Very quickly we realised they would take us backwards. A whiteboard wasn't big enough. We needed a big display, as everyone had to see clearly. This is particularly important when you are showing websites, as you have no control over font size. Because you control the software on the computer by touching the surface of the whiteboard, every part of the board has to be reachable and that sets a limit on its size.
"We practised hard, but it was difficult to write or move things around without obscuring the display for at least half the class. When children used the board, they couldn't make eye contact or engage with their peers. And they were being expected to write or draw on a completely different scale from the A4 paper and transparencies they are accustomed to."
What did appeal was the software which came for use with whiteboards, particularly Easiteach from RM. "Easiteach is the best, most innovative software in the history of educational computing," says Lucock, a veteran of two decades at the sharp end of educational ICT. "It's like an animated version of an overhead projector."
The solution was to project the action from the computer on to a giant screen, and do all the things it was possible to do with an interactive whiteboard - control the software, draw, make notes, etc - with the help of an A4 graphics tablet that communicated directly with the computer.
Technology supplier Accurate found a cordless tablet that could be used anywhere in the room. This allows the equipment to be arranged so that no presenter ever has to lose contact with the rest of the class, or get in the way of the display.
The motorised screen rolls up when not in use, making the most of valuable wall space. Lucock says:"The only limit on the size of the screen is the height of the ceiling. You can install a sound system and have video images filling the entire wall, which makes for a really cinematic experience.
"We can now do everything we did before, and much more - all the things that help develop contexts and help children clarify their thoughts."
He adds: "When people sell whiteboards on the basis of the things you can do with them, they are really talking about the software. Software runs on a computer, not on a whiteboard."
Cambell's headteacher Adrian Lucas was so impressed with the screen-and-tablet approach that last summer he installed the equipment in all his 14 teaching rooms, finding the funds from the surplus created by teacher shortages.
He says:"We are using this right across the curriculum and it is a godsend. The children are confident with the technology, and it feels familiar, just like the media they are surrounded by at home. Using the graphics tablets helps them internalise their actions, and improves concentration levels."
Resources and contacts
Excluding the computer, equipment and installation costs between £4,000 and £5,000 per classroom. This includes motorised screen, ceiling-mounted projector, audio system, video recorder/player, £500 graphics tablet and front-of-class workstation to house the computer.
* InterWrite MeetingPad graphics tablet from Accurate PLC Tel: 08700.750750 www.accurate.plc.uk
* Easiteach software from RM
* Barking and Dagenham LEA: