With its idyllic duck pond, ancient oak trees and historic church perched on a hill, the village of Fingringhoe in Essex feels frozen in time. The tiny 88-pupil primary school, built in 1863, also oozes a sense of history. Indeed, it seems an unlikely location for someone to test out a new piece of potentially game-changing classroom technology.
But that is exactly what has happened.
Professor Stephen Heppell approached the school and local authority last year asking them to try out a prototype of the new Gratnells Learnometer device.
While 100 schools and universities worldwide have already been piloting the technology, this is the first one in use in Essex, where Professor Heppell and much of his research team are based.
The discreet white box sits in the classroom and measures key environmental factors proven to affect learning, including temperature, humidity, CO2, air pollution, light, sound levels and rhythms. The idea is that once teachers, schools and pupils see real data on their classrooms it will motivate them to make changes that will improve learning.
At the same time as testing out the Learnometer, Stephen Heppell set about helping the school to transform a single Year 6 classroom, optimising it for learning. This summer, the room was fitted with a folding writable wall, sound absorbing technology, self-adjusting LED lighting and the latest ergonomic furniture. Local authority decorators also dropped in to give the room a lick of bright white paint to reflect light around the space. There is even a special wall of plants – each one owned by individual pupils — to increase oxygen levels.
“We looked at a number of schools in Essex and talked to the staff and the headteachers and I’d like to think we will do all of them eventually, but this one was so keen,” says Heppell. “They had lovely kids, a fairly new headteacher…and a class of students who were not in the best learning space who were excited about the prospect of doing better,” he adds.
Professor Heppell came into the school last May and spoke to the soon-to-be Year 6 pupils about what had already been happening in other prototype Learnometer sites around the world. Hundreds of staff and pupils across the globe have been experimenting with how to reduce noise, raise oxygen levels and improve lighting – finding their own local solutions to specific problems.
Heppell says of the Fingringhoe project: “The pupils themselves could see that the pupils in the dark corner were the ones who weren’t concentrating coming up to lunch. They could see that the ones in the lighter bit by the window were still pretty sharp by the end of the day. They said ‘well we thought it was us, but it’s the room isn’t it?’ They were so sharp about it.”
Every child, he says, now has a view about what’s working well in their classroom and what needs to be improved still.
Year 6 class teacher Alex Yates explains that teachers have already used data gathered by the Learnometer to show pupils how CO2 levels in the room rise and fall over the course of a day. She says: “We’ve printed off some graphs and they’ve seen when they’re not here overnight how the graphs change and they can work out when they’ve been out to play, for example.” These visuals were then displayed in the school foyer to raise awareness across other year groups and staff. “The children were really fascinated by it, they said ‘come on we need some more plants in here’,” says Yates. She adds that students are now preparing to start monitoring environmental factors in other classrooms that have not yet had a makeover. They will be able to compare data readings for the different spaces, helping them learn vital lessons in science and maths. “The kids are very interested, anything to spy on other classes,” jokes Yates.
Children in the class also say that using the Learnometer has greatly raised their awareness of how they are affected by their learning spaces. Ben, aged 10, says: “Until Stephen Heppell came in and told us how CO2 can make us tired, we didn’t realise what was happening. Now when we come in from break we can see it rising and we keep an eye on it and know when to open a window.” Hannah, also 10, adds: “I’m excited now about doing our own experiments in other classrooms.”
Deputy headteacher Hayley Rollings, who was the class’s teacher last year, said: “Without this technology we wouldn’t necessarily notice these things in a teaching day. Previously you would just come in the room and you might say ‘it’s a bit hot’ or ‘it’s a bit cold’. But our awareness of different factors that affect learning has increased, we are all starting to have a better understanding.”
Headteacher Suzy Ryan added: “Now pupils are starting to understand the impact of environmental factors on their learning, they seem to be more aware of when they are focused and when they are not, they appear to be more motivated.”
Professor Heppell says that as well as data from the Learnometer, his team are collating feedback from teachers and pupils on improvements to behaviour, concentration and work rate of pupils. The subjective perceptions of teachers are important as well as the hard data, he stresses. Professor Heppell says he hopes that other schools in the area will adopt the Gratnbells Learnometer and be inspired to make changes to their classrooms too.
Marginal gains, he says, are as vital in schools as they are in sport.
“If learning was the Olympics, this is what it would look like,” he says.