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Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Hot-Desking in School

As the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy becomes closer to beginning work and ultimately moving into our multi-million pound Maritime House Campus, I am using this time to reflect. To reflect on our experiences, our shared beliefs and our vision for the future. Tonight, I am drawn to this article from the Australian Financial Review -

Hot-desking – the office interior trend disliked by everyone except cost-cutting chief financial officers – has come to children.

At Sacred Heart Primary School in Sydney’s Mosman, rows of individual desks have been replaced by circular booths and shared tables for collaborative working. Furniture is at different heights to facilitate sitting and – should any eight-year-olds be concerned about their sedentary lifestyle – standing. It’s tidy, but there are no tidy trays.

The thinking behind the classroom arrangements, installed earlier this month, is not about cost; it is inspired by the contemporary trend of “activity-based working” which has gripped the imagination of many of Australia’s largest companies and made having one’s own desk about as rare as having a ­secretary.

It also shows how the physical worlds of children and adult workers are increasingly mimicking each other.

“You’d walk into our room and it wouldn’t remind you of the classroom I was at or you were at,” says Vince Campbell, principal of the Catholic school. “It would be more like a departure lounge in Barcelona airport.”

The old model of teaching, coming out of a 19th-century industrialised world that prepared children for work in factory-like environments, is broken says Campbell. Rows of seated children who are lectured to by a teacher, then tested on how much they’ve absorbed, isn’t a style of education that will equip today’s kids properly.

“We can cram and cram the kids’ heads full of knowledge, but it’s not going to do any good,” he says. “Know­ledge is increasing at an exponential rate. What we need to do is give the children the skills needed in the workplace today – collaboration, working together, problem-solving, teamwork – all these kinds of skills we’re giving them experience of.”

That this is happening on colourful furniture reminiscent of a high-end workplace is no coincidence. Former principal Rosemary De Bono introduced hot-desking at St Mary’s, another Catholic primary school in Sydney, after visiting Macquarie Group’s Shelley Street head office. Investment bankers have been sharing their desks and playing nicely with each other since 2011.

And ironically, in contrast to adults, children find it easier to respond to the change. “When we visited places like Macquarie, someone commented that adults tend to have problems not having their little places and that ownership,” says De Bono, now the acting head of gifted eduction for the Catholic archdiocese of Sydney. “I thought: this is going to be interesting to see how the children reacted and whether they get upset or don’t connect with this. We didn’t have any problems at all.”

Sacred Heart and St Mary’s are not alone. All of the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta’s 80 primary and high schools – and their 45,000 students – have embraced mobile or activity-based working to some degree since the diocese started rolling it out in 2006.

Just as ASX-listed companies such as National Australia Bank know that success means even the CEO cannot have a desk, the schools have found those at the top need to be fully on board.

“Where we’re finding it difficult is where we’ve got teachers who still have one foot in the 20th century and they’re in the mode of teaching where they say: ‘I find it much easier when all the desks are the same’,” Campbell says.

He has a clinical answer for laggards. “My response to them is: ‘Would you go to a hospital that had fantastic results in terms of patient outcomes in the 1980s but hadn’t moved beyond that? Would you still go there for an operation?”

Parramatta diocese’s executive director of schools, Greg Whitby, says the new methods permit teacher-pupil ratios to vary by activity. This hasn’t meant fewer teachers but it does let staff manage their time and working environment, Whitby says. “We’re finding once we put the profession in charge of their working environment . . . you get them much more deeply engaged,” he says.

And with a start this young, it’s likely that office workers of the future won’t ever complain about not having a desk.

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