A range of ingredients for transforming the performance of schools and other learning institutions

Around the world the pressure on schools for improved performance grows. Because children deserve the very best chance at learning, this is not unexpected.

Each school, community and their contexts are unique and will create a unique "recipe" from these "ingredients".

Taking a cue from Olympic sport, with its philosophy of seeking each and every available marginal gain, there are a number of very effective, proven, research confirmed and backed approaches, that can each make a significant difference.

Each carries its own real gains, but the sum of these parts will add up to very considerable improvement. As schools implement some or all of these components, there is a demonstrable co-dependency and consequent "multiplier" effect. In simple terms, the more the better.

Obviously other well documented ingredients contribute too: leadership, followship, collegiality, resources, community, stability, families, ingenuity, creativity, a grounded curriculum, teachers who like children... all contribute too. But these days they are nothing like enough.

This is not intended as a literature review, or a book (I am writing one, for Pearson), but what follows here is a short summary of each key ingredient, with accessible links to some further detail.

The key components...

environmental details

The temperature, CO2 levels, noise (including noise rhythms), light levels, humidity, air pressure and pollution levels (eg pollen) all impact significantly on student concentration, retention, alertness and more.

Schools find that significantly larger spaces disperse the CO2 better, giving much higher levels of light (> 500 lux), which carefully chosen paint surfaces (see Dulux Space and Light paint) can also enhance, whilst larger spaces disperse the CO2 to appropriate learning levels (<2,000 parts per million) - in a traditional "cells and bells" classroom that can be up around a damaging 5,000 ppm. All this translates into better concentration, focus, retention and performance.

A large number of well designed sound absorbent panels are important too.

There is a substantial impact immediately in exam and test results. Research suggests that Maths performance can drop by around 1.5% with as little as a 3°C rise above optimum learning temperatures.

Although schools are using phones to record light and sound levels, see also the Learnometer project for more detail and an opportunity to measure these variables more accurately

engaging the learners' voice

There are now many carefully documented performance improvements from giving the learners ownership, engagement and just better input into making learning better. These range from their meta-cognitive gains to the propellant of reflective practice.

More detail from this overview.

Crucially though, this is not about just asking for the learners' opinions, it is about engaging them habitually as researchers and valuing their research. Student voice is now integral to many approaches - eg Michael Fullan's New Pedagogies for Deep Learning; student voice questions are integrated in the OECD PISA survey. Quaglia and Corso in "Student voice: the instrument for change" 2014, summarise the gains as: "fewer dropouts, fewer absences, engaged learners leading to greater academic success"

Learner voice can also involve formal learner observation of teaching, with feedback, normally something teachers would request voluntarily, rather than having imposed.

The free iBook Designing a learning space", Juliette Heppell 2013, documents a class makeover project including the substantial performance gains of the students involved. Juliette is still following these in a longitudinal study as some now come to completion of their university studies (2017).

This Spanish project also is illustrative

stage not age

From Piaget to Plowden the sense that children move in stages is (rightly) never qualified by the need for those stages to be related to age, although arguably stages may be sequential. So stage not age simply allows learners to proceed a a pace suited to their own progression. That is easy to say, but complex to implement initially.

Stage not age, with a careful eye to social maturity too, demonstrably combines the best progress with better engagement - you’ll find it everywhere from the UCL Academy's SuperStudios, to the Olympic team! As long ago as 2007 the English Specialist Schools and Academies Trust was suggesting that "schools should introduce "stage not age" classes of pupils from different year groups and devote full days to the teaching of single subjects".

Interestingly with the current (2016) English controversy about Grammar Schools the Stage not Age opportunity for learners to move faster in some circumstances would seem to simply transend that whole debate...

Stage not Age provides a useful illustration of the way that these different components of school improvement interconnect. Asking a good 9 year old reader to sit with and work with 11 year olds is "scary" if the 9 year old has to leave a classroom to got to where the "big" kids are. But when schools have much larger spaces (see Superclasses below) then the older readers are nearby and part of the same intimate learning community.

Social maturity and teacher judgement still apply of course. If the 11 year olds are reading something more suited to the early teenage years then that might not be an appropriate time for a 9 year old to join in.

multiple points of focus

There are a lot of reasons why so many learning organisations have dropped their single-point-of-focus with its teachers’ desks and whiteboard, laying out their learning with multiple points of focus. Observed gains include an equity of learning experience, greater engagement, teachers themselves making better professional progress, better student / teacher dialogue and relationships, greater diversity of teaching and learning approaches, and much more. ..

Technology has helped significantly. A multiple screen environment with flat panels is now very affordable, and the ability to duplex them, or have them standing alone, is now a software task, not a requiring a major AV investment. Thus within a learning space individual groups can be getting on with the group presentation, or their shared research, but the teacher can say "Everyone: look at what this group are working on" and switch all the displays in the room to displaying their work. Thus, a front facing room can convert immediately to a number of collaborating groups and vice versa.

Universities currently talk about "turn and learn" furniture so that a single focus room can quickly become a room with multiple points of focus and smaller active groups.

More to read about getting rid of the Teacher's Desk, from here

More to read about the Rule of Three, from here


This is much misunderstood. Play within an educational institution is not just about taking time out from learning for healthy mind development. Some nations, and many educational philosophies embrace play, rightly, as engaging, important for wellbeing and more, but play also has a more complex, and increasingly understood cognitive contribution to make. The new (2015) University of Cambridge / Lego Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) seeks to develop an understanding of the underlying brain processes involved in play, and how to measure playfulness. Some schools - like Denmark's Hellerup School - feature playful little balconies and hidden architectural features to make buildings themselves more delightful, rather than just efficient.

Importantly, play - whether virtual and screen based, or real and in woodlands - presents participants with unexpected challenges. Within education the need for learners to be able to apply their knowledge to unexpected scenarios is increasingly sought. PISA now rates collaborative problem solving for example.

Florian Kunze of the University of Konstanz in Germany studied 107 different businesses in 2015, including Google, YouTube and LEGO, looking into how playful design can help employees stay young at heart, suggesting that a workforce feeling younger than their chronological age will benefit the performance of the company as a whole.’. Curiously whilst there is much literature about playfulness in learning and even more about it in the workplace, everyone seems to forgether the poor teachers who have a need for play too. Maybe this should be remembered in the design of school staff facilities too.

Mitch Resnick at MIT has a long track record of embracing play in learning - from programmable beads to robotics and he has a very readable paper contrasting "edutainment" (ugh) with playfulness here.


If you ask practically any school learner about the school toilets they will be dismissive: "hideous", "dangerous", "scary", "filthy" and so on.

In terms of research data this translates into higher levels of absence, a sense of disaffection and of never being listened to amongst the learners and some considerable bahaviour issues - bad children hang out in bad toilets.

The data is horrifying: published research by Lundblad and Hellström from Göteborg University, in the Journal of School Health found perceptions of school toilets as a cause for irregular toilet habits among schoolchildren aged 6 to 16 years. In 2005 they found that 25% (overall 16%) of older children reported NEVER using the school toilet to urinate, and 80% (overall 63%) never used it to defecate. Thus even a slight tummy wobble becomes a day off school, rather than attend and face the toilets.

Building better toilets is very straightforward and many schools have done it. Typically their "better" toilets have these features: door than fit with no gaps for prying eyes or cameras, a single contained cubicle (often described as airline toilets), unisex, used by staff as well as learners, multiple locations so that using the toilet is convenient rather than a major disruption, easy-to-clean, bright decor.

Probably most important of all, if you improve the toilets, with learner design input, they will know that you really are a listening organisation, and will engage better. Plus, the toilets will be better too!
Much more on good school toilets from here


A lot more detail available from here

Importantly, these are not the old open plan classrooms of the 70s and 80s. Superclasses house more than one class, with, as a consequence, more than one teacher. Three is typical, with up to 90 children.

The teachers work as a team, but splitting tasks between them and specialising. Those roles may vary across the week, but at any time a learner will know who is "running" the activity, who is "helping" and perhaps who is differentiating, or "stretching".

In a superclass all teachers have to pull their weight. But when they do the result is that learning progresses significantly more quickly: three teachers in parallel will perform three roles more quickly than one teacher doing all three jobs in series. If everyone takes their share, superclasses also involve less prep work for teachers.

Superclasses are often described as "agile" and can be reconfigured very simply, but the learners like their zones to be reasonably enduring - it helps them to model different learning activities, from collaborating, through presenting, to deeper focussed research.

You will find a mix of vocabulary describing these multifaceted spaces (as mentioned above the UCL Academy speaks of their SuperStudios), but the zones within them for different learning actiities, use language that is more common: research space, collaboration zone, quiet reading zone, presentation stage...

Two simple illustrations of the way in which parents embrace superclasses - the first is the large multifaceted science centre spreading across height as well as horizontal area, at Perth's Wesley College which was heavily supported by parental fundraising.

Second example is what was Frank Green's Leigh Academy, before he went on to be English Schools' Commissioner. The website then, as now, seeks to attract parents by mentioning the small schools structure and the "Large group teaching".

project based learning (PBL)

Project Based Learning can underpin the curriculum delivery at all levels. Research is broad and consistent in saying that because of the emphasis on student autonomy, collaborative learning, and with on-going assessments based on authentic performances, PBL reliably maximizes students' orientation toward learning and mastery. There are other significant cognitive gains too.

Many people think of San Diego's High Tech High when they hear about PBL but many schools in the UK embrace it too - often with High Tech High's support. The new School21 in East London, which has already moved to being Ofsted Outstanding, is a state funded, mixed, all-through 4-18 school which places PBL at its heart. In their recent Ofsted inspection, the report said: "Through project-based learning, pupils achieve remarkable standards of work and demonstrated knowledge and skills at levels beyond those expected for their age group."

PBL is now popular in universities too, so PBL schools are helping prepare their learners for the worlds of higher education and work and too.".

cognitive gains

In the last decade or two we have learned so much more about how the brain works, about what assists memory, and about how to make learning more effective, and progress more impressive.

A good example of the impact of all this is the outburst of writeable surfaces now found in so many of the best schools, from state schools in the toughest areas, to Eton's recent Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning

Much more here about writeable surfaces".

Writeable surfaces are public, visible, and often carry the memory of a social moment, or an occurence. I see another learner's work and think "I could help them", or "I need to get my skates on - that work is way better than mine!", or even "ah, that is what I might be moving on to next". Looking back at a recorded "picture" of a wall reminds me of the moment it was created. Recent cognitive research speaks of the spatiotemporal scaffold in our brains that supports our autobiographical memory and it does seem that big writeable walls help locate memories in time and place more vividly that a copied version, or a worksheet might.

greater than the sum of its parts

Aristotle commented that, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” He saw that when individual parts are connected together to form one entity, they contribute more than if the parts were standing alone, or in silos. That observation holds today.

It is particularly the case with the ingredients for school improvement above:

• the writeable surfaces need learners with their own technology to be able to capture rather than copy what is there. Then the cognitive gains are substantial.
• stage not age is best when movement is within a relatively communal, large, agile space.
• a school that has prioritised test and exam performance, but hasn't focussed directly on light, CO2 levels, or temperature, is dooming their learners to a significant underperformance. If you care about test results, fix the room as well.

There is very good research backing all of the individual ingredients above, but the algorithms explaining the interrelationship between these ingredients are much more complex, harder to test, and need some serious further research funding. We know that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts", we just don't know the magnitude of each ingredient's contribution to that total improvement. Sometimes it is enough to take the substantial gains with gratitude, and explain them later.

In the same vein, one of the crazier comments I hear from time to time would be: "we won't get started on these new ways to improve a school, until the school has improved - we are too busy". As you will see looking around the UK and indeed the world, the schools that have shown the best and most rapid improvements, are simply the ones who right away adopted a significant number of the ingredients above, without waiting.

Professor Stephen Heppell.

The author

Professor Stephen Heppell holds the Felipe Segovia Chair of Learning Innovation at Universidad Camilo José Cela, Madrid

and the Chair in New Media Environments, at CEMP, in Bournemouth University.

Find more about Professor Heppell from here

or follow him @stephenheppell on Twitter

This is a draft document - more to add, links to illustrative examples always welcomed