From the magazine: How 'cheap seats' are impeding education

New research shows that ‘cheap seats’ in the classroom restrict screen visibility, hindering some pupils’ learning opportunities. Nell Walker explores the problem – and its solutions

School leaders and teachers alike are, generally, overstretched and under-supported when it comes to their everyday working lives; it’s no surprise, then, that ensuring all pupils have access to full screen visibility isn’t necessarily high on their priority list. However, new research shows that this may be proving problematic for the learning experiences of those pupils.

A survey of 300 teachers, conducted by Epson, found that 40% of teachers have noticed a direct correlation between pupils sitting in ‘cheap seats’ – i.e. those with limited screen visibility – and their performance (‘performance’, in this instance, refers to lower test scores and classroom engagement). Screens are, after all, a core element of classroom teaching and are used every day – probably in every lesson. Epson’s data shows that restricted visual access is impacting the learning experience of many pupils.

The root of the problem
While four-in-ten teachers witnessing the impact of this correlation first-hand may not sound devastating, the research also found that 66% of teachers think restricted viewing hampers the learning experience and 64% believe this can lead to poorer scores for pupils – compared with those who can fully see a screen.

Well over half – 58% – of students are unable to read all of the contents on a standard 70” flat-panel screen; this is a particularly problematic statistic because 79% of teachers use this exact type of display. Visual displays used in UK classrooms are failing to provide a screen size that can be viewed by an entire class, meaning that those in the cheap seats really are likely to struggle compared with their peers.

However, all hope is not lost. Screen visibility is an issue which Ross McGill, the founder and CEO of TeacherToolKit, with 25 years of teaching experience, believes can be fixed, though the challenges are numerous, he warns.

“For the last year and a half, I’ve been teacher training across the UK; I’d say I’ve been to approximately 100 schools,” Ross tells us. “From what I’ve seen, the vast majority of primary classrooms have an interactive whiteboard, and most of these are small, 50-60” screens that rely on a touch-screen interface. Therefore, in any lesson – regardless of how big the class is – if you’ve only got a 60” screen, text visibility is seriously hindered.”

In secondary schools, Ross has seen a much broader mixture of audio-visual (AV) and visual communication (viscom) equipment. “Maths teachers might have an interactive whiteboard because they’re always scribbling equations, whereas a design technology teacher might have a projector as well as a whiteboard so that they can both doodle and display a presentation,” he says – but it’s still, often, not enough.

The barriers
Unsurprisingly, one of the main barriers to schools acquiring the kind of AV and viscom that would ensure full visibility is cost. What may be surprising, however, is that this has little to do with the age of the school. “Even in some of the brand new schools I’ve worked at, we just had to go with a standard 70” interactive screen, that was put into all classrooms, because buying in bulk saves a bit of money,” Ross explains. “Education shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all, but it often is in this particular situation.”

Ross believes that, even when the money is available, teachers and school leaders, historically, haven’t had the time to dedicate to researching what would be best for each classroom. “Teachers are incredibly busy and rarely have time to reflect on research in their decision-making,” he says. “They’re also not given the training; if you’ve only got five days a year to train your teachers, technology tends to be the last thing on the list. A teacher getting a new piece of equipment for the classroom is concerned about how to use it, not the implications of using it.”

In any AV installation, the common standard for determining the correct screen size is called the 4/6/8 rule. This establishes that the ideal viewing distance, in correlation with room size, should be four, six or eight times the height of the screen for passive viewing, basic viewing and analytical viewing, respectively. For many schools, this simply isn’t possible – in fact, according to the Epson research, 42% of teachers have never heard of this rule.

Opening up the conversation
So, how can school leaders and teachers change the situation? According to Ross, it’s about opening up the conversation. His own research has shown that only a fraction of teachers are using social media professionally, but it’s slowly becoming more prevalent – and this could make a difference to their knowledge of AV and the research that applies to their classrooms.

“Teachers are now considering research much more deeply in their day-to-day work,” he says. “Schools are starting to move away from the five, stand-alone training days and are having shorter, more regular, training sessions across the academic year instead. This allows teachers to be more immersed in research, more regularly, and enables them to come together and get involved with what research says about screen time. They can discuss a rotating seating plan and current AV technology and the impact these could have.”

As well as subjects and seating arrangements, there are also age groups to consider – what a four year-old needs and what a 16 year-old needs are quite different. A younger child, for example, is more likely to keep quiet if they can’t see the screen at the front of the class sufficiently, which could lead the teacher to assume they are focused and doing well. A teenager, however, might prefer to sit at the back, far away from the teacher, to ensure minimal interaction. “A cognitive scientist would say that the child’s performance is hindered because they can’t see the screen,” Ross says.

“More and more teachers can now access this research because it’s more readily available; social media has given us this opportunity, rather than just relying on what a technology company or your school leader says.”

The reality is that very few classrooms are able to adhere to the 4/6/8 rule and many of them are over-full; whatever opportunity teachers have to think about the right technology for the classroom should be utilised, Ross believes.

He advises that teachers and school leaders consider the position of the child they’re teaching, if nothing else. “If we’re still trying, as adults, to work out how we learn best, imagine what it’s like for a seven year-old,” he concludes.

This article featured in the March issue of Education ExecutiveSubscribe now to keep up-to-date with the latest in school business management and leadership.
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