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writing on surfaces
in learning spaces

Like shoes-off learning, and superclasses, this is one of those effective learning practices that is spreading with a viral rapidity. Schools do it because it works, and it works jolly well. So, what is it all about?

writing on desks, windows and walls
children love to write on desks, walls, doors, windows, etc - not because it is naughty or tagging, but for the sense of audience, the collaborative nature, the exchanges between writers and other mutuality, the rich colour, the personalisation of large scale handwriting, and more.

Where working in books is rather private, working in full view immediately has a basis for conversation and discussion, offers an awareness of each others' work, and has impact.

Ten years ago the work would then have been lost, but today when most phones are also half decent cameras, and are commonly in use in many schools capturing and saving your work afterwards is as simple as point and click.

There is a strong cognitive reason too: we've known for a long time (since the 70s) that memory is aided by the cues and clues of social context. A teacher wrting on a board underlines, encircles, adds little annotations as they build narrative to capture their learners' engagement. If learners photograph the work on the board they, when they come to revist (for example to revise) that work, the little moments of narrative bring the memory back ("oh yes, that was the day she kept talking about her dog being ill..."). If I do my own copy of the work,into my excercise book, that crafted narrative is largely lost ("when did we do this work??). A phone camera is a powerful tool for jogging our memories. When it is our own work, these temporal / social markers are powerful too.

Pedagogically, it works too: imagine three children; one is strong on today's topic, one is simply a bit stuck, and one is having a bit of a coasting day. Working in full view of each other the coasting one sees what the "strong" one is producing and ups their game, both see that a classmate is a bit stuck and offer support / help. None of this happens with the privacy of excercise books or personal tablets. The public work doesn't become an excuse for "name and shame" but adds to the collegiality of a group working together to be their best. Outcomes improve.

Here are some examples (click to enlarge):

students at West London's Lampton Academy write on glass topped tables in the learning space they designed themselves

it works with all ages - here students at the then new Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy (IPACA) enjoy their new write-on tables together

learning doesn't come with a modal switch - why stop learning when you are grazing or eating? Here in Alaska the wall in the eat / socialise area is a writing wall too

barely 12 hours after the students at South Australia's Mark Oliphant College had Skyped to the students at lampton School (see left) they had identified and tested write-onable surfaces and got started

again at IPACA the image speaks for itself really - engagement, audience, scale, age... etc

athe difference between big grey cupboards and learning: two white doors

Doors, windows, floors, desks, anywhere works, given the right (or maybe the "write") surfaces

flip top tables give a choice of surface orientation - write on table, collaboratively, flip up to present and debate...

Lampton students again - these are IKEA tables and very cheap to replace - new legs etc available too - in many ways this beats bespoke educational furniture

glass wall tag game

glass wall writeable surfaces can even be turned into a game of tag... (see below)

and finally three "relevance" images: this one shows glass being used as a writing surface in a university

and finally three "relevance" images: this one also shows glass being used as writing surfaces surface - note the opaque finish on the back of the glass to aid readability without losing transparency. This example is an ICT supplier in Perth

and finally three "relevance" images: this one also shows windows (pun intended) being used as a Microsoft surface (further pun intended) - it is at Microsoft's UK HQ



























So, to details - I'll add to this over time no doubt:

For writing directly onto most flat surfaces whiteboard pens are perfectly fine. However, be aware that whiteboard pens have their colour suspended in solvent and some classroom surfaces have microscopic perforations in them - for example where the paint solvent has evaporated as it dried - and thus the pen ink can get "into" the surface. This is often prevented by an initial good rub-over with a household surface polish - but test it first. Most surfaces can work well.

At UCJC in Madrid (where I am a professor) Farid Noriega led a research project to develop a cheap and perfect write-on surface paint and he has very effective samples already tested - I badgered Dulux monthly to release one of their many paints (for hospital walls, for science rooms, for workshop floors) that work really well as a writeable surface, and now they have done so - thanks!

Most schools adopt a convention of don't clean off (the opposite of the norm) in these multisurfaced learning spaces. The students enjoy the patina of others' work and the reminder perhaps of things done before. When you want to write you wipe a space. You don't usually reserve writing on the wall / desk ("don't wipe please!") because that reduced the effectiveness - if you want to save a copy, take a picture.

Writing on glass needs, ideally, special high solids "liquid chalk" type pens of the sort that shops and cafés use for menus or special offers.. Always choose the brightest (hi-lumo) colours because the eye "stops" at the writing rather than looking past to whatever is beyond the glass. My favourites are the Edding 4090 window markers (only get the fluo colours) because they write and clean off so very well, but they are not cheap (shop around) and, as ever, choose what suits your context.

It can even turn into a game with students either side of the glass writing backwards to the others (and it is easy to write backwards, just use your "other" hand because it is the same action away from the body centre line - try it!)

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© professor stephen heppell

this page created June 24, 2013. Last update Tuesday, October 31, 2017 4:48 PM