The sledgehammer as a tool for innovation?

Can the sledgehammer, an instrument usually associated with destruction, be enlisted as a tool of innovation? Educational Technology consultant Doug Woods puts forward a case for this unlikely-sounding approach. His position is that a good use for the sledgehammer would be to break up all the ICT suites (computer labs) that can be found in schools. He says:

Those rows and rows of desks filling a room with large desktop computers can hardly be regarded as the cutting edge of ICT.

I think Doug and I are doomed to forever disagree about the place of ICT suites, but I’ll say my piece anyway. Why? Because I think it’s good to have these debates, and doing so in a sort of battle of the blogs is much more fun, though possibly less efficacious, than merely meeting up in a pub or café to talk about it over a drink!

Here’s my take on this:

Firstly, as I said in my talk at the B2Camp conference on the Built Environment conference, the design of spaces should reflect the learning that is intended to take place in them. If so, it stands to reason that some types of learning may require a room full of desktop computers. Will Aitken, for example, said in his talk at the Guardian seminar on Running a School ICT Department on a Tight Budget, that when it comes to processor-intensive tasks such as video editing you need a powerful desktop to do it. It stands to reason that if you’ve a whole class doing video editing, it would be a lot easier and quicker if they could all use a powerful desktop computer at the same time. I would also add that having an ICT suite makes it easier to teach ICT skills. Another argument I heard recently, which I think has a lot of merit, is that it’s difficult to create an ICT-specific ethos and sense of achievement, and a feel for what it might be like to work in an ICT-rich environment, if the ICT is (only) spread all over the place.

In the “real” world – preparation for which is, after all, partly the role of the school even if one believes, like I do, in the value of education for its own sake – you can find excellent examples of where ICT suites (known as open plan offices) work very well indeed, and make economic as well as productivity sense.

The key, surely, is not to demolish ICT suites, but to supplement them with other approaches. If one truly believes in personalised learning, then one has to acknowledge that for some students, doing some tasks, or sometimes, working on a desktop computer in a room in which there are others working on desktop computers will be their preferred learning style.

Secondly, Doug talks about rows and rows of desks. I’d agree with him, but ICT suites don’t have to be designed in that way. When I was Head of ICT, which was 12 years ago, I had a large non-computer space in the middle of each of the ICT suites and no rows of desks. Had I had the space and the money, I’d have had pods of computers and plenty of comfy chairs in the same room. A couple of weeks ago I visited a school in East London where I used to visit as their Local Authority ICT advisor. Gone was the awful layout I remembered. What there was instead were short rows of parallelogram-shaped desks and lots of discussion and writing space in the centre of the room. There are lots of ways to make ICT suites interesting, exciting and “funky”. Just because some schools can only think in straight lines doesn’t make the concept of an ICT suite inherently bad.

Thirdly, Doug says that ICT suites can hardly be regarded as the cutting edge of ICT. I always worry about this (implied) view that anything “old” is inherently bad, and to be discarded. Online forums have been around since the internet was invented, in one form or another, and they are still incredibly useful. It’s interesting, if you think about, that social networks still have, in one form or another, and called by different names, both discussion forums and bulletin boards – and remember that the latter was around right from the start, years before the world wide web was created.

I think there are probably lots of good uses for a sledgehammer in education, but I don’t think smashing up ICT suites is one of them. However, I do think that Doug has highlighted something immensely important: to make progress, it’s often as necessary to destroy or discard the ideas or things that impede progress as it is to have creative forces at work. The Bhagavad Gita describes the “three Gunas”:

Satvik or the Creative forces which represent goodness.

Rajas or the Protective forces which represent preservation

Tamas or the destructive forces which represent destruction.

For Hindus, all of these forces are necessary, and need to be in balance.

(From an article on

In short, sometimes wielding a sledgehammer is the best thing to do.