What Sir Clive Woodward did next
(built the ‘world’s best ski academy’)
An elite ski academy in France, located at 2,100 metres altitude, may hold the key to a new model of education.
High above the snow line in the French Alps, with views of snowy Mont Blanc, Tignes might seem an unlikely setting for a visionary new model of education. Apex2100 is the brainchild of a British investor and ski-enthusiast who asked Sir Clive Woodward, the world-renowned sports coach (and qualified teacher) who took England to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, to ‘design the best ski academy in the world’. Five years later, Apex2100 opened its doors with a mission to create future World Cup and Olympic alpine skiers. It may also inadvertently have become a trail blazer for a model of technology-enabled blended learning, the potential benefits of which the global pandemic has brought sharply into focus.
APEX2100 may inadvertently have become a trail blazer for a model of technology-enabled blended learning, the potential benefits of which the global pandemic has brought sharply into focus.
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Three key principles.
What makes an elite sports academy the best in the world? How do you balance the need for rigorous physical training with the requirement to furnish each athlete with an education that will sustain them throughout, and beyond, their sporting career? And how do you educate people whose innate physicality means sitting still for hours constitutes an existential threat? Sir Clive Woodward, now Director of Sport for Apex 2100, spent a year finding out, visiting elite performance institutions worldwide from football to ballet. He distilled his hands-on research into three key principles:
1. Education, education, education.
Education must be at the core of absolutely everything you do. Not just academic subjects but also learning about your sport, your discipline, nutrition, sleep, physical conditioning and beyond.
2. Think global
Make your cohort international, because globally minded athletes are better off. There’s no point just competing against your home nation, you need exposure to the best from all over the world. This is particularly important in skiing; we need future stars to level up if they are to compete on the world stage.
The fabric of school must be absolutely bespoke to your mission. What you put inside that school is crucial as it will enable your athletes to succeed.
Chris Thomson, CEO of Apex 2100, was appointed to get the academy up and running.
For his Masters in Teaching and Learning from Oxford University, Chris studied how to transform the digital nature of learning for the next generation.
“I had a very clear view on how we could design the classroom spaces and ensure the ability of kids to learn beyond the classroom, complemented by IT,” explains Chris. “A FIS athlete – that’s 16- 19-year olds who attend the academy full time – might travel to 25 competitions from January to April. They are not going to be in the classroom for long but they’ve got their laptop, the software. It’s a blended model of independence, flipped learning and small classes that is tailored to them.”
Sir Clive Woodward added, “Education was always going to be at the heart of everything we do at Apex because a passion for learning makes athletes better. If you excel on the ski slopes there is no reason why you cannot excel in the classroom. The learning spaces we now have at the academy create opportunities that allow this to happen which, simply, you wouldn’t see in a traditional school environment. Being able to move around, write on the walls and reconfigure the room increases engagement, add to that the integration of the furniture with the IT and we’ve created the ideal environment in which our athletes can excel.”
A robust, cloud-based IT system is key to enabling this flexible model of learning. Super-fast wifi operates throughout the academy and athletes can only access the internet via the tightly regulated firewall – no matter where they are in the world. There’s no hopping on to 4G for a sneaky YouTube binge and no opportunity to access inappropriate material. The system is set up to enable Apex2100 athletes to succeed in a technology-enabled world. Screens are banned after 8pm to help ensure quality sleep.
Apex’s IT infrastructure came into its own when the academy had to close because of the pandemic. The school closed on a Thursday, staff and students travelled home and by the following Tuesday they were back up and running. During lockdown the academy held nutrition talks with parents and athletes, juggling and balance co-ordination lessons, parents’ evening with teachers and coaches as well as ‘normal’ lessons. It was a seamless transition, enabled by the infrastructure the school was designed around. It’s a model that could ensure education cannot again be so profoundly disrupted as it was during lockdown.
Flexible learning spaces
The Apex2100 athletes are, naturally, active learners, not ‘sit down for an hour’ people and the learning spaces take this into account. The classrooms are long rectangles, so Spaceoasis designed bespoke TeacherWalls featuring a central screen flanked by vast LearningSurface® writable walls with integrated storage. The LearningSurface® dry-wipe walls occupy the longest side of the classroom providing a huge canvas for teachers and learners to use. Athletes are actively encouraged to get up, move around and use the writable walls during lessons. The chairs, Ray and Turn&Learn, were also chosen, not just for their ergonomic qualities, but because they allow the user to rock or twist, enabling the athletes to sit actively.
“The learning spaces at Apex2100 are built to promote open-minded and collaborative learning; both fundamental aspects of our education programme as an IB world school,” explains Sophie Campbell, Head of Teaching and Learning at Apex 2100. “From the walls to the desks, students are able to write on almost all surfaces of the classrooms, and the interchangeable tables mean that rooms can transform from conference style to collaborative spaces in an instant. Classrooms are spacious and bright, and students are encouraged to move about, use the space to think freely, and ultimately enjoy and get the most out of their educational experience.”
On his regular learning walks around the school Chris notices how all the teachers use the LearningSurface® walls differently: “A maths teacher may have an area for rough jottings and a more formal area for how a question would be set out in an exam; an English teacher may have an area for vocab and buzz words. There is so much space these thoughts can be left up there, they don’t have to be rubbed out straightaway.”
“I love it when I see multiple kids writing on the wall,” enthuses Chris. “You might have six kids writing ideas on the wall all at the same time, and then stepping back and sharing them. That’s six kids working with five others – so that’s 30 interactions in the space of a minute where a smartboard would only enable one. That’s great to see. I think we own the largest Spaceoasis TeacherWall in the world, which we’re very proud of!”
The shape of the classrooms also led Spaceoasis to analyse how their length might impact on sightlines, as well as taking into account the impact of glare on the writable surfaces. The Apex table, an individual, hexagonal table inspired by the academy’s brand, was specially designed to ensure all learners can see the screen when needed. The LearningSurface® walls were specified in light grey to reduce glare from the snow outside.
“The configuration in these rooms never looks the same,” continued Chris. “Depending on what they are using that space for it will look different every day. Also, when not in use, we can flip up the tops on the Apex tables, move them away, turn it into a conference centre and make money out of the building when the athletes aren’t there. The furniture is so agile, it ticks all the boxes in terms of what we wanted it to do.”
The dining room features large LearningSurface refectory tables with bench seating so the room can be used in multiple ways. Stools at fixed benching around the perimeter of the room make the most of the views while increasing seating capacity. There are screens all around the dining room, all connected to Apple TV (as are all the screens in the academy), so coaches can easily share video footage or learning content with athletes; driving learning through the use of seamlessly integrated IT.
The library is also a highly flexible space featuring shield-shaped tables above which are mounted screens, ideal for online lessons or for collaborative working. The power sockets on these tables have French, English, USB and USB-C sockets to make it easy for every athlete to plug in their device. Individual workstations in the library allow learners to work independently as needed.
Even the lockers have been designed to precisely meet the needs of the athletes, featuring integrated charging with dedicated spaces for a folder and the Apex2100 rucksack. These educational lockers open via the same RFID wristbands that register students, allow access to rooms and ski lockers, as well as reporting back to the Apex2100 database whether athletes are inside the building or not.
“It’s the furniture interacting with the IT interacting with the infrastructure and if you get that right, hopefully you’re in a good situation,” says Chris. “We’re really pleased with all the spaces; the feedback from staff, students and parents is incredibly positive. Students really enjoy the fact that a lesson doesn’t need to be sitting down for an hour, they are encouraged to move around and they absolutely love writing on the walls and on the tables. We get the kids to do the tours around the building for prospective athletes and guests and they say ‘it’s great here, at this school you can draw on the walls’, which is a really lovely thing to hear.”
A collaborative curriculum
While nurturing sporting talent is the academy’s primary aim, athletes must also maintain high standards in their academic work too or they lose time on the ‘hill’ (aka ‘the mountain’). No-one is under any illusions; the career of an athlete may be short, curtailed by injury or simply fail to take off, so the education at Apex2100 is designed to support its athletes during their sporting career and afterwards. As an IB World School, Apex is committed to moving away from ‘old school’ style of education.
“The IB curriculum is all about collaboration and open mindedness,” explains Chris. “The environment we’ve created, the furniture and the IT, complements the IB curriculum. It’s very different from ‘here are your learning criteria, let’s tick them off’.
“We are delighted with the process of working with Spaceoasis, they were unafraid to be challenged and to work with us to get exactly what we wanted, they were also flexible in the planning and the installation process. A very good process from start to finish and I’m really looking forward to seeing how that curriculum comes to life in the environment we’ve designed.”