Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Another Great Article on Education in Korea

The December 17th issue of the Economist paints an interesting picture of what high stakes testing has done to kids in South Korea in the article: “The one-shot society”.  Rather than focus on hagwon or cram factories like the Time magazine article, The Economist piece discusses the one high stakes test that determines every student’s future.  It goes on to explain how the Korean government and economy encourages this testing by their hiring practices and in so doing discourages innovation and risk taking.  Finally it covers the increasing dissatisfaction of students in South Korea with the pressure to succeed.
Korea does very well on international exams, but at what price?  The level of dissatisfaction in
South Korea is very high.  According to the article less than half of Korean workers would recommend their company as a good place to work whereas three quarters of workers in the article’s global sample would.  Women feel pressure to work and raise a family, but they veer off the advancement pathway if they take time away from work to do so.  The result has been a plummeting birthrate that threatens to leave an older generation unsupported and leave South Korea irrelevant as a global power.
If nothing else, this analysis shows that you need to be careful what you wish for.  South Korea has achieved on tests and graduates an astounding 63% of its students with college degrees but life satisfaction is low and unemployment is relatively high.  Even though South Korea grew by 6.2% last year, 40% of college graduates had not found work four months after graduation.
When you review the kinds of schools that most South Koreans attend they look very similar to the kinds of schools prevalent in the United States.  The desks are in rows, the teacher is lecturing at from the front of the room, and students are madly taking notes except for the one who are asleep.  The classroom environment is perfect for this. Those motivated to pay attention are memorizing material through their note taking.  Those who learn differently or would prefer to talk about their learning in groups aren’t doing so well.  If not asleep they are daydreaming, or drawing or taking notes ineffectually.  The high stakes test will weed these “laggards” out, but in so doing may miss the creative genius, the orator, the musician, or the next high tech entrepreneur.
This picture is too true of many schools in the United States.  Some schools in the US are more innovative than this to be sure, and there are signs of change, but we need the system to change to show the progress we say we want.  The school environment can be an important part of that change.  By creating spaces that foster collaboration, creativity, and communication we can help educators and students teach and learn in new ways.  A space that is configured for small groups but can be changed to create large spaces for gatherings or projects, or a space that allows comfortable seating in a variety of lounging and formal configurations helps change the way teaching and learning happens.  It can help wake up the sleeping kids and turn daydreaming into productive reality.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


This is a big number.  It’s over a third of the TARP bailout fund.  It’s a little over a third of what we spend on Medicare and Medicaid.  It also about 42% of what we spend on Defense.  What this number is is 2% of our Gross Domestic Product. 
This is a significant number in that it represents education spending, and is what parents in the United States would collectively need to spend if they wanted to match parents in South Korea.  But this is not the cost of education in Korea.  No, 2% of GDP is the cost Korean parents are willing to pay for after school tutoring for their children over and above what the country spends on education.  In the States we spend about $625B on K-12 education now so spending another $290B would amount to almost a 50% increase in expenditures.  This sort of increase is unimaginable and yet our educational system continues to be excoriated over the results it produces while no one is willing to spend more for better results.
Time magazine talks about this in Their December 5th issue in the article: “Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone”,9171,2094427,00.html which paints a startling, and perhaps frightening, picture of where teaching to the test can lead.  Students and parents are so concerned about performance on high stakes testing that they spend many hours and dollars on tutoring.  It has gotten to the point that the South Korean government raids “hagwons” or cram schools that operate after 10:00 PM in an attempt to break this obsession with cramming for the test.
This obsession with achievement is telling in two ways: 
1.       South Korea is always near the top of the OECD PISA scores and
2.       South Korea is trying to break the addiction of teaching to the test in order to ensure that its students are competitive in the future
In fact South Korea and other Asian countries that are top scorers on the PISA tests are concerned that they are turning out knowledgeable but dull students.  Students who know facts but have not been taught to apply what they know in creative ways.  Believe it or not, many Asian countries are looking to US schools as an example of how to better teach creativity to their students which they know is key to success in the 21st century. 
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted"                                                                                                    Albert Einstein

The PISA tests may be measuring knowledge but the knowledge they are measuring may not be what’s important for success in the 21st Century.  In the meantime, the United States is moving toward the Asian model and increasingly teaching to the test which has the potential to harm the acquisition of the very skills our students will need to succeed in the future. 

What’s all this got to do with school facilities?  To me it reinforces the need to create facilities that encourage both academic rigor and creativity.  When America finally wakes up from its testing obsession schools need to be able to accommodate curricula that encourage creativity and the use and analysis of knowledge.  This is likely to mean project based learning, collaborative learning, and technology rich learning.  Learning that encourages exploration and analysis, critical thinking and debate.  Facilities that accommodate these endeavors will not be desks in rows but rather agile spaces that can change as do the activities of their occupants.  Facilities that show that education is valuable and a priority.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lessons from School design in the UK

Does architecture matter for learning?
Evelyn Grace Academy by Zaha Hadid

This past week I was in London for the Annual CAE conference.  Every few years the AIA’s Committee on Architecture for Education has a conference outside the United States, and this year it was in conjunction with the BCEF - British Council for Educational Facilities.  We saw some interesting schools and also some that made me question why they were on the tour.  Presentations covered sustainability and a little bit about pedagogy and the built environment, but the conference seemed to be under the cloud created by the drastic reduction in the Building Schools for the Future building program in the UK.  This £55 Billion program was the creation of the last liberal government but has been drastically reduced by the current conservative government.  In general, the British architects and builders who were at the conference still seemed to be getting their heads around the fact that the ambitious building program was essentially over.
This made it all the more interesting that one of the key note speakers was Graham Stuart an MP, Conservative Party member, and Chair of the Education Select Committee for the new government. Considering he was addressing a group of architects and builders who focus on building schools, his pronouncement that school environments are inconsequential compared to the quality of teaching was stunning.  He said the last government had wasted a lot of money on some schools thereby depriving other needy areas from getting any help.   He said he knew of no credible research that demonstrated that the school environment affected learning.  He was vehement in these beliefs and went unchallenged except for Alan Dunlop, a Scotsman and recent Visiting Chair in Architecture at Kansas State University, who suggested that although teaching is most important, the environment is also an important component in learning.  The MP would not grant this point in the sense that he said the focus must be on teaching.
This is an argument I have heard before in the United States in various guises.  I believe that teaching is the most important thing but not the only thing.  Environment matters.  A good environment attracts teachers and students, allows them to do their jobs more efficiently, and tells them they are valued.  This is no different for teaching and learning than it is for any other kind of endeavor.  Human activities benefit from purpose built environments designed to house them.
These benefits might be considered “higher order” benefits but research has shown (see Earthman’s work at: that even improving bad environments improves student performance.  The significance of this is that even with bad teaching students will do better in a good environment. 
Times are very difficult right now and educational providers are being forced to cut back severely.   Prioritization is necessary in times like these but denial of evidence to justify priorities is bad policy.  Solving the problems we face will require cooperation and new thinking.  Einstein said:
We need new thinking about how to deliver, pay for, and accomplish the mission of educating our children if we want to solve our current problems.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lunch at 9:30?

This morning on MSNBC there was an interesting story on a school in Florida that is serving lunch at 9:30 AM.  Hamburgers, tater tots and corn dogs were on the menu. The announcers were aghast at this and wondered why it was happening.  They focused on a 9th grade academy and interviewed a few students and a nutritionist about it.  The nutritionist explained that school started classes at 7:00 AM and students might get up as early as 5:00 AM, and so may not eat breakfast, thus a meal at 9:30 is warranted.  The talking heads were still appalled and vowed to look into this further.
There are so many things wrong with this picture it’s hard for me to know where to start.  First I am glad that MSNBC carried the story, but so far they haven’t at all explored the reasons behind the phenomenon.  Let’s examine some facts about child development.  Children especially teenagers need more sleep than adults.  Studies have shown that teenagers’ internal clocks are naturally set to require more sleep and a later start time for best academic success.  Some have suggested that teens should not start class before 9:00 or 10:00.  Also, it’s no fable that breakfast is important.  After sleep your body, and especially your brain, needs nourishment and hydration.  Students who are hungry are distracted and do not learn as well.  So, starting at 7:00 Am is a terrible idea but feeding kids something is a good idea.
Next, let’s turn to what is likely happening to create this condition.  The fact that the school they focused on is a 9th grade academy is the first clue.  9th grade academies are a bad idea.  Every time a student transitions from one school to another, learning suffers.  Also 9th grade is a tough year in the best of circumstances.  When there are no upper classman around to model behavior, behavior suffers.  The reasons many districts go to a 9th grade academy model are not pedagogical but rather economical.  Their high schools are full or crowded so they break off the 9th graders to create room.  In this story, the 9th grade academy is also likely to be overcrowded driving the need for multiple lunches and hence early lunches.  It is also likely they are starting early to economize on their transportation costs.  We see a lot of districts scheduling buses for maximum efficiency thereby requiring some students – usually teenagers – to catch the bus at 6:00 AM or earlier.  Overall, I am willing to bet that the back story is that cost cutting and perhaps foundational underfunding is behind this story.
How the story could be different.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but change would require the school district to really alter its operations.  First of all it is healthier to graze rather than eat at prescribed times. It lowers obesity and keeps you fueled.  If food is available when you are hungry you don’t overeat as frequently.  Second, why do kids have to eat in a mass feeding in a cafeteria?  If the school was broken into smaller units and food service was distributed you may not have to eat at 9:30.  For this to happen though it would be necessary to rethink how you organize the school.  Rather than departments have smaller mixed learning units.  Create teacher and student teams and a feeling of community.  Have all of the conveniences for your small learning community easily at hand so that food isn’t a disruption, but rather a chance to build community.
Some would say “impossible!  It would be a mess, we can’t serve that way, this is progressive nonsense.”  But here, let me draw on my own experience.  I went to a Catholic K-8 school.  We had no lunch room only classrooms. We went to Mass every morning and for a time you needed to fast prior to receiving communion.  To accommodate this we ate breakfasts at our desks and of course later also ate lunch at our desks.  Our room was not a mess, and I can guarantee that in my class of 50 students there were the usual group of wilder kids.
The school should also be different.
When you think about how the story could be different it easy to see that the school should be different as well.  Rather than just rows of classrooms organized in departments with a big separate cafeteria space, organize the school into smaller units and distribute that cafeteria space to each unit.   Rather than departments, mix subjects in each of the smaller learning units so that kids aren’t wasting as much time traveling between classes.  Rather than a big central cafeteria space that “nobody owns” create smaller multiuse spaces owned by the small learning communities. 
Rethinking how we deliver education might just keep us from eating corndogs for breakfast.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Any Time, Any Place

The realization that learning can and should occur at any time and in any place is beginning to find some traction.  School districts are increasingly offering online as well as seat time courses and we are seeing this at the college level as well.  Nay sayers are concerned that online or other out of classroom courses do not have the rigor of a face to face course.  There is also the prospect of cheating with Johnny or Suzy paying there smart unscrupulous friend to take tests for them. Also, some statistics show that the drop out rate for online courses is very high.  While anytime, anyplace learning can have big advantages in terms of allowing students to control the pace of their learning and use learning modalities that work best for them, it is becoming clearer that adolescents still need a proverbial "kick in the pants" to stay on task.  Even motivated students can be easily distracted.  Multitasking is all well and good, but attention and concentration are also 21st Century skills.

To address some of these concerns the concept of digital badges is being developed through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.  Digital badges are sort of a "Merit Badge" you receive if you can demonstrate competence in a field of study you pursue outside of school.  The trick is to test this knowledge so that users can demonstrate proficiency in a way that is accepted by schools, businesses and other entities. 

The enclosed article tells more about digital badges, but I am interested in them because they are yet one more piece of evidence about how learning is changing outside of mainstream schooling.  Will schools change to offer a menu of digital badges for prospective students to choose from?  What would a school (if you could still call it a school) look like that specialized in offering digital badges?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Teen Brain and its Implications for School Design

The October 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine features a great story on brain development in teenagers.   The article describes the prevailing thinking that the teen brain is still developing and hence teens exhibit erratic behavior, but goes on to discuss new thinking that teen behavior is an evolutionary response that causes teens to seek novelty.  The basic idea is that back on the savannah as children matured they needed to spread out and leave home to find new opportunities and hence pass their genes more effectively.  Those that sought novelty in their experiences did move out and were most successful in the reproductive sweepstakes, so that tendency has stayed with teenagers ever since.  The article concludes that it’s not that teenagers don’t recognize the risk in their behavior; it’s that they value the reward from their behavior more highly than the risk it entails. 
When you think about this finding relative to how we educate students it makes sense that students are bored by the mundane and stimulated by the novel.  Students need to be engaged and be encouraged to take risks with their learning.  Memorizing facts is not engaging and not terribly risky other than the risk of not remembering them correctly for the multiple choice test.  But it is risky to ask tough questions and confront your own lack of understanding.  It is risky to apply concepts to situations you have not encountered before.  And it is risky to conduct experiments or build projects that test your understanding of the way things work.
I think the environments for learning we create can facilitate measured risk taking.  We can create flexible lab-like spaces that allow experimentation.  We can create places to discuss and debate issues that require that students risk that others will disagree with them.  We can create rooms that are so agile that that they can be rearranged for each class and challenge students to try to develop the best lay out for the current task at hand.  We can create spaces that are transparent and make learning visible thus exposing students to the risk of observation as they learn.
What do you think?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Good Ideas and Unintended Consequences

I support the American Jobs Act and the $25B it allocates to school construction, but when I hear about what it’s intended to accomplish I do see a negative consequence.  This consequence is the perpetuation of obsolete schools. 
Sure, students need a safe, dry, and warm place to learn, but investing in school infrastructure should also enable schools to be better places for learning.  Research has shown that learning does improve in schools with better environments.  If a school is cold, drafty, poorly lit, has leaks in the roof and mold problems improvements simply have to be made.  When they are, students in these sorts of schools will have a marked improvement in achievement.  But what about students in schools that are already in better condition?  If the warm-safe-dry conditions are met, money is likely to go to energy improvement and deferred maintenance, items that do not have as great an impact.
If the school being renovated is arranged as an egg crate double loaded corridor, if teachers work in isolation, and the skills being taught are for the 19th century not the 21st, aren’t we just perpetuating obsolescence by renovating such a school?  The goal of the Jobs Act is to create jobs quickly.  These will mainly be construction and manufacturing jobs.  The rush to create them means that using the money quickly will be more important than using the money wisely. 
A better approach might be to fund innovation.  Funding school projects that are trying new things and are changing the status quo rather than perpetuating it would be a better tactic, but would not create the jobs at the rate the country needs.
Making an obsolete school last longer doesn’t mean it is less obsolete.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

10 Reasons why Classsrooms are Core to Teachers in the United States

In a recent article I wrote I suggested that perhaps it was time to rethink the classroom.  I understand that for many this is a very controversial statement, and it was intended to get people talking about this subject.  I personally have nothing against classrooms as long as they do not get in the way of teaching students both the 3 Rs and the 4 Cs – Creativity, Communication, Collaboration and Critical Thinking.  Many schools and teachers are making progress in this regard especially in teaching communication, but what I see in too many schools is that the 4 Cs are still foreign concepts.  How can you teach collaboration if you yourself don’t collaborate?  How do you teach creativity if the emphasis is on the high stakes test?  How do you teach critical thinking if the teacher is the person with the answers which are dispensed to students?
 I like most people, am a product of my experiences and those have taught me that the skills embodied in the 4 Cs are becoming increasingly important.  I also see that only 70% of students are graduating from high school and in some schools only 50% and those that do graduate often aren’t prepared for work or college.  These statistics frankly frighten me and so I wonder what I can do about it as a school planner and designer.
My conclusion is that I can work to create agile environments that enable the teaching of the 4 Cs.  Many of these agile environments, like the schools in Australia that I reference in my previous blog post, are not based on the classroom.  Instead they are environments that encourage the 4 Cs.  But as I plan and design schools, I find that teachers are very resistant to considering non-classroom environments.
Most of the US teachers I have met cannot get their heads around the notion of not having a classroom.  I think there are many reasons for this and only by understanding these reasons can we hope to further the dialogue on this subject.  The reasons which follow are collected from conversations and reading I have done and begin to get at this issue.
Some Reasons why Classrooms are Core to Teachers in the United States
1.       “The Classroom is the only thing I can control”  If you think about it, a teacher is told who to teach, told what to teach, told where to teach and told when to teach.  One of the only things in their control is the physical space of their classroom.  As a reaction to this lack of freedom they cling to what they control.
2.       “Teach as you were taught”   The vast majority of teachers were taught in classrooms throughout all levels of their education and are familiar and comfortable with this container.  Leaving this comfort zone to teach in a different environment is more than a little scary to teachers.  There is no effort to instruct teachers on the use of alternative environments in colleges of education and their student teaching is typically done in a classroom.
3.       “I need a classroom to control my class”   In this one, teachers assume the confines of the classroom help them monitor and control student behavior.  Without a classroom they fear they would not be able to keep kids on task.  The classroom gives them a prescribed area of responsibility, while other more open arrangements have no boundaries to limit their responsibility.
4.       “Most students are not self motivated to learn”   Here teachers seem to be saying they can motivate students better in a confined space.  The fear seems to be that students will be distracted and hence less motivated in a non-classroom environment.
5.       “I have students from so many ethnic backgrounds and that speak so many different languages that progressive approaches can’t work”   This is usually the response to examples of non-classroom school environments in foreign countries which typically have more homogenous populations than the United States.  I am not sure why a classroom would work better in this situation.
6.       “There are state standards I have to meet”   Here, educators seem to be saying that the prescription for state standards requires a certain approach that works best in a classroom environment.
7.       “I don’t want to collaborate with another teacher, they approach things differently than me and they are sloppy”   This highlights the fear of loss of control that teachers have of a collaborative environment.
8.       “It would simply too noisy if I didn’t have a classroom where I could shut the door”  this reason draws attention to the assumption teachers make that they will be using the same teaching methods whether they are in a classroom or some other kind of environment.
9.       “I need a classroom to display student work and teaching aids”   This again is a control issue.
10.   “Planning what to do in my own classroom takes all my time, we aren’t given time to collaborate”   Here teachers are pointing out that planning time is at a premium and so there is no training or ability to collaborate to develop lesson plans in alternative school environments.
I am sure there are additional reasons why teachers tie themselves to classrooms, but these give you a flavor for some of the proximate causes.  In a future blog post I will examine how alternative environments address some of these reasons and require changes in behavior for others.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Travel Notes

This last June I traveled to Australia to speak at the CEFPI Australasia Conference.  As part of this trip, we toured Australia and also stopped in Fiji on our way back to the USA.  The conference was a terrific conference with over 500 people from all over the world attending.  My presentation was on Online Learning and the Implications for School Design, a presentation I have given several times in the last year.

For me, the highlight of the conference were the tours of schools in the Sydney area.  The new schools we visited exhibited very progressive pedagogy with a very individualized approach to learning.  Students were collaborating and communicating and presumably being creative while they thought critically about their learning.  Yes, this very much seemed to be an effort to teach 21st century skills. 

The spaces in which this learning took place was fundamentally different from the typical classroom environment that seems to be the world standard.  If anything, the spaces were most like a library in character.  One space, at Northern Beaches Christian School was in fact designed as a library but was in use as a teaching studio. 
Northern Beaches Christian School
Several classes use the space simultaneously and then move to another similar space later in the day. These were middle school aged students and the space was lively but not so loud that you needed to speak in more than a normal voice.  A key reason for this in my view was that the teachers were using the space as intended, rather than trying to force it to do something for which it was not intended - direct instruction.  Teachers were very much acting as "guides on the side" rather than lecturing to their classes.

Northern Beaches is also the home of SCIL - the Sydney Center for Innovation in Learning.  This entity is part and parcel of Northern beaches and uses the school to test new pedagogy and the physical spaces that support it.  You can learn more about them here: scil

Another interesting school I saw was the MLC School in Burwood.  This is a girls' junior and middle school designed to "transform learning."  It too was very open thus encouraging collaboration and self direction.
MLC School Burwood

This school was purpose built to support the progressive pedagogy while Northern Beaches had remodeled and adapted spaces to meet their needs.  MLC organized students into small learning communities each housed in the learning studios pictured.  There were separate activity areas but students good easily move from one to another as their learning required.  Smart boards were on mobile carts so the space could be used flexibly.  Adjacent to the learning studios glass enclosed conferences rooms allowed small groups to  retreat and collaborate while the teacher could still observe them.
Collaboration Space at MLC School
As I visited these schools I asked teachers how they liked teaching in these collaborative spaces and they were all very supportive of the concept.  The schools planning and architecture supports the way they are teaching.  They said that the freedom the layout and approach gives students actually makes them more engaged learners.

Are Australian students different than Americans in their willingness to become engaged in their learning?  Its a complicated question.  these schools are private schools, but 40% of the schools in Australia are private schools.  They use a sort of voucher system so that private schools get state funding which is supplemented by tuition.  So these students may be better off, have better parent involvement, and so may be more self directed than the typical American student.  On the other hand, they are still learning 21st Century Skills that Americans at even the best public schools are not.

For me the lesson of these schools is that this approach works well if you change the teaching paradigm to give students more control over their learning.  To support them once they have this control, a space quite different from the standard classroom is needed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"The Bargain" and what it means for school design

In the Blog - What would happen if we let them go? posted in Education Week by the Futures of School Reform Group, Richard F. Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education offers bleak observations of what he finds as he observes high school classes.  Most notably he sites "The Bargain" a phrase coined by Michael Sedlak, et al. (1986) in Selling students short: Classroom bargains and academic reform in the American high school. New York: Teachers College Press.  The Bargain is between students and teachers and says you give me order and attendance and I will give you minimal homework and passing grades.  It is a sad commentary about the disengagement of both students and teachers in too many schools. 

Many of the comments are worth reading especially the one by earthnfyre which tells about his son's achievement only occurring when he was out of school.

To me this is just more evidence that we need to work harder to engage students.  How you teach, the relationships you build and the interests of students are of course key to this engagement, but I believe that the physical environment you teach in also has a key role in supporting engagement. There is not much research on this subject and it is notoriously difficult to isolate the role of environment in engagement let alone measuring engagement itself, but a few conclusions are self evident. 
  • It stands to reason that students will not be engaged if they are physically uncomfortable.  If due to poor conditions, isolation or the possibility of bullying students are reluctant to use restrooms they will avoid drinking water to avoid the restrooms.  If they don't drink water they will become dehydrated.  If they become dehydrated there learning suffers.
  • It stands to reason that students that can't hear well do to a poor acoustical environment will be less engaged.
  • It stands to reason that students with attention spans ranging from 5 minutes for elementary students to 10 minutes for high school students in a windowless room with no visual relief will have attention difficulties.
  • It stands to reason that students working on projects in the wrong size room, and with the wrong furniture will be less engaged.
There are many more examples of how facilities influence engagement and so is it any wonder that facilities are complicit in "The Bargain?"

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Teacher Avatars

I came across an interesting website recently: which is the site for Intellitar, a company in Alabama that is attempting to commercialize artificial intelligence (AI) combining it with the creation of avatars that interact with you over the web.  Part of the site talks about creating "virtual eternity" in which you create an avatar of yourself that will presumably survive you and allow future generations to have a conversation with you.  The avatar looks like you and sounds like you and is given a dossier of information about you that it uses to answer questions. 

The other part of the site has begun to explore the educational uses of the technology.  In one area students can talk to Benjamin Franklin and ask him questions about his life or the founding of the United States.  In another area, a science teacher avatar allows students to ask questions about chemistry assignments.  I found the Ben Franklin images a little hokey and couldn't get the demo to answer any questions.  The science teacher was better but still not there yet.  As a test I asked the science teacher for the chemical formula for water.  Her reply: "H twenty" not H-Two-Oh. 

The interesting thing is that the AI learns from you as it interacts and so gets better over time.  If you saw the quiz show: "Jeopardy" recently you would have seen the self contained computer "Watson" defeat the two all time Jeopardy champs.  Watson is the same sort of learning computer, but apparently far more sophisticated than the Intellitars.  Having said that, it is important to note that this is the start of this technology and it is likely to get better and progress rapidly.

What are the implications of this technology on spaces that house education?  I think they are another example of the trend toward on-line education.  It will be a while before these avatars are good enough that they are not a novelty, but once they do get better they will offer students another choice in how they learn. When students have a choice, what will make them want to come to a school rather than learn in environments of their choosing?  Schools too often have too many rules, uncomfortable furniture, lousy ventilation, no natural light, and no access to food and water.  Schools are a place to meet and be with your friends, but in the future why would you choose a school as a place to socialize when you can socialize and learn in places that are more comfortable and convenient for you while you learn on-line?

For schools to successfully compete for students, which I believe they will need to do in the future, we have to design schools that are compelling places to be and learn, not just places to minimally house learning activities.  Students, who for the first time ever will have choices about where they learn, will need to choose to come to school rather than have their learning elsewhere.  Student centered teaching and curriculum will of course be key, but as more and more of the teaching/learning transaction occurs on-line the environment might just be the difference maker that keeps schools relevant to tomorrow's learners.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Will Changing the Way you Grade Teacher Colleges Change their Effectiveness?

In reviewing Education Week last week I ran across an article: Grading of Teacher Colleges to be Revamped which is about how US News and World Report is changing the way it ranks colleges of education in the annual list it publishes.  There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding this move and both the article, and the comments which follow it amply describe this debate.  What I found interesting was the actual criteria they are using in grading colleges which can be found by clicking on a pdf. in the article.

What is interesting to me is not what is in these criteria, but what is missing.

The criteria primarily deal with curriculum, subject mastery, and evaluating effectiveness in these admittedly important areas, but there is really not much attention given to how you might organize your efforts as a teacher.  There is nothing about collaboration, nothing about how students should be organized, nothing about how the teacher should be interacting with students, nothing about techniques for individualizing teaching... you get the idea.  In short these very controversial new criteria seem just a different way to measure practices that themselves have not changed at all.

Teachers are under a lot of pressure to perform these days and to improve student outcomes.   A considerable amount of thought has been given to preparing students to compete in the 21st Century and there are many similar approaches that require not so much a change in the subject knowledge teachers' possess, but a change in how students acquire the knowledge, attitudes and skills they will need after they graduate.  From what I can tell there is little in these criteria that address these important aspects of education, so teachers are starting their careers at a disadvantage in doing the precise job for which they were hired.

This matters to me because as an architect, one of the things I can enable through my designs is the transaction between student and teacher.  I know how to design a classroom that enables the teaching of 21st Century skills, but with few exceptions this is not the type of school that teachers and administrators (who also were trained in colleges of education) will let me design.  Instead the demand is for new buildings that enable an old model.

There is still hope for change, but it will take the efforts of all of us in continuing to challenge the status quo and advocate for both the teaching and environments that will let students succeed in the 21st Century.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Virtual Socializing

I am very interested in online learning and the affect the adoption of this approach to education will have on the planning and design of schools.  A common reaction to news of how fast online learning is being adopted is something like: "Well, you can't teach social skills online."
The January 12 2011 issue of Education Week in the article: “Cyber Students taught the value of Social Skills”  by Michelle. R. Davis uncovered some interesting findings about the development of social skills for students learning online.

The article cites studies that show that online students were rated significantly higher in various areas of social skills by both parents and the students themselves.  It also says that "problem behaviors" were "either significantly lower or not significantly different when compared with national norms."  I am not sure how this was measured.  Were the students at a regular school taking online classes?  Were they at home?
In any case it is an interesting finding which I think is probably due to the kids being more engaged in what they were learning and so had less need to misbehave.  In addition with texting, Twitter, Facebook, Skype and many other technologies for social connection available to them, its easy for me to believe the kids do have good social skills.  The net is not the object of their socializing it is only the mechanism.
The article goes on to describe how schools are partnering with YMCA's "to create drop-in classrooms outfitted with computers where students can do their work for up to five days a week."
This is a phenomenon we are likely to see more of.  With online learning, students have a choice about where they learn, so why pick school?  The prevailing wisdom says they go to school to socialize and that is probably true, but why does it need to be?  Why not go to the Y or to Starbucks or to the library to socialize and oh yes, to take online classes too?
For me this is another reason why we need to talk to educators and school administrators about making their schools so darn compelling that they will be the first choice for students that for the first time ever really have a choice.
What do you think?