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.