The Times (and the Classrooms) are a-Changin’

Photo Credit: John Wick

you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone – Bob Dylan

I recently had the pleasure of giving a presentation (though it was really more of a discussion) about the removal of textbooks from the classroom.  At the beginning of the presentation, I demonstrated how classroom environments have changed little over the last several centuries.  Think back to your childhood classrooms and more likely than not you’ll picture a square room with rows of desks all facing forward in a straight line. Its the tried and true lecture style of teaching.  We have grown to expect that teachers will be the lone keepers of knowledge, safe in their ivory towers of isolation, doling out bits of wisdom from their state approved tomes of power. The problem is that this line of thinking is woefully outdated and does not accurately reflect the world in which we live.

I cannot remember the last time I ever held a job, or within my career, when I was asked to sit with 30-40 other people in straight rows to complete a task.  Our world has become one that values collaboration.  The ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances is one of the most vital skills any person can learn.  Yet, we force our students into these artificial rows and accept this as the normal setup for any classroom environment.  What a shame that we automatically think of these environments as necessary.  It’s teacher centered, and diminishes the ability of the students to collaborate.

The picture at the beginning of this blog post [blurred and cartoonified to protect students’ identities] is taken from one of the classrooms at my school.  I had one brave teacher who was willing to take up my challenge and change the way her classroom worked.  I posed the audacious question: “Why do we need student desks?”  Together we pushed the desks out of the classroom and asked the students how they would like to learn.  The results were amazing.

Students brought in bean-bag chars, bouncing chairs, folding chairs, and seating devices I had never seen before.  Parents raised an eyebrow but knew we were trying to do something different, something that would help their children.  Every student in this class has an iPad and we have a projector with an AppleTV that allows the teachers and students to instantly interact with each other on the subject they are learning. We put Ideapaint on the wall and now the entire wall is a creative work surface. We have a few students who like the feel of a desk and they use it at their discretion.  This setup has been a huge success.  Students are engaged and excited to come to school.  Students in other grades are talking about how they also want to have the same setup.

There are difficulties associated with this.  The teacher has to give up decades of indoctrination into the rows and lecture style of teaching.  The teacher has to become a facilitator, a mentor, a collaborator in knowledge making.  The teacher has to be brave enough to sometimes say “I don’t know, lets see if we can find out together.”  It is time we stop blindly walking into our classrooms and accepting what is there simply because it has always been there.

I challenge each of you with a classroom, or you administrators in charge of a school, to walk into  your rooms and look at them with new eyes. See it as a big empty square box and try to remember what the childhood version of you wishes he or she could have as a classroom.  Ask your students to help you.  There is no reason why we have to adhere to models that were designed for lecture halls and Industrial Age societies.  We are all experts in our field of study.  Lets show the world that students come first and that we can help them succeed by giving them the environments they deserve.

If you do nothing else, make one major change to your classroom this week and try it out, the results may surprise you!

As Always I welcome your thoughts and comments on this.  What do you see as the benefits of changing classroom environments? What do you see as the challenges?

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