Friday, August 19, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 4. Our Definition of the Classroom

Image: nuchylee /

This post is part four in a series in which I offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching. 

#4- We can transform our definition of the classroom from “Set in Time and Space” to “Anywhere, Anytime.”

We do damage to learning when we define school as separate from "the real world." We are constantly learning as human beings, but often the types of learning that we do in schools are less engaging than the types of learning we choose for ourselves outside of school. If we carelessly treat learning as only what happens in schools, we risk creating negative associations about learning in the minds of our students.

There are a couple of ways to combat this problem: The first is to make the learning that goes on in schools as organic and engaging as it is on the playground. That means creating opportunities for students to self-select their exploration, allowing students to learn socially, and encouraging students to express themselves creatively. Beyond that, however, we can actively work to blur the edges of our classrooms so that they are not locked in place and time.

One of the strangest results of the 20th Century model of education is that we spend so much time placing student learning in boxes. Students go to 1st period class and are asked to think like scientists in isolation from everything else. Fifty minutes later a bell rings, and our students move to a new box in which they are asked to think like historians in isolation from everything else. Another bell rings and they switch to math mode or reading mode, and at the end of the day another bell rings, and students leave our box and enter a world in which learning is cross-curricular and not limited to discrete time packages that occur in a prescribed order.

It seems to me that it is time for schools to align themselves with this more natural model of learning. We need to break down the walls of time, space and curriculum whenever possible. Our students need to perceive that school can happen anytime and anywhere, and that the learning we do with them isn't limited in value to the time they spend in our presence. We need to connect our students' personal learning with their academic experiences, and we have a responsibility to make sure their academic experiences can inspire personal learning. Finally, we need to create opportunities for our students to connect with us and their classmates virtually and asynchronously. 

Additionally, we need to free ourselves from the expectation that a classroom looks like this: 

Image: criminalatt /
Instead, classrooms could look like courtrooms, coffee shops, laboratories, production studios, and public squares. My friend Missy Feller did an outstanding job this year designing her classroom so that it feels like a space for organic learning. She created a living room type space for conversation, nooks and crannies that encourage independent inquiry or small group collaboration, and a forum space for whole group learning. She also hung original art on the walls, brought in hand-decorated furniture that pulls the eye away from the more industrial furniture provided by the school, and filled the room with plants, rugs, framed art and knick-knacks that make the space feel more like a home, and less like a box. Here are just a few photos from her class:

Finally, we also need to change our own definitions of the classroom to include the world beyond our doors. Access to the Internet and tools like Twitter, Skype and Google+ should mean that we begin with the assumption that we can learn globally and that no resource is beyond our borders. The work of the next few years will be to make sure that all students have access to these tools, to make sure that we, as educators, allow these tools to improve learning, and to make sure that we help students learn to use these tools with wisdom and expertise.

Admittedly, re-imagining the classroom at this level requires that we have some hard conversations, that we slay some sacred cows, and that we free ourselves from the inertia of the system, but every time that we make a choice to conceptualize the classroom differently, we create examples of how learning can be better.

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