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August 25, 2011

It’s time for Americans to rethink the classroom

  • Traditional set-ups aren’t designed to prepare U.S. students with the creative skills they’ll need to compete in the global economy.
    NAC Architecture


    If you are like most people your school experience was in part defined by classrooms.

    But if you think back to high school and identify an important learning experience, I’ll bet most of you would name an experience that happened outside the classroom. At least that’s the result I get when I ask this question when speaking at conferences.

    For years, educational reformers have tinkered with and even eliminated classrooms, but these changes have not been adopted by the mainstream. Most new schools today are modeled after an egg crate, with classrooms on both sides of a corridor. But as you begin to examine what students need and want, and the technologies now available, it is clear that things have changed.

    What’s different now

    Photo by Greg Stack [enlarge]
    Teachers in this Australian classroom work with students in small groups and one-on-one. The environment is designed to encourage collaboration.

    Memory is less important than it used to be. When it’s easy to look up things on a handheld device, there is less need to store facts in your head. Some facts are of course essential, but as the number of facts expands exponentially, it’s simply not possible to remember enough of them.

    Today, making sense out of facts — separating the intellectual wheat from the chaff — is far more important than spouting facts. With so many “facts” available, the real skill is using critical thinking to decide what is true and what is not.

    Facts or knowledge held in isolation has limited value, so it is vital to communicate the sense we have made out of facts. Communication has always been important, but with today’s communication speed, being facile with multiple communication methods is a real advantage.

    Speaking, writing and even tweeting clearly allows you to accomplish more in less time, make fewer mistakes and persuade people. This is true whether giving instructions to your gardening crew or the board of directors.

    In turn, easy communication has made collaboration all the more important. Try to think of the work activities you do in isolation. Most people collaborate to do their job. Those who don’t “play well with others” are just not as successful.

    In the past, creating new products or ideas was the realm of specialists, but today creativity is the differentiator that makes the United States competitive. We can’t compete with low-wage countries for industrial or other process jobs, but creativity is valuable regardless where it originates. This change has increased the need to foster and teach creativity.

    When facts were king

    Classrooms were developed as containers for the educational process when facts were king. In the early 1800s students only needed to retain a few facts: the rules of multiplication, how to read and write — the basic skills required by a rising merchant class.

    The teacher had the facts, books were expensive, and lecture was how facts were delivered. Teachers were the masters of this domain, with no need to collaborate to do their job. The container for education hasn’t changed much over the last 180 years, but what needs to be taught has changed drastically.

    The new reality is that schools today are asked to do far more than they were designed for. In addition to the basics, they are teaching more complex subjects, and often the morals that were formally taught in the family. Now there is a profound public dissatisfaction with educational achievement, and employers are frustrated with the skills of graduates. There are numerous confounding causes for our nation’s drop in achievement, and changing the environment is not a total solution, but the environment can support or hinder learning.

    In addition to the three “Rs,” the world now wants students and teachers to be equipped with the four “Cs”: creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking. Classrooms may not be the best place to teach the four Cs since they often serve as barriers, keeping students and teachers isolated in silos rather than engaged in the rich mash-up of real life.

    Tony Wagner, former co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education says, “Isolation is the enemy of improvement and innovation.” Classrooms are isolating.

    Rethinking the classroom

    Classrooms are too often analogous to a freezer for knowledge, where knowledge is stored and dispensed. We ought to think of classrooms as the whole kitchen where knowledge is sliced, diced, cooked and reconfigured in a million ways.

    There are three main approaches to rethinking the classroom: Change classrooms, eliminate classrooms, or change the concept of where people learn.

    Examples of changing the classroom can be seen in a recent Slate magazine competition that asked readers to re-imagine the American classroom. Teachers, students, planners and architects submitted a total of 350 ideas that were judged both by online readers and by a panel of professionals. Entries ranged from outdoor classrooms to “Matrix”-like proposals where students “plug in” for learning. The winner, “The 5th Grade Exploration Studio” by NAC Architecture, uses the basic idea of the classroom but arranges students and the teacher to master the four Cs.

    Another approach is to eliminate classrooms. A conference I recently spoke at in Sydney included tours of new Australian schools that have broken away from the classroom to teach the four Cs.

    These schools are not your father’s open-plan classrooms from the 1960s. Instead, they are rich environments that encourage collaboration.

    Rather than trying to lecture, teachers work with students in small groups and individually. Students teach other students, and everyone owns the entire space rather than anyone owning a particular area. There are some enclosed spaces for direct instruction but no one owns these.

    Australia’s scores on international tests put it towards the top of the rankings, whereas the U.S. languishes in the middle. Sure, Australia is a much smaller, homogenous country, and this solution may not be right for every location, but the 70 percent high school graduation rate in the U.S. tells me that the predominant classroom paradigm here is not so great, either.

    A third approach eliminates school as we know it. We are seeing this in the astronomical adoption of online learning. The book “Disrupting Class” by Clayton Christensen predicts that half of all high school courses will be online by 2019.

    Online learning allows students choice and control over the pace of learning. Online learning can be much more individualized than classroom learning, and perhaps most significantly, it’s cheaper.

    Changing from “the way we’ve always done it” won’t be easy. Most people resist change and this is as true of educators and parents as anyone. Everyone agrees that we must improve outcomes from our schools. To improve we must change.

    For the first time ever, public school students have choices enabled by technology. If we want schools to remain relevant, we need to make them so attractive and so agile that students will want to go to them to learn. Perhaps rethinking our allegiance to the classroom is a first step.

    Greg Stack is the K-12 thought leader for NAC Architecture. For more on this subject and other school design issues visit his blog: schooldesignmatters.blogspot.com.

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