The Ideal Classroom?

Sir Ken Robinson was in Red Deer last night, and I am glad that I took the time to catch his lecture.  It was a fantastic opportunity to hear him in person and go beyond the “20 minute clips” that I usually hear on the Internet.  Although those short messages are very powerful, the expansion of his ideas was extremely powerful.

Sir Ken talked about the importance of personalized education, the power of creativity, and the impact of passion in the classroom.  As he spoke of these ideas, I thought a lot about our new 1-1 computer initiative that we have in our grade 5 and 6 classrooms.  As we rolled out the computers, and let the students know that these were their computers, I watched with excitement as they personalized their browsers, screens, and made the computers their own.  I know this having this access to technology and ownership of a device is only one facet of what we can do in the classroom, but it is something that is becoming a part of our lives.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by gcouros

One of the questions that was asked of Sir Ken last night was essentially the antithesis of what I believe.  The participant basically asked that with all of this technology and how students are so “wired”, how could we have kids be passionate about education.  I was perplexed by this question until Sir Ken referred to Mark Prensky and his terms, “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”.  It was discussed how immigrants in history have held onto the “old” ways while the younger generation (the “digital natives”) have embraced and define the new culture.  Whether you agree with the term “digital natives” or “digital immigrants”, it is evident how our younger generation is embracing and using this technology to connect.

So as we see this opportunity for our students to connect and personalize social media, it is also apparent that this is not the answer for all students.  It may be part of the answer for some, but the personalized, creative, and passionate ideas in schools need more.

One of the tweets that came from last night’s lecture, I found very interesting yet abundantly true:

Essentially, what does this look like in a school?

Yes, I believe that we need to find ways to unleash the talent in our students and give them ownership in the classroom, but my big question is, what does this look like in a classroom setting?  We all talk about our classrooms encouraging creativity, building upon student passion, and being personalized, but not enough people are talking about what that looks like.

If you were to envision a “classroom” in school that embraced these ideas, what would it look like?

Thoughts?

23 thoughts on “The Ideal Classroom?

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  2. Jeremy M.

    Each week, my team teacher and I try to continue progressing toward our perception of the ideal classroom.

    We started the year by putting student desks in groups of 4. This would provide students with regular opportunities to discuss, learn and socialize with other students during the day. We also began to realize that it allowed students to begin forming connections and relationships with their groups–this proved to help with our shyer students, helping them feel less overwhelmed. As the year goes on, we change the groups. We put different students in different groups to help promote growth and collaboration.

    We also have a cart of 15 MacBooks for the classroom. There are times I wish we had 1:1, but the forced sharing is another way our students learn to cooperate and collaborate together.

    Students also have a say in most things we do. I appreciate their input and often times they have ideas that I would never think of, but that are engaging and meaningful for the students. I figure it's their education and if we want them to have ownership, we need to provide them the opportunity each day. With choice comes consequences. I don't set students up for failure, but I don't always let them know that some of their ideas may not be the most effective. We encourage risk taking in class when it comes to learning and leaving our comfort zones. I try to show my mistakes each day and build on some of the ones they make, showing that it is just another part of the learning process.

    At the same time, we always look for our successes. I feel it is just as powerful to learn from our successes as it is our failures.

    Feedback is meaningful and appropriate in the classroom. We are often the "odd-class-out" during awards assemblies, as we do not do honor roll or other seemingly vain awards. We focus on teamwork, growth, and character. We don't give all the students recognition in fear of leaving someone out, but because all of our students are doing something in class right now that deserves to be noticed and recognized.

    We use data. We use a lot of data. We don't quantify our students with numbers though. We use our pre/post assessments to help us see student progress towards mastery. We regularly collect formative assessment data during class discussions, group work and individual interviews. We use this data to monitor and share their progress with our PLC, parents, intervention teams. The data also helps provide us a picture of what our students really need. Often we have "lower" students that may not need the same intervention or specialized instruction as other "low" students. The data helps us isolate (to the best of our abilities) the specific strands or skills that each student may be lacking. We use data to guide our instruction for the whole class and for the whole child.

    Our system isn't perfect, but each week we try to reflect and see what we can do better. I'm excited to see what others comment so that I can glean some ideas that can improve our classroom as well as my own approach and instruction.

    1. George Post author

      Thanks for your comment Jeremy :) I think that your continuous reflection within your own classroom only makes you a better teacher.

  3. Daryl Bambic

    I have been thinking about this one for a while and would like to suggest an image for the ideal classroom- a network illustrating nodes (hubs) with the important lines indicating the connections between the learners. It might look like a neural network of neurons and synapses. Two good books to read on this one are Clay Shirky's "Cognitive Surplus" and Nicholas Christakis' "Connections". Both have taught me about the power of the network for learning.

    I am convinced of Dean Shareski's admonition that sharing is a moral imperative. Teachers need to lift the assignments out of the one track highway with an audience of one (the teacher) and share the students' work, at least with the classroom. Wikis are a great digital hub that amplify learning and creative ideas. Students in 2011 can look back at projects done in 2010 and 2009 for inspiration. The result is that every year, the quality of student assignments improves. Any digital hub will help teachers and students connect to one another's learning; wikis are just one way.

    1. George Post author

      I love the sharing concept and believe it is something that is HUGE in our future. Does it not seem like Kindergarten rooms are the ideal?

      Thanks for your comment Daryl :)

  4. Melissa Everitt-Dall

    In my class, at the beginning of the year, I let the kids choose the path. They told me what we would study and when. Yes, I guided the discussion to make sure the big ideas would be covered, but by telling me what they wanted to learn, they became excited by learning.

    Blogging has been essential to engagement. The kids are thinking on a way deeper level as they reflect on their assignments. I was blown away by the transfer of these critical thinking skills during a recent science experiment that you, George, witnessed. It failed to do what it was supposed to do and while I was then nervous and disappointed, the kids came up with several hypotheses as to why it didn't work. Here am I frustrated as they demonstrate their ability to think critically.

    More and more I am realizing that my job is to help this particular group of kids open themselves to learning and "wiring" with technology is engaging them in ways I could not have predicted.

    I watched Sir Ken's Paradigm Shift RSA during a session at Convention today and even though I've seen it several times, I was fired up again. I am so pleased to be a part of this new way of learning, teaching and assessing. Had you told me a year ago that I myself would be this engaged in my teaching, I would have laughed openly. Who knew!?

    1. George Post author

      I did :) You have a tremendous spark that draws people to you and you do some amazing things. Glad to hear there is some pep in your step!

  5. Julie Cunningham

    In working with a couple people recently on developing that 'ideal classroom' concept, I find that there is a very healthy tension between following student passion in the classroom and making sure they have a body of knowledge that enables them to relate to their culture and global community.

    Passion-centered work can become a foundation for ignorance. Let me say that I totally buy in to this concept- but I see this as a major issue. If we allow students to see only one side of a story and do not challenge their beliefs by introducing new, contradictory, and opposing information, how are they ever to truly gain understanding of any issue they choose to pursue? I believe we do them a great disservice if we provide this forum for passion centered learning without giving them tools to sift through information, think critically about what they read, and how to seek out other viewpoints.

    As for body of knowledge? I'm not at the place where I think students will choose everything good for themselves. Bedtimes, food choices, etc….. I think they need some structure. Personally, I wasn't a fan of the last few college courses I was 'required' to take, but I learned so much through them…. and found some things I'm very interested in along the way. We need exposure to new ideas and concepts, and to understand what someone is talking about when they refer to Huck Finn or Napoleon.

    I think it looks like creating space for students to follow their interests and passions. In that space, we scatter resources and ideas for the learner. We teach them how to find information, how to verify the source, how to think critically about what is said, how to share what they are learning. We ask them what they are thinking, what they believe, what they think of opposing concepts, what they will share with someone else that day. That space? It's about thinking, developing, becoming, changing. Not about formulating a myopic vision of a single topic. (Love Orca whales? Great! Are they amazing creatures, or vicious predators? Or both?)

    And we surround that 'open space' with rich learning that frees them to follow their passions during that open time…. learn to read, learn to write, learn to express themselves intelligently in the global community, learn to have self-discipline, learn to respond to challenges, learn to have fortitude, learn to think.

    Oh, and we recognize that learning is 24/7…. that student's don't turn 'off' when they leave our buildings…. and we provide a way for them to network and share ideas during those outside times. Connected learners. :D

  6. George Post author

    I love this:

    "Passion-centered work can become a foundation for ignorance. Let me say that I totally buy in to this concept- but I see this as a major issue. If we allow students to see only one side of a story and do not challenge their beliefs by introducing new, contradictory, and opposing information, how are they ever to truly gain understanding of any issue they choose to pursue? I believe we do them a great disservice if we provide this forum for passion centered learning without giving them tools to sift through information, think critically about what they read, and how to seek out other viewpoints."

    That logic is going into my ideal classroom :) Thanks for your comment Julie!

    1. Ian Chia

      Julie's point is very important and underscores why it's vital that alongside teaching them how to find information, the ideal classroom should teach skills of digital media literacy and understanding situational language.

      If a child does a google search at home (with or w/o filters etc), they will still find articles written from a certain perspective. The skills to understand how a viewpoint is constructed, in magazines, in newspapers, in blogs, YouTube videos etc. etc. becomes more and more important as children are connected in super easy ways across the world.

      More importantly is the next step – students become part of a social web. Not only are they thinking critically about what they read and seeking out viewpoints, but they will engage and contribute to a dialog. Learning the civic skills of being part of a social web, and contributing/collaborating to a discourse needs to be part of an ideal classroom. Being able to connect to someone across the world allows a wonderful opportunity for children to learn empathy and understanding of others, in an honest, down-to-earth manner. In a classroom context, these aren't other kids you read about. They become people you talk to.

  7. Kyle

    The more I learn about play-based learning, the more I beleive it's the ideal classroom. i see kindergarten students totally immersed in their learning when given time to "play" , but only when the teacher uses good questioning and leading to get kids learning through their passions.

    As kids progress from primary to intermediate to high school, play decreases, and is replaced by an increased focus on Learning Outcomes. Along the same timeline, engagement and excitement also decrease.

    We need to find a way to have all classes taugh using play. How? Experiment as a teacher, try new methods, ask the kids, take risks, toss out a few useless PLO's. PLAY.

  8. Jeffrey Shoemaker

    I love your post topic. Just last week, I had some similar thoughts. Infact, I blogged about it. when I look at the classroom I do agree that students need to feel like they are part owners of the environment of the classroom. Supplies and things need to be at their level. I agree with several other comments about having students work in groups and to build relationships with other students.

    I don't know if we will ever really know what the ideal classroom is, but I do know that once your classroom is student centered and learning centered students will definately feel like they are in an ideal classroom.

  9. Tom Darling

    I was intrigued by a Wired magazine story about few months about Wired University–the "new" curriculum–only to be disappointed by the content. As a middle school teacher, I need to teach content that is the foundation for everything that follows, and tends to be universal (focus, organization and details in a paper, story, movie or even text message). Still, no one is teaching them how to text, use a computer or much of anything that my peers wring their hands about. To do so comes at the cost of other classes, like Art and PE (laugh if you want, I still think them important).

    My point? Student passion needs to guide students through those fields, while introducing them to new ideas. I think of the power of those teachers, together, to guide each student through their chosen path. Then, school becomes like the Justice League teaching the sidekicks as they grow (or the Jedi masters with their students); leaders more than disseminators.

    As long as I feel the moral imperative of teaching students to be better people, and their need for real skills (from how to text appropriately to sewing a button on a shirt) competes with the desires of the established curriculum I will never feel I live in an ideal classroom. I am paid to provide very specific services, so I don't feel comfortable being subversive (it's dishonest, regardless of good intent). Also, at the middle school level, we are not in a classroom where we can just close the door and do our own thing (we team teach), and everyone has different things they need to happen.

    So, my thoughts are a muddle because education is. I envy those techno teachers who feel they've solved the world's problems.

    1. Ivon

      Tom, I had the good fortune to take in two presentations by gentlemen who bring great backgrounds in technology to the conversation we must have around the use of technology in our classrooms. The ubiquity of technology makes it a reality; however both Tod Maffin and Phil McRae signaled the need to be careful in our delivery of technology. There is no ideal classroom. There is only the pursuit of it in traditional, innovative, and combined ways. Part of this will be our learning, as educators, what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, and how it can be done in the most effective manner for our students. You are not alone in the belief that we have not arrived at an epiphany of what the ideal classroom is. Our use of technology can only help to serve as one of a series of tools to be used; otherwise we enter into an echo chamber.

  10. Brent Smith

    Hey George,

    Great thread! Already a ton of great ideas here but I have a few more thoughts….I believe that the ideal classroom needs to be a reflection of the community (both classroom, immediate, and global). What does this look like in practical terms?

    As a classroom community, students must see themselves when they look at the walls. How is their work being honoured? (e.g. used as exemplars, proudly displayed). How are their learning styles and passions being honoured and harnessed? (e.g. physical layout of the classroom, learning objects and activities). How are we gathering their input?

    Our immediate communities should also play a part in the ideal classroom. How transparent are our schools? How much real engagement (beyond fundraising and chaperoning) takes place on a regular basis? How are we harnessing and honouring the authentic expertise that lies very closely outside of the walls of our schools? How comfortable are our parents and caregivers when they enter our classrooms?

    I believe that our ability to reflect the global community is one of the foundations of the ideal classroom. We can talk all day about character education but if our classrooms have not shifted their focus to what is going on in the middle east right now, how can we say we are thinking globally? If our students are not able to answer the old "when am I ever going to use this" question, we are not connecting on a global level.

    Whewww…bit of a ramble there…love the thread!

    take care, Brent

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