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Discarding the Classroom

Something to Ponder

After a crazy last week, I finally got some time to sit down today to look at recent #edtech Tweets. Near the top of my feed was one by Bill Ferriter, aka @plugusin, that posed some interesting questions about the existing structures of classrooms and what takes to break down these particular constructs to really innovate education.

His questions got me thinking about the way people view the “classroom” in online and blended learning. Are these classrooms really innovative? Do they pushing thinking enough to make large shifts in the design of schools? If they are so disruptive, why hasn’t more traction been made with quality online course design and blended learning schools? Or do they just reinforce the traditional constructs that already exist in brick and mortar settings?

Let’s ponder these questions from Bill (below in green) with the lens of blended and online learning…

So whaddya’ think?  Are the preconceived notions that we all have about what classrooms are supposed to be holding us back — preventing us from really redefining what schools are all about?

I have heard some argue that the structure of online and blended classrooms are the new way to redefine classroom. They break down the walls and traditional design of classrooms redefining what school is or can be. But I don’t agree. I think online and blended “classrooms” are still largely set up around these preconceived notions about school. There is limited online content that I have seen that actually rethinks education.  So much of it is remediation or drill and kill for online classes.  There is also too much focus in those programs on the test. Where is the critical thinking and demonstration of deeper learning in an online class? Most big name content providers or online schools do not provide that, so really pushing what education looks like in those environments is still missing. Smaller providers and individual teachers may craft that experience for their individual learners, but on a larger scale, I don’t see it happening.  Blended may be a bit closer to pushing the envelope, but with all of the hoops to jump through to offer a different approach to structuring the master schedule, it often times is met with resistance.  This is why blended becomes an initiative which isn’t supported – or may be short lived – by district level leadership.

Another question:  Does the traditional architecture of schools — both physical and mental (think self-contained classrooms holding 30 kids for 50 minutes at a time) — discourage learning and reinforce schooling?

I think that online courses have tried to break down the notion that a classroom is 30 kids for 50 minutes, but I do not think they have succeeded when it comes to quality. Let’s say an online class has 90 kids who are working at various time periods over a given interval that a unit is open for. Is this really much different? There is still a set student to teacher ratio. There is still the same set of standards. There is still a pacing guide aligned to a specific text book. There is still a given time period to get through the content. There is still a summative assessment at the end of the unit to determine success on the material. Where are the big differences? The end goal of most online providers is to have students graduate by passing the necessary tests. To me, this reinforces schooling, not encourages learning. Again, blended classrooms may have the edge, but that wholly depends on the way the individual school supports the students’ ability to choose pathways and content that is inquiry based and truly supports their unique interests and need-to-knows.

Final question:  What will it take for nontraditional definitions of “classrooms” and “learning spaces” to be fully embraced?

Some organizations and schools are embracing what it means to redefine classrooms and learning spaces. But they are smaller, innovative places without the capital and reach to see large scale change. To me, it seems like the best way to have new visions of classrooms embraced is to disrupt the business of education. That sounds like a pretty daunting task. But I think this will be a grassroots, ground up type of change. So, as Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” 

Digital learning? That might be scary…

Today is Digital Learning Day. A day when the possibilities, creative uses, and innovative implementers of technology in classrooms are highlighted and revered across the nation. Policy makers are paying attention and pressure for technology integration into the curriculum rises. Debates about the best tools, how to fund technology initiatives, the revision of eRate, and the equity or inequity of digital learning in certain communities arise. I appreciate all of those conversations and hope there will be some shifts that allow for all students to have improved learning experiences through technology use. But I am also struck by what I don’t hear coming from that conversation….for some, digital learning is scary.

The great thing about digital learning is that there are literally endless possibilities of what a teacher can do with their curriculum if given the appropriate technology and supported on how to embed it in their classroom. There are tools, apps, websites, programs, tablets, and phones that can access information and produce amazing learning experiences for kiddos (and adults for that matter!). The scary thing about digital learning is that there are literally endless possibilities of what a teacher can do with their curriculum if given the appropriate technology and supported on how to embed it in their classroom. Because here is the kicker: teachers are often told to implement technology in their classrooms without that necessary support or the support is a one-time deal, while the technology is continuously evolving. That might be scary for some, but particularly for those resistant teachers.

This week I am helping facilitate virtual professional development sessions for teachers around the country and I am struck by two things. 1) I sometimes take for granted how difficult it is for people to leap into the world of digital learning and 2) It is a brave undertaking for the teachers to choose to join these meetings virtually. Here’s why and what I hope to see included in Digital Learning Day conversations moving forward.

Yesterday, during the math content meeting, we discussed this image create by Problem Based Learning math guru Geoff Krall (@emergentmath).

Three Characteristics of an Effective Math Classroom
Three Characteristics of an Effective Math Classroom

In the past, the PD session has focused on Quality Mathematical Tasks. But yesterday, it focused on Social and Emotional Safety. At some point during that discussion, it hit me. This triangle works for digital learning too! Substitute “Quality Digital Learning Tools” for mathematical tasks and BAM! Digital classrooms should look like that!

But Geoff goes a bit further in his blog post on the topic. He not only discusses the need for all three, but that the breakdown of time spent on the three in his writing and conversations with teachers usually look like this:

Where Time is Spent Reading, Writing, and Talking
Where Time is Spent Reading, Writing, and Talking

In other words, social and emotional safety does not enter into the conversation regularly. I would contend that is the same for digital learning. What I see and hear via social media and in conversations usually focus on the best tools and how to use them, but rarely talks about how to support reluctant technology implementers. Just integrate technology and you’ll be fine is like telling our kiddos just do the reading and you’ll pass the test. But that is not the reality. Students need help understanding the reading, drawing conclusions, and forming ideas and opinions about what they read. And when they struggle, the teacher supports them by remediation. But that is not what we are doing nationally to our teachers who struggle with technology integration.  Those teachers who struggle with the concept of including technology in their classrooms not only need the technical help, but they also need to feel validated and supported as they struggle with what districts and students demand of them. How much time is spent building an environment where people who are hesitant to digital learning feel socially and emotionally safe? What are we doing to create that safe space in our schools for the teacher? That’s what I would like to see included in Digital Learning Day discussions.

I work in an environment where I forget just how challenging engaging in learning via a new tool can be because everything I do is digital and remote. But those who choose to be supported virtually are deciding to be vulnerable in cyberspace with other teachers that they may never meet in person and in an environment that may be unfamiliar to them. So kudos to them for being brave enough to try something new and for reminding me just how important it is to build those cultural structures online that allow for safe learning spaces. As I move forward thinking about how to support teachers implementing technology in their classrooms, I want to be more intentional about the social and emotional safety. Because change can be scary. But if I help create that safe environment in my online classroom, then hopefully others will create it and support one another in creating it in theirs.