The Ideal Classroom? (a reprise)

I’ve grown to appreciate Twitter for many things. As a news feed, I am as in touch with world events as I have ever been without visiting any news sites. It eliminates my need for RSS feeds by following individuals and organizations that I would normally have subscribed to. I can also be places that I am not. Events such as #educon that are Tweeted and hash-tagged keep me in conversations about events even though I’m not there. 

One of the most unexpected benefits of Twitter has been it’s ability to spark my curiosity and serve as a groundswell of ideas from disconnected tweets. I trust that I share this with many of the people I follow. 

One of the many things that caught my attention as I panned through my Twitter feed recently was a blog post by George Couros (@gcouros). His web site, “The Principal of Change” serves as his outlet for all the things he encounters as a K-12 administrator and his thoughts and reflections from the educational realm. Anyway, he posted “The Ideal Classroom?” on Thursday and essentially pondered whether or not his school’s new 1:1 laptop program would facilitate the “ideal classroom” for his students and teachers and provide the personalized, passionate, creative learning that is promoted by educational reformers at all levels.

What is the ideal classroom? If you’re an educator this question has crossed your mind. For some, this question has become a pursuit, a drive, a passion. I find myself in that category. Considering my educational pursuits in Educational Technology and Educational Psychology, this should be expected.

Two years ago, I started looking around my classroom, looking at my students, and looking at the resources at our disposal. With every student accessing a laptop whenever the need arises, it became clear that my instructional potential could go further. That last statement seems pretty obvious, I know. However, the overwhelming evidence is that technology and computing fails to produce the transformation in teaching and learning that should be expected. Larry Cuban set forward this argument in Oversold and Underused. His study in a pair of school districts in Silicon Valley, California made it clear that while the availability of computers in the hands of teachers and students has been increasingly available, instruction and pedagogy continues to remain largely unchanged.

So what is it then? What is the ideal classroom? 

As the 2008-2009 school year came to a close, I cultivated several disparate ideas into one seemingly cohesive package and wrote “Mr. Bruce’s Teaming Handbook”. This was to serve as the basis for procedure, protocol, and convention of my 9th grade U.S. History classes. This was to be my first year in that curriculum after matriculating up with the 8th grade students with whom I was finishing the school year. I’ve shared it at the bottom of this post.

I hoped for a collaborative setting, where students took history class far beyond the walls of the classroom; a classroom that existed only as needed, sparking the engagement in historical inquiry that would drive student learning and discovery. Student groups would process and produce their learning as though they themselves were the owners of their education. That’s the ideal situation.

After a few months into the school year, the enthusiasm began to fizzle. Class activities began to slump, groups started to disintegrate, and engagement waned. I urged students to recall how different this class was from the others they had, and how much more it offered them if they would just stay the course. But I was beginning to tire, as well. This classroom required a great deal of energy from me; much more than I had anticipated. Group blogs and wikis (see handbook) required more direction and instruction than I was expecting. Where did my ideal classroom go?

Since that school year ended, I decided to lay off that concept until I could put my finger on just what went wrong. Unfortunately, It has become clearer that what was wrong had nothing to do with the plan, or my execution of it. In fact, I may not have even been able to work out the bugs and launch my 2.0 version. The problem was rooted in the culture of teaching and learning itself. 

When students left my classroom each day, they experienced a far different learning environment than I had hoped to foster. They left my classroom of digital storytelling to go down the hall to worksheet’s and packets. Taking notes in my class was a group expectation, not a graded assignment taken from a slideshow. Students who failed to meet deadlines were subject to group social pressure and were accountable to those with whom they worked, rather than being punished with an arbitrary point value deducted from the overall assigned value of the task. They would leave a place where they determined the value of their work and learning, and found that everywhere else, technology had been superimposed on the classroom and limited their educational opportunities.

Many of my students found the comfort of worksheets and handouts was easiest. Producing a music video for two 19th century songs was hard. Critical thinking is hard. Creative expression based on historical understanding is a challenge. But it’s harder to sell the value in that kind of education to 15 year olds who are pushed by an archaic grading system to meet arbitrary deadlines for mindless tasks.

An ideal classroom cannot exist without the ideal school.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jason Ohler at a Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning (MACUL) Conference a few years ago in Detroit. He presented a few sessions that weekend, but his overall message was on the importance of Digital Citizenship. I fear that his sessions and what he had to offer were overlooked and undervalued that weekend. I may have even failed to completely understand the extent to which the following question needs to be addressed in contemporary education: “What does it mean to grow up and learn in the 21st century?”

Ohler recently published a book titled Digital Community, Digital Citizen, and has written articles to support it. His most recent appeared in Educational Leadership. “Character Education for the Digital Age” presents Ohler’s “two-lives” perspective; that today’s students “should live a traditional, digitally unplugged life at school and a second, digitally infused life outside school.” Ohler follows this assertion with a description of why this is bogus and how it can be remedied. I particularly appreciated his perception of the “Ideal School Board”. 

The reason why I reference this article was to suggest that the failure of my ideal classroom was a product of this “two-lives” concept. Ohler suggests a character education based on redefining social values and principles such as respect, honesty, and empathy to reflect the changes in our digital communities and practices. This would promote the extension of technology into classrooms by naturally providing students with a greater sense of purpose for technology tools. So far electronic device manufacturers and social networking entrepreneurs have purposed technology for our students’ lives, not education. The ideal school must take the lead in educating students in this manner so that the ideal classrooms can exist and thrive.

When George Couros asked about personalized instruction and ownership at the classroom level, the real question must be addressed higher first. While there are shining classrooms in every school building real, sustainable, and transformative education with integrated 21st century tools must begin at a larger degree.

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