Category Archives: Education

What does learning look like?

Play a game with me. (I love games.)

Picture a teacher. Any teacher. A teacher you’ve had or a teacher you wish you’d had. A teacher you liked or a teacher you didn’t. Picture that teacher in a classroom. What does the classroom look like? Where’s the teacher? What’s the teacher doing? Put some students in that room. Where are the students? What are the students doing?

Try to keep that picture in your mind while reading the description of what my grade ten classroom looks like on a typical day.

Current Classroom
All students have laptops. They’re working, some talking with others but mostly just sitting quietly. Some are listening to music. The desks are in three clusters of four, one cluster of five, and two rows of three. I’m not sure who set them up that way. The students go back and forth from our class blog, which contains links to all resources they’ll need for the day, to whatever it is they’re working on. Some have printed copies of the linked resources and some are using pocket translators to help. There are notes from whatever we’ve recently discussed on the board. As the teacher, I’m either sitting in a spare student desk or on top of the cabinets at the side of the room. I have a laptop, too, and I’m probably on it.

We spend the beginning of each class reading through and then sharing the news. We discuss or review a few things together as a large group. Students complete a task, we discuss, students complete a task, we discuss. Sometimes these tasks are done independently and sometimes they work together. Sometimes students submit responses or assignments on GoogleDrive and sometimes they comment straight onto the blog. Often, they do neither and we periodically discuss for a few minutes after students have talked in their groups.

I’m willing to bet my classroom doesn’t look much like the one in your head.

The classroom in your head probably involves a teacher standing at the front of the room. Depending on how old you are, the students are probably in rows, though maybe groups of four. If you’re picturing a high school class, the students are probably taking notes while the teacher talks. Maybe there’s a PowerPoint presentation that the teacher is using, or maybe there are notes written on a transparency or perhaps on the board, again depending on how old you are. In this classroom, I’m willing to bet that the teacher is “teaching” and the students are “learning” and that the roles and responsibilities of both are clear. Anyone walking in could see that the teacher has the information and the students are supposed to take it in and understand it.

And if that’s not the classroom in your head, I’d love to hear what the classroom in your head looks like!

Even though my classroom might not match what we often think of when we hear “classroom” or “teacher” or “learning”, I have no doubt that my students are indeed learning. I can make this claim based simply on what they say in class, whether we’re having a discussion or they’re asking for clarification while working. I can make this claim based on individual conversation I have with students while checking up on their progress. If necessary, and sometimes it is, I can also provide samples of student work and show you the data I’ve collected and tracked on each student.

Anxiety
And yet.

And yet there’s some anxiety, anxiety for me as the trained educator in the room. What am I actually doing when others walk in or walk by the room? What am I actually doing that requires me to be there? I feel a sense of insecurity because I’m doing what I think is right by my students but looks inactive as compared to what others may do in their classes. The reason my classroom looks the way it does and I organize my classes the way I do is because I know, because I have learned, that with access to curated resources, assistance as needed, and feedback on their progress, my students will be just fine.

I might not be “teaching” in the traditional sense, but the point isn’t that I teach; it’s that students learn.

A few months ago, I read Michael Horn and Heather Stacker’s book Blended, which argues for disruptive innovation in schools. The authors explain that disruptive innovation comes from attempts in the business world to make products and services available to more people at lower cost. It was while reading this book that I began to rethink (yet again) the way that schools run and, more specifically, what I could do within my own classroom to meet students where they are and let them learn in the ways that make the most sense to them.

Future Classroom
Disruptive innovation in schools means making education and educational opportunities available to more people in ways that education may not have been in the past. In order to receive a diploma, everyone used to attend a building called a school. Considering schools in the context of disruptive innovation makes us ask, is that necessary anymore? Horn and Stacker describe models of schools that are a mix of remote and in-person learning experiences, either determined by the students themselves, by a the student in conjunction with a counselor, or by the student’s results on assessments. The very idea of a classroom, then, is called into question.

If I could, I’d design a school that looks like the one described in earlier writing here. I still believe that building peace is the purpose of education and that our students need a toolkit to make the world a better place. As much as I can, I design my grade ten curriculum around the real learning that is necessary for solving world problems and realizing one’s role and responsibilities as a citizen of the world. While my students have due dates, deadlines, and specific assessments, I’m trying to make my classes more flexible by providing students access to a wide range of resources and a choice about which ones to use.

There’s a long way to go. I know. There’s a lot of working, dialoguing, and understanding that has to happen. None of this happens quickly and I’m trying to be patient. I’m trying to be satisfied with one small change at a time. This isn’t the type of change that happens quietly, either, which is why I write about it.


Play a game with me. Design your ideal classroom or school or learning environment. Why do you think it should be this way or look like this? Comment below or send me a message.

Thank you for your thoughts, as always.

Schools Are Not Boxes

A friend recently (and innocently) sent me this quote: “School is a building which has four walls with tomorrow inside.”

I read it, I read it again, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Because it is so wrong and so troubling.

Here’s why:

  • Schools should not be only buildings. Schools are places where we learn. This can happen anywhere and anytime. If we focus more on the learning and less on the physical structure in which it takes place, school and learning look very different.
  • Tomorrow isn’t wrapped up neatly inside any walls. It’s happening right now and our students are likely unprepared for it. Tomorrow isn’t waiting. It’s here.
  • Learning cannot be static. It must be responsive to the real needs of today’s students, which are to live and thrive in a world that looks nothing like the world that created schools-as-boxes.

To be fair, we could (and should) conceive of schools as labs that develop tomorrow. We could implement the ideas of school I’ve linked above and we’d have buildings or spaces where young people create the future while being part of it. That’s where we should be heading, but usually we’re not. That’s what I found so troubling about that quote. It uses the buzzwords. It creates a pretty little picture. But learning is organic, messy, complicated. Learning is constant, multimodal, self-directed. We don’t need to fit it into four walls.

My classes right now are learning about social norms and conformity, which we’ll use as a way of introducing the topic of genocide in preparation for spending a week in Cambodia in November. And I know that I’m not alone among my colleagues, here and elsewhere, in trying to make real learning happen. But it’s frustrating to constantly explain the need for authentic, relevant, meaningful learning. As adults, we find ways to understand things when we realize we don’t. Our students are no different when we give them the chance.

So let’s rewrite, “School is a building which has four walls with tomorrow inside.”

I propose: “Schools, spaces where learning happens, are all around us. Learning, which cultivates growth and development, never ends.”

 

Back to School

Every new school year begins with an orientation and for the fourth year in a row, I’m attending a new staff orientation for a few days leading up to actual orientation. This is somewhat frustrating because I’m not new to the school where I’m working now; I was here two years ago and came back after a number of discussions with teachers and administrators who I had previously worked with. It’s definitely nice to meet the new hires and I’m looking forward to meeting everyone hired the year I was gone. My friends are gradually returning to Singapore after the summer holidays and reuniting with them has been the best part of my time here so far.

And so far, everyone has wanted to know what my plans are. That was the most common question before I left, too. To be honest, I don’t have any plans. (And I’m a planner, so this is hard for me.) Most of the plans I’ve made in my adult life have not gone as intended, which leaves me reluctant to make more for the time being.

What I do have, however, are goals for this school year, goals about how I want to teach my courses and what I want students to get out of them. I want students to leave my classes as individuals empowered to affect change that will create a better world for all. A lofty goal, but one that I think is important to keep in mind as we delve into curriculum planning over the next couple weeks.

I had a conversation with a colleague a couple months ago in which we discussed how school would look if we started the year with the following question:

What’s something you don’t understand that you want to understand by the end of this year?

To answer this question, students first have to admit ignorance. They have to admit, acknowledge, and accept that there are things they don’t understand. And they have to share that with others, which requires trust, vulnerability, and self-awareness. All of that can be scary, but also goes a long way in community and relationship building, which I believe are key tenets of how schools should operate.

I hope that the framing of this question implies that I, as the teacher, embrace the fact that there are things students do not understand and that I want them to grow in their understanding of the world around them. Furthermore, I hope it gives students permission to choose an area on which to focus. There’s a difference between knowing you don’t understand something and having no desire to understand it, and knowing you don’t understand something but want to understand it.

I want my students to take ownership of their own learning. I want them to know that I have goals for them that extend beyond the classroom and hope that they have similar goals for themselves, as well.

It has been my experience that the best learning, in any capacity, comes from conversation and discussion with those around me, so I hope this question provokes a conversation. Asking students to admit ignorance seems to require the teacher to do the same. We’re all learning. We’re all looking for answers to things we don’t understand. It’s a process. It’s a journey.

And it’s so much fun.

This question excites me because, when thinking about my own answer, it forces me to synthesize everything I do understand and from there, determine what I don’t. And then for me, it’s straight to Amazon for book recommendations, which I regularly share with my students when various questions come up in class.

But it doesn’t have to be Amazon, and I hope my students will figure that out, too. We live in an age where information is everywhere and there are so many ways to access that information once we’re curious enough. Learning how to learn is perhaps the most important part of being a student because learning is how we continue to grow as people. I hope to help my students do that.