The Effective Classroom. Do You Know It When You See It?

Over the past couple of days, there’s been a flurry of pushback against this tweet from Tom Rath: Classrooms are such an overlooked part of the sitting epidemic. We need to blow up our thinking about the best ways for kids and adults to learn in groups. We simply learn better when we move more.

Daniel Pink responded: Offices are adopting standing desks & walking meetings. But classrooms still make students sit all day. To improve, consider:

  • Regular breaks to stand & stretch
  • Small-group activities that require moving to switch desks
  • More open space & adjustable desks.

Most of the tweetback looks like this: Obviously, these guys have never seen MY tiny classroom and/or the crappy 1960s-style desks that my students are compelled to use, let alone the crumbling concrete square that we call the playground. Some teacher feedback is defensive: MY students take brain breaks every 45 minutes, to stretch and oxygenate! There’s a lot of cynicism: More open space! Adjustable desks! As if! Hahahahahhaha!

There’s an underlying sense that once again, schools and teachers are being painted as 19th century anachronisms, unwilling to change in response to new ‘thinking’ (whose thinking?) about learning. It’s our fault, somehow, that education is ‘stuck’ in an ‘industrial model’ of straight rows and straight content delivery, and could really benefit by…I don’t know? Switching desks every 20 minutes? Walkabout lessons?

What’s missing from this discussion is a clear idea of what it is, exactly, that teachers are trying to do. If the ultimate goal is keeping kids continuously bubbling and bursting with creativity, well then it really might be a good idea (if we could afford it, which we can’t) to seat each 7-yr old on a bouncy ball and let ‘er rip. As any parent who’s ever hosted a birthday party knows, lots of movement is just the ticket for creative thinking and youthful innovation.

What drives me nuts is anybody’s blanket assumption that they can look at a classroom and evaluate what’s happening there on the basis of how adjustable the desks are or how often the students get out of them. It’s amazingly difficult to assess lesson effectiveness or the quality of student learning just by mere observation. Here’s an example.

When I was in graduate school, in Dr. Mary Kennedy’s seminar on teaching practice at Michigan State University, she showed us three unedited videos of teaching from a long-term research project she’d conducted, then turned into a book, Inside Teaching: How Classroom Life Undermines Reform.

The first video was a young woman teaching a small group of high school boys wearing navy blazers and ties. She was conducting a Q & A session, reading questions from a prepared list, about a novel that the whole class read. She stood at the front of the room, calling on boys seated in semi-circle around her, one at a time. Most of their answers were a phrase or sentence. There were no disagreements, and no interaction between students, all of whom seemed prepared for the lesson, if not excited about it.

The second video featured a male teacher with a big mustache in a Hawaiian shirt. The students were middle schoolers, and were working in clusters of 5-6 on some kind of science investigation, using a single microscope per group. He was circulating, pointing at their lab reports—you sure about the answer on number five?—and occasionally snapping his fingers at an off-task student or pulling kids who had left their tables back to work. The room was noisy, because the groups were close together, and there were bursts of laughter. At one point, the teacher clapped his hands, which caused the room to settle. He asked them to reconsider one of the slides they were looking at, with new information he provided, asking “Does that change your conclusion?”. The noise level to rose again, as they turned back to re-examine their work.

In the third video, the students were upper elementary age, seated at tables, and were following set routines.  Class! the teacher called out. Yes? they responded. The routines were repeated, with the teacher calling explicit directions: Turn to your right-side partner! Talk about the definition! Write your answer! Class! Yes? Eyes up here! Raise your hand if you chose A! Turn to your left-side partner! Read your answers! Use the word in a sentence. Eyes up here! Say the word! Say it again!

After watching all three videos, Kennedy asked us: Who’s the best teacher? Who’s the worst?

It was an interesting discussion. The seminar was composed of graduate-level folks with different work experiences in education, and from different nations. When Kennedy asked to identify the best teacher, best learning, in our humble opinions, there was a completely mixed response.

Many of the foreign students found the second video appalling. (Note to the anti-sitting crowd: it was the only video where students were on their feet or moving or speaking their own thoughts.) Some found the third video, where students repeated chants and actions led by a teacher, to be rote and mechanical, while others found it intriguing—could you really get kids to behave in lockstep like that? There was mixed opinion on the first video—lots of classroom teachers finding it ‘unrealistic’ and ‘flat’ while others thought it an ideal model.

The correct answer to the question is, of course: We have no idea which video snippet represents the ‘best’ (or worst) teaching or classroom model, or whether students in that classroom learned anything worthwhile, or applicable to their lives.

We don’t know what the teachers were hoping to accomplish, either: What were their learning goals? Why were those goals relevant and critical in the learning cycle? Why did they choose that particular delivery model, and how was it appropriate for those learning goals?

Maybe the most important missing piece of information: We don’t know the students. We don’t know what they brought to the lesson, what it’s like to teach them, day in and day out, what their prospects and potential look like. Only someone who’s spent some time with them and cares about their learning is able to assess their growth and needs. Someone who knows the context and can exercise judgment.

So maybe it’s not really ‘time to blow up our thinking about the best way for kids and adults to learn in groups.’ Maybe adjustable desks or strolling lessons won’t change anything.

But don’t expect non-educators to stop tweeting about it.

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One Comment

  1. Finally, someone talking sense. As a teacher who once tried mightily to go against student’s expectations I suggest that there is a small envelope of possibilities that a teacher can explore. And leaving the students out of the examination is always fatal to any “conclusions” one might come up with. Leaving the teachers out is just as bad.

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    Reply

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