Sunday, September 25, 2011

Classroom Design Has To Match Teaching

I know, I know, the title is so obvious.  But it is so important that it cannot be overstated. The design of your classroom has to match your teaching practice.  There, I said it again.

You can decorate your classroom with feathers.  You can put up fancy lights.  You can bring in Smartboards and all kinds of high tech equipment.  And you can even get rid of your desks.  BUT if these changes do not reflect what you do, or at least where you want to go, you are wasting serious effort, time, and money.  Wonderful teachers would still be wonderful teachers with nothing in their classrooms, but it would probably be hard to be as wonderful.  Lousy teachers would still be lousy, but it might take longer to realize how lousy they are.  Maybe not.

What the Risers Represent
For my own part, I'd like to think that the design of my classroom reflects my teaching and my personality.  The risers symbolize community, flexibility, and choice.  They also afford me much more space for other things in the classroom.  Because the students are "stacked" on each other, it is a surprisingly economical arrangement in terms of space.  The risers also remove that physical barrier between me and my students.  I don't have to walk around their desks to work with them.  The other things in my class promote beauty, tranquility, and whimsy.
Some people ask me if I think everyone should have risers in their classrooms and the answer is NO.  For example, if you are a traditional teacher, then you are going to find risers a major pain, and risers probably won't force you to teach in a non-traditional way.  They will just burn you out.  Whenever people ask me what they should do with their classrooms, I ask, "What is important to you?"  If you say order, structure, and organization, then you could have risers in your classroom and they would make a nice place to display your textbooks. 

The Disconnect
With my one day per week Innovation job, I'm getting a chance to see how people are arranging their classrooms.  It is interesting.  I see traditional teachers in traditional environments.  I see non-traditional teachers in non-traditional environments.  That makes sense.  But curiously, I am starting to see more and more non-traditional teaching in traditional environments.  What I mean by this is, there are a whole bunch of teachers out there who are doing some forward thinking things, but are operating in oddly traditional classrooms. 

I saw this one teacher who is doing some amazing things in terms of project-based learning, inquiry, and focus on the individual, and yet the classroom was set up in these big long rows.  I saw a huge disconnect that I don't think the teacher was aware of.  The desks took up 90% of the floor space because of the long row arrangement.  The students kept walking into each other when they were trying to get their things or go to a particular centre or display.  The room was really loud because the students were trying to have conversations about their learning, but because they couldn't sit next to each other, they had to talk loudly, so everyone else did too.  The teacher had the teacher desk at the front of the room, and so when the teacher was trying to have a conference with a student they had to huddle behind the desk.  They were cut off from the rest of the class because the computer blocked the sight lines. 

Why is this disconnect happening?  It could be for many reasons.  It could be that it is the beginning of the year and teachers are trying to establish a sense of order first.  It could be that teachers share the space with other teachers, so rows are the easiest way to configure.  It could be that the teacher is starting with rows and then building the classroom with the students as they go along.  But when I talk to teachers, I realize that the reason they have their classrooms arranged in traditional ways is because they don't know of anything different.  "Isn't this the way it is supposed to be?"  "They are in grade 2 now (or 5 or 11), they expect the classroom to look like this."  "I have 29 students and 29 desks.  How else can I do it in this space?"

I get it.  I was the exact same way.  I 've tried rows and squares and circles and clusters and went back to rows again.  I tried tables and went back to rows again.  I tried coffee tables and pillows (huge disaster) and went back to rows again. Then I tried one set of risers, and it changed my whole way of thinking.  And remember that I came across the riser concept by accident (on a chance visit to the Museum of Anthropology).  On top of that, I would not really have felt the need to change my classroom in the first place, if I hadn't had to store my teaching materials in a different place (another random event).  It really depends on who you are, what you want, and what you are ready to do.

I was at a workshop for early learning on Friday.  The presenter showed these two slides of classrooms.  One was adorned with brightly coloured borders, pocket charts, displays, carpeting, etc.  The other slide was of a more neutral, stripped down classroom.  The presenter was definitely promoting the latter.  As she was talking, I could feel the teacher beside me shrinking.  "My class is like the first one!" she whispered to me.  I've been in her classroom, and it is a wonderful, inviting place.  The children and happy, and they love their teacher, immediately.  The classroom reflects her style of teaching and her personality.  It is who she is.  Sure, some students might find it overstimulating, but in the same way, some students might find my classroom or neutral classrooms boring.  But the thing is, in her case and in my case, there is no disconnect.

The atmosphere matches the practice, the philosophy, and the person. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Money Question

If you google "classroom design" or "classroom decor" you'll see interesting things that teachers do with their classroom spaces.  A number of teachers in my district are really trying to change their spaces.  The question that comes into my mind is, "Who paid for all of this?" 

Some teachers have sofas, shelving, lighting, professional artwork, coffee tables, easy chairs, rocking chairs, carpet, window treatments, wall paper, pillows, room dividers, book racks, etc.  These kinds of things, 95% of the time are paid for out of teachers' pockets.  Sometimes they are donated, and sometimes, they are paid for by school funds. 

I have a friend who has put over a couple of grand into her classroom over the last couple of years, and that does not included books or regular teaching supplies.  All of it was self funded.  Some teachers I know submit their receipts to the office and get some of their money back.  Do other professions pay for the materials and tools they use on their work site?  Don't get me wrong; I don't pay for everything, but I do pay for things that might surprise people: almost all of my classroom library books (some were donated),  storage bins, labels, professional books, all of my games and puzzles, spare notebooks, my pet supplies, Mothers and Fathers Day gifts my students give to their parents, spare gym clothes for kids, special resources or materials when the supplied ones don't do the job adequately (especially when you have a variety of ability levels in your class), etc.  And that does not include the money I spent on my design project. 
When it comes to paying for things in terms of classroom design, I'm not sure what to think because there are so many factors: 
  • Like teaching, classroom design is highly individualistic.  One classroom design might work for one teacher, but it may not work for another.  I know that when I have TOCs/supply teachers/substitutes in my classroom, some of them like my format and others are absolutely bewildered, ("Where do the students sit? ... On those?!  Where do they put their things? ... You're kidding me! etc.). 
  • If the school pays for all of the things that I put toward design, then those things, in all fairness, belong to the school.  It is the same if I buy materials for my classroom through school funds, then I will leave those resources behind if I ever switch schools.  But on the other hand, if some teacher decides say to decorate their classroom in a gorilla theme, do we really want them to leave behind their rainforest backdrops, vines and banana trees?  Apart from the storage issues alone, how practical is it for schools to hang on to these things?
  • Because schools do pay for classroom furniture, they tend to buy many of the same items.  This makes short term economic sense because of the discounts afforded by buying in bulk.  But it does not make great educational sense because schools tend to buy furniture that perpetuates the antiquated factory-model of education (sit down, shut up, and do your work).  It is akin to making expensive repairs or keeping up the maintenance on your horse and buggy, even though a bicycle or car would do the job better. 
  • Ideally, the school and the teacher would mutually agree on what the teacher would need for his or her classroom, and then say the district would coordinate the purchase so that if teachers in multiple schools wanted the same things, then they could take advantage of bulk purchasing. 
  • In the UK and Australia, they have had this massive project called BSF or Building Schools for the Future.  It was a national program where they invested in schools by creating sound educational environments within existing schools or even building new schools.  The chances of this happening in my area are probably slim to none, but it's nice to see what other jurisdictions are doing. 
I guess the best I can hope for is the "slush fund" model.  Schools, through parent fund-raising or other sources, give each teacher a pool of discretionary funds (I have received between $100 and $200), and it truly is discretionary: do what you think you need to do with this money.  Use it for your classroom guilt free.  Oddly though, I don't think I've ever submitted a single receipt for anything related to classroom design.  Until this moment, I think that because it was my pet project, I've used my discretionary funds for other classroom materials.  That might change.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

"Travel" Books: Books I Took on My (Classroom Design) Journey

Whenever I go on a trip, I take along some books to read while I go.  On the negative side, sometimes the books are better than parts of the trip (sleeplessness in a strange bed, travel delays, etc.).  On the positive side, sometimes the books are an excellent companion for the journey, and later when I think of the trip I had, the trip seems inextricable from the book. 

Metaphorically, my design journey has had several books come along for the ride.  I thought I would share some of them here.  What I write about these books is my take on them, which is heavily biased and incredibly inaccurate.  I put words in the authors' mouths because I write mostly from memory.  If I use a phrase the author never used in the book (or never would use), then it is mine.

In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew May
I liked this book but I found it uneven.  It basically starts with one premise: that great ideas or designs are flexible and are open to possibilities not necessarily intended by the creators.  The reason I found it uneven is because the bulk of book is May giving examples to support his thesis.  Some of the examples I found fascinating, but others left me cold and felt a little forced.  You'll have to decide which ones speak to you.  But overall, I loved the premise of the book.  I thought my risers fit this idea of elegance: flexible, adaptable, design transcends even its intent, etc.  (just like the Stratocaster?)
Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
I have the same criticism of this book as I do for the one above.  It has basically one thesis and then a series of examples to support that thesis.  The main thesis is that good ideas have to fit within the "adjacent possible" which means that in order for new ideas to be adopted, they have to be close to something that already exists or at least something that is cognitively acceptable.  Johnson says that some ideas do not catch on because they are too far our or ahead of their time.  Ideas have to be acceptable and accessible.   In terms of my design journey, I thought it paralleled the process of my journey.  If you read through my blog, the progress of my journey was a series of connected events, not merely inspiration from left field.  If you haven't read this blog before my journey goes something like this:
  1. Was given a teaching partner unexpectedly
  2. Given an ugly, storage space to keep my belonging
  3. Created a zen lounge as a joke
  4. Teachers loved it and used it when I wasn't there
  5. Could I duplicate this for students?
  6. Saw banks of seats during a family museum trip
  7. Built emulations of these seats
  8. Kids loved them for their agility
  9. Continued to try to de-institutionalize my classroom environment
  10. Have had visitors from other schools, districts, provinces, and now other countries (Thanks Mary and Karen!) come by for a look see. 
So you can see that my journey was a connected evolution of events, just as Johnson describes in the examples in his book.
Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams
This book is like Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics, but centres on the power of collaboration. The authors make a compelling argument by showing how things like Wikipedia and YouTube have revolutionized the way people get and share information. Not only does the audience select what information is retrieved (instead of an editor or a network deciding what is shown when), but it is also the same audience who contributes to creating and posting the content. For free. Sure there were clubs and newsgroups 20 years ago, but the amount of information that people upload out of the goodness of their hearts is astounding. Tapscott and Williams explain why people contribute and why it is mutually beneficial for contributor and audience. I guess I'm not as altruistic as I thought when I started sharing this design blog because the feedback I have received from strangers and colleagues has been incredibly useful for shaping my design journey. It has been as beneficial as the books I profile here.
The key to allowing collaboration interestingly is a parallel to the Elegance book above: leave things out so that you have flexibility for your idea to evolve as more people contribute. Open architecture provides possibilities for expansion and growth, so create a framework, not a closed structure, not a finished idea.

Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Weren't these the names of 2/4s of My Three Sons?)
Hmmm. Another orange business book.  This book takes Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (I liked that book too, but everyone has read it, so I won't talk about it here), and expounds on one aspect that makes trends catch on: stickiness.  One thing I like about this book is that it actually tries to APPLY its ideas.  For example it will show an ad or some copy for a release and will go through it showing why it might not stick in people's minds.  Then it will rewrite the text as if the authors had applied stickiness enhancers (again, my term) such as using the unexpected or appealing to people's emotions.  I don't use this book in design, as much as I use it to help ideas stick in my students' heads. 

Flow by Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi
I really enjoyed this book (and I love the author's name.  It would look great on the back of a jersey.  If you had really broad shoulders).  It actually isn't a new concept, but it does explain why traditional teaching does not resonate with modern students.  In order to engage students, we need to tap into their sense of Flow.  Kids will memorize multi-syllabic names of dinosaurs, spend hours repeating a single skateboard move, and go to the end of complex and challenging role-playing video game.  Why is it they can do these things when those same kids forget how to spell "what", won't do their homework for even ten minutes, and give up on a math problem after looking at it for thirty seconds?  It is because none of these latter tasks appeal to their reality, what is important to them, their sense of self, or to their "flow."  We've all been there: in the zone, in the groove, using our mojo, or whatever term strikes your fancy.  When we are in that flow, nothing can stop us and even better, we never want to stop.  Flow is the same way.

Learning Journeys by James Clarke
My favourite book on classroom design (tied with The Third Teacher) actually isn't a book at all but more like a booklet.   I came across it last year when I was googling for different classroom design concepts and I came across the pdf online (that's when I found Isis's cool StepSeat).  Someone recently sent me a hard copy of Learning Journeys.  I don't know if it is holding onto the hard copy or having a few years of my journey under my belt, but I found that the concepts discussed in the book really resonated with me even more.  If you are thinking of investigating classroom design or starting a classroom design learning team, I think that this document would be a great place to start the wheels turning and initiating discussions.  I would love to have a bunch of copies of this book to start a teachers research group on classroom design.  You can still download the pdf at .

If you have any books you can recommend that would help me on my classroom design journey, please let me know.  As you can see they don't necessarily have to do with education or design, but maybe just be about ideas.