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. 

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