Thursday, February 12, 2009

Anatomy of a classroom: think out of the box

"If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom. And if you wanted to change things, you might have to...start over." Dr John Medina

Out of the box
At a Futurelab conference, while I waited to give a keynote talk, the organiser gave us all a piece of card, which you could fold up into a box. We were told to ‘think out of the box’, write fresh ideas on each face, then fold it up, to create ideas on the ‘outside of the box’ (geddit). My first scribble was ‘the classroom’s a box’. The other five were, ‘don’t box-in technology – keep it out of classrooms’, ‘whiteboards are blackboards’, ‘class is a soapbox’, ‘class is limiting factor’, ‘Pandora’s box – unexpected consequences’.

Just days after this event, I started a series of classroom visits, as a school governor, in my children’s secondary school. Teaching hadn’t really changed in the 30 years since I’d last been in a classroom as a boy, with exactly the same dynamic between largely distracted learners and hard working teachers. A few lessons were exemplary, but the truth was that in many others, the students were not engaged, easily distracted and learning very little, sometimes nothing at all. We need to face up to this challenge and think outside of the box that is the ‘classroom’.

Pandora’s box
The class, or period, is the basic unit of currency of education. It is the formal box into which everything must be unthinkingly squeezed. But cramming people into a classroom has all sorts of unexpected consequences, not all good. In terms of learning, they are often bad. The classroom is a Pandora’s box, where dysfunctional things can happen simply because it’s a classroom. Most of the time, these problems are contained by the hard pressed teacher, but as young people become increasingly less compliant as learners, it can be depressingly ineffective, erupt into a hothouse of hostility, sometimes collapse into chaos (I witnessed all three). Yet there’s very little reflection on whether the basic classroom is the optimal location for learning. In education, most pedagogic and technological debate simply assume that the classroom should be the primary focus of learning.

One of the indirect consequences of the dominance of classroom teaching, is that the teacher, by definition, becomes the focus of attention. The learners face one way, and there’s a dominant space where the teacher sits/stands. The teacher adapts to the threat of the crowd by claiming this wall, corner or space at the ‘front’ and the learners cram, as best they can, into a space that is unnaturally small for 30 plus energetic students. It’s difficult to concentrate and levels of attention are almost impossible to sustain in such a crowded, distracting environment.

This pushes the teacher’s into a soapbox role. The whole dynamic is set up to encourage a forced, didactic form of teaching where teachers feel duty bound to play the role of classroom manager and lecturer. Top-down lecture methods are still the norm in universities and as degrees are required for teacher training and lectures still practiced in teacher training, so there’s enormous modelling pressure to ‘teach by lecture’ (Brightman 2007). We know that teachers do too much talking and not enough teaching. As a defence mechanism, inexperienced teachers end up keeping learners quiet by being didactic, talking at them. We know that this often results in cognitive overload for learners, a failure to differentiate and low levels of personalised feedback. Teachers get trapped in this soapbox role as their backs are against the wall.

Personal space
Classrooms are often cramped, pushing young people into uncomfortably close contact with each other, causing niggles and a never-ending series of petty distractions. They poke, kick, snigger, talk, doodle, throw things and disrupt others. Distraction is such a confined space is viral. 30+ learners in a relatively small space is a recipe for disaster. They seemed programmed to play and boxing them into tight spaces creates well know territorial problems. This is an area well studied in psychology. Hall described the ‘emotionally charged bubble of space which surrounds each individual’ and research by Felipe and Sommer (1966) showed extreme discomfort among people who have their personal space invaded. Fifty years of research have shown that this matters in terms of psychological discomfort. Classrooms break almost every rule in the book on territoriality. On top of this, to move from class to class means that the learner has no defined territory, and cannot mark and defend their personal territory. The learner is set adrift. These territorial spaces, such as one’s bedroom or favourite chair, are a feature of one’s identity. Classrooms deny almost every aspect of this basic human need.

Boxed in
Given what we know about the brain and learning the last thing we’d design is the classroom. We evolved in the open savanna, and our brains are designed to solve problems in open environments on the move. We are have not evolved to be sedentary learners in a sealed box. Our evolutionary envelope is not that of the classroom, it is a set of cognitive dispositions that demand interest to gain our attention. The mind has its own box from which it must escape to learn. This is where we should focus our attention.

Talking of attention, we need to be psychologically attentive, calm and focused to learn. This is the starting point for learning, without it, learning does not take place. As psychological attention is needed for learning, 30 other people in such a small space means that the room is crammed with distractions. For young children this means wanting to play, flee or fight with others in the room. With teenagers, there’s the powerful sexual distraction of at least fifteen or more potential mates, the other half being competition. Then there’s the windows, promising that longed for freedom. Classrooms are a cornucopia of distractions, which is why so much time and effort is put into behaviour management and not learning. The context is so unnatural that the teacher’s efforts are mostly spent on control. This is why the job is so exhausting. The children go to school to watch teachers work.

Spaced practice, a proven, fundamental, scientific fact in the psychology of learning, is largely ignored because it is difficult to accommodate in timetabled, classroom structures. Dr John Medina had trialled spaced practice with mathematics, showing powerful increases in learning, by repeating practice later in the afternoon after morning sessions. A similar trial in a Teeside school showed significant improvements in GCSE grades. It works, but unfortunately it can’t be made to work within the classroom model. Timetables cripple any attempt at repeated practice and most teachers are unaware of the basics of this practice.

Learners are boxed in psychologically in a classroom. It’s crowded, rushed and distracting with not enough room to focus, explore and learn. On top of this, it excludes the opportunities to apply, practice and reinforce what you’ve learnt. One has to repeat to remember.

Madness of moving
Why do hundreds of thousands of students have to up sticks and walk to another room every hour? Can you imagine this in any other walk of life? Let’s say in companies and organisations up and down the land every employee had to stand up and march off from one box to another, every hour. The amount of time spent just packing up, rising, walking, sitting down again and unpacking is astounding. Huge amounts of time, every day, by learners, crushed into corridors, which are rife with friction and bullying. It’s madness.

In fact, the one hour period, in itself, is rather odd. There’s nothing in the psychology of learning that points towards an ‘hour’ being a basic unit in learning. We only have hours because the Babylonians had a base-60 number system! We could at least have just three learning periods a day; one up to first break, the second up to lunch, and one after lunch. It can be done. I know, as we’ve implemented this in our own school.

Black boxes
Technology fits uneasily into a classroom. We’ve seen technology get smaller, faster, smarter, easier to use, wireless, connected and cheaper. It’s personal and portable, not fixed to any one location. All of this is at odds with the very idea of the classroom. Technology provides, by definition, personalised learning. There is barely a child or student in the land that doesn’t have a powerful computer, whether it be a mobile phone, PC, Mac or laptop. It is now clear that one laptop per child is a laudable aim and gets learning content, contact and collaboration into the pockets of learners. Contrast this with the rather quaint and useless Multi-user table top classroom computers being mooted at present. If you design technology to fit classrooms you get these ugly, expensive classroom-driven aberrations. Technology frees learning from the tyranny of time and location, to screw it down inside classrooms is to abolish those freedoms and advantages.

Classroom geography demands a dominant wall, with a whiteboard. There is no evidence for their efficacy, other than anecdote. Indeed, Professor Frank Coffield claims that ‘the two major studies in the UK show no significant effect on learning’. Tech-savvy children feel frustrated when they see the teacher struggle with simple tasks as they are used to being in control of their online environments. It’s odd for them to simply watch online material on a large screen under someone else’s control. The blackboard was invented in 1870 and we are in danger of keeping it alive well by its sell-by date. It promotes a ‘chalk and talk’ approach to teaching which is at odds with the psychology of learning.

If technology is to be used sensibly in learning it must be embedded in the learning process, not fixed to the walls and tables in classrooms. Consumer demand for small, smart, cheap, wireless devices seems insatiable. This tells us something.

Staffroom as a box
When Malcolm Gladwell was asked what one thing would most improve education he replied, ’Abolishing teacher staffrooms’. He may have been right – a survey published in 2007 showed that teachers top the worst ‘gossips at work’ poll, with 79% talking about their colleagues behind their back. John Taylor Gatto, a National award winning teacher in the US gave up teaching quoting one of the reasons as he could no longer stand the culture of the staffroom.
Teachers may lose rank among their peer group if they don’t join in the gossip (Nias 1989) and, worse, may be subjected to rumour and gossip if they shun the classroom (Rosenholz 1989). These studies show troubled teachers, in particular, being at risk. Kainan’s 1994 study of staffrooms found that they were largely simple, colourless, monotonous, devoid of clear functionality and were often split into several cliques; veteran, novice, supply and student teachers. It was a clear hierarchy. Worse than this is the Hammersly study in (1984) that found conversation about students and their parents/carers, was largely condemnatory.

Is there a case for scrapping school staffrooms? No other professions have a ‘panic room’ just for managers to chill out, so why have school staff rooms? Surely that’s exactly the time when students are at their most vulnerable in terms of bullying? It’s out of the box, but interesting.

Being boxed in, physically and psychologically, is perhaps the primary problem in learning. It’s unnatural, cramped, at odds with the psychology of learning and a management nightmare. Teachers are overwhelmed by over-stimulated and territorially challenged youngsters, and forced into shouting, soapbox behaviour, demanding that ‘work’ be started, continued and finished. This is no way to run a learning organisation. For once, let’s think out of the box, and design learning around learners, not teachers and buildings.
I should add that I'm not arguing for the scarapping of all classrooms and all classroom learning, only appealing for a balance between this and other contexts for delivery, which include; open learning spaces, libraries, large audience events teaching hundreds at a time, e-learning, home learning, event learning, museum and gallery learning, workplace learning, outside in the sun learning and so on.
By the way, when Pandora opened her box, against the wishes of Zeus, all the evils, ills and diseases of mankind escaped, but at the very bottom there lay ‘hope’.

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Blogger jay said...

Donald, simply wonderful! I'll join you for some box burning. jay

8:38 AM  
Blogger Lars Hyland said...

Ideo have done some great thinking in this area - which has led to removing the "box" from the classroom to help focus on designing an environment that enhances effective learning.

I visited an example at Stanford in 2006 - case study is here:

The Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning (SCIL)

I don't think it goes far enough given today's world of ubiquitous computing. But would be interested in your views.

11:32 AM  
Blogger David said...

I wonder if giving my kids their own desks but facing the walls so when I've done the teacher bit and they've all sat in the middle discussing how to do the task etc hey can then turn and get their own space? We don't have enough PCs to give them all one unfortunately!

8:09 PM  
Blogger Dick Moore said...

To continue the metaphor, a Brilliant piece from Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam entitled "INSIDE THE BLACK BOX" entitled "Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment" should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in education IMHO. It can be found at

10:34 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Thanks Dick - box clever - that's what I'd say.

10:55 PM  
Anonymous Rina Tripathi said...

If these things were implemented one can be sure of creating one of the best educational systems ever.
One thing that I did not understand is: at on point you are suggesting of shunning the confined spaces, but you also talk about the time wasted as the student go from one class to another. Now, this is the only time when the learners get to relax a bit. chat and learn in informal atmosphere. If you are talking of open surroundings why deny the learners the only opportunity they get to stretch their limbs and interact in comparatively free atmosphere, that s till the ideal environment is allowed into the institutions.

This time when I was at my son's school his teacher was complaining that he distracts other kids as he has already understood the concepts and smiles and keeps interrupting. Secondly, she was upset about my son and his friend discussing the answers that they wrote in the exams and also that they discussed all the possible questions that might be asked as they sharpened their pencils near the dustbin. This made me smile as I know that's informal learning so vehemently discouraged in our schools.

Well, as I go through the question answers with him as we are having our final exams(today was French), the learning strategies you post here come handy. Repeat, reinforce, remember to remember. Thanks and happy Spring time!

3:11 AM  
Blogger benbolio said...

What do the best schools do?

7:15 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

To minimise the negative impact of the classrooms some schools have small class sizes and sit them in a semi-circle. Common in private schools. This negates distraction and disruption but the box shape means it's impossible with 30+ kids.

Huge emphasis on what happens outside the classroom, namley regular and demanding homework, projects, extra-curricular activities, school trips etc. i.e. a recognition that most real learning takes place outside of the classroom.

Could go on for hours about this but you get my drift...

1:53 PM  

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