For many the classroom is a Faraday Cage where the rules of the outside world are suspended. A recent summary of research in cognitive science pointed to the lack of actual classroom evidence for many of the findings recommended. That’s fine. This does not mean that the research should be ignored or thrown out, only that more research is needed. What we also need is a more fundamental, questioning of the efficacy of the classroom.
In education, most pedagogic and technological debate simply assume that the classroom should be the primary focus of learning. It remains the basic unit of currency of education, 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, the classroom is a Pandora’s box, where dysfunctional things can happen simply because it is 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 difficult. So here are a few issues that may be worth airing.
Madness of moving
Let’s start with the context. 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 room 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.
Teachers and learners are literally boxed in psychologically in a classroom. It’s crowded, rushed and distracting, often 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. Researched techniques, such as spaced practice, retrieval practice and interleaving, to name just a few are difficult to implement as they lie outside of the one hour period and physical constraints of timetables and classrooms.
Tyranny of time
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 some flexibility, perhaps just three learning periods a day; one up to first break, the second up to lunch, and one after lunch. It can be done and has been implemented but there is not enough research on the variations.
Teachers get trapped in a soapbox role as their backs are literally against the wall. I’m not against direct instruction. In fact, I’d say it is essential and this is what classrooms are set up to deliver. The whole dynamic is set up to encourage a forced, whole-class 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). 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.
Classrooms stay the same size but numbers of learners can increase. They 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 and boxing them into a tight space 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 psychological discomfort among people who have their personal space invaded. 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. Peer pressure is also amplified in this context.
Children go to school to watch teachers work is the old adage. Given what we know about the brain and learning some claim that the last thing we’d design is the classroom. We have not evolved to be sedentary learners in a sealed box. 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. 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.
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, post-Covid, 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 hands of learners.
Technology frees learning from the tyranny of time and location, to screw it down inside classrooms is to abolish those freedoms and advantages.
Whiteboards as blackboards
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 surely tells us something.
Staffroom as a box
When Malcolm Gladwell was asked what one thing would most improve education he replied, ’Abolishing teacher staff-rooms’. 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 staffroom (Rosenholz 1989). These studies show troubled teachers, in particular, being at risk. Kainan’s study (1994) of staff-rooms found that they were often 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, the Hammersly study (1984) found conversation about students and their parents/carers, was largely condemnatory. Is there a case for scrapping school staff-rooms? 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 an out of the box idea 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 unnatural, soapbox behaviour. Should this be the primary way to run a learning organisation? Can’t we think out of the box, and design learning around learners, not teachers and traditional buildings.
I should add that I'm not arguing for the scrapping 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, home learning, event learning, museum and gallery learning, workplace learning and online learning.
As personalised, online learning, driven by data and AI, becomes more prevalent, we can look towards dismantling most classroom learning. In many ways the classroom is just a function of a numbers problem, but as learning gets increasingly devolved to technology should we put more focus on investing in that technology and less on lecture-halls and classrooms?
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’.