Learning Commons as Classroom

“Chance favours the connected mind.”

-Steven Johnson

I have been obsessed lately with the deskless classroom and environment as the Third Teacher, so much so that I will be co-moderating a discussion on using design thinking to help students remake their learning space at EdCampYYC 2016.

In this TED talk, Steven Johnson talks about where do good ideas come from and asks: What is the architecture of the space? What are the environments that lead to creativity? Adults, when given the chance to choose a work environment, often gravitate towards the coffee shop or social media. Ideas are cobbled together from what we hear and and we stitch them together. (Johnson, 2010)

Spaces lead to new ideas

We need to build spaces that look more like learning commons as classroom. “Ideas don’t happen alone at the lab bench, they happen at the conference table. The liquid network where ideas jostle together.” A good idea comes from a complex network of interactions. (Johnson) If ideas have long incubation periods, how do teachers create an environment that allows for that long incubation time? Allow hunches to connect with other hunches? Allow students to turn ideas into something greater than the sum of their parts?

Schedule vs Playlist

Every morning, my routine is to enter my classroom, drop off my bags and review my expectations for the day. Before students come in, I post the daily schedule. Some things I look forward to more than others but I always know which parts of the day I’m most excited about. When students come into the classroom they are in the habit of looking at the board. Usually there is a “yes!” and a little happy dance when something good like Genius Hour is on the schedule. I have been thinking lately, though, about motivation and why as the classroom teacher I get to be “the decider”.

Before leaving home in the morning, I what parts of the day I am most excited about. Why should that be different for children? What if our classrooms looked more like a conference and less like a prescribed schedule? What if students had more choice in their day? Some things need to be fixed on the schedule – when there are 600 students and only 1 gym or 20 classrooms and only 50 laptops there has to be some scheduling, but how can we build a more personalized experience? What if a classroom worked more like an education conference? I have been playing lately with the idea of the learning commons as a classroom or classroom as learning commons and using a playlist instead of a schedule.

“Hey, students, at 10:30 am there will be a session on place value’s role in subtraction of numbers to 1000. Attend if you like! These students must attend: x, y, z”

“The bloggers café: always open”

“Pop in to the collaboration corner if you want to consolidate your understanding!”

It would require students having a handle on what they know and what they need to develop. Teachers, too. The very idea of letting students just “go” and fall through the cracks is scary. Students who don’t already know how to advocate for their needs would need to learn that skill and teachers need to use professional judgement. It’s not a free-for-all when it’s carefully planned.

Personalized learning takes student autonomy, careful documentation and reflection on learning, co-planning, and careful goal setting. In my opinion, personalized learning is not adaptive learning environments. While I see the good in including some adaptive technologies like Lexia or Mathletics, this drill-and-practice learning is not understanding. When a child needs to learn multiplication tables adaptive learning can be a huge help but real learning is messy and I worry when we teach students that learning is just progression up a ladder.

I recently saw a picture of a school where there was a cubicle for each of 300 students, touted as being “innovative” because every student was participating in adaptive learning at the same time. “Look ‘ma! No teachers…!” Yikes! Is the “cubicalization” of education what we really want for students? We can be alone anywhere… We cannot be together everywhere. I think more than learning to be apart, students need to learn to come together and technology is one of the many intermediaries for collaboration. I have seen even very young learners collaborating to produce one coherent product that demonstrates learning and providing one another with feedback on content and mechanics of learning both face-to-face and online.

Accountability remains a concern for me. When it is poorly managed, I think it’s easy for students to slip through the cracks in a personalized approach. Students need to be accountable to themselves, to teachers, to parents and need to really reflect on what they know, how they can show it, and what they need to know. I do think this is possible even for very young learners.

When we weigh risks in education, I’m not convinced that a traditional approach in which every student is doing the same thing at the same time is less of a risk than a personalized approach. Is it easier to manage as a teacher? Yes… Is it worth turning kids off learning by telling them what to learn and how to show it? Goal setting and demonstration of understanding is important. In my experience, when students are given the power to choose what and how the engagement goes way up.

Alfie Khon wrote here about the overselling of ed tech and said “show me something that helps kids create, design, produce, construct — and I’m on board. Show me something that helps them make things collaboratively (rather than just on their own), and I’m even more interested.” Collaboration is key!

Where do ideas for teacher and for students come from? They come from the lightning that is what’s in your head meeting what’s in my head and transforming the sand in both into the glass of something greater than what existed before. Ideas come more from collaboration than they do from working alone. I think we need to provide students with the opportunities and spaces to interact, to learn from one another, and to demonstrate that learning in a way that makes sense to them.

 

What being a student taught me about being a teacher

Recently, I found myself in a “Yoga for Runners” class and had an “aha” moment about my teaching. How often as an adult do we find ourselves in the position of learning something new? Not nearly often enough is my answer, especially if we are teachers.

I have been a runner since I was a teenager. I don’t claim to be very fast or to be able to go very far, but I do LOVE it. I decided to add yoga to the routine because all I was doing was pounding my body with the same old same old four times a week. I have done yoga before but it never really “took”. I do love the dim lights and the quiet, the incense and the chanting, but I am the kind of girl who needs a runners’ high. I want to feel like I have worked hard. I never really felt like I was amongst my tribe.

Yoga for runners blew my mind:

I showed up in my running tights and thought, “meh… They’ll do the trick.” Little did I expect every other yogi and yogini to look like me! The room was full of Nike and Sugoi and not the hemp and bamboo I had expected. They all had feet like me: rough, and bent. Every other yoga class I had been to was full of people who seemed to respect their feet more than I did, but this class seemed to be full of people more interested in where their feet could take them. I found power in knowing every one of those runners had a tight front body and a weak back body. Camel pose that goes straight up and down at best? Yup, that’s me. There is power in finding people with like interests.

I found myself wanting feedback rather than wanting to disappear into the background. The teacher demonstrated, described, and provided feedback. She used words, a demonstration, and sometimes a hands-on realignment of our position. I was not afraid to get it wrong! Rather, I was more concerned with getting it right. There is power in being allowed to make mistakes.

Several times she said, “There is no judgement only practice.” That right there? That blew my mind! I was not right or wrong but on a continuum towards my best me. How freeing to not be afraid to get it wrong! She provided us with feedback and then let us try each position again. The feedback came in the middle of the practice, not at the end where I would have forgotten before the next session. There is power in just-in-time feedback.

She guided us to the ropes and wall hooks where I was incredibly intimidated: what torture device is this? But she made it fun! My first inversion! Did I look like a fool on the outside? Probably. Did I feel like a five-year-old on the playground on the inside? Absolutely! Let’s not forget the value of play in the classroom! There is power in fun!

The class was Robin Hilton’s Hips and Hams at the Bodhi Tree and I highly recommend it. I also highly recommend putting yourself in the student role occasionally and experiencing the slight discomfort of learning something new.