Structure of school inhibits learning

We live in a world where students should be communicating with each other, collaborating, stretching their thinking, and learning how to interact with people from all over the world. Our schools today are far too based on the model of “teacher delivers a packet of information, students receive it and recall it on tests/quizzes.”

I just read an article in the Raleigh News & Observer that made me think about the underlying assumptions of our educational model.  The article talked about when it’s okay to send a sick child to school.

Here’s what it said about the common cold:

Stuffy noses, low-grade fevers and coughs are fine as long as the symptoms are mild, the student can do her work and she is not disturbing classmates.

That sentence presumes that students should not be “disturbing” each other — in my mind’s eye, the author of this article means that students should be able to sit quietly and either receive information from the teacher or write information on their own individual test/quiz.

That’s not what learning should be all about. The end-of-year tests (as well as the “along-the-way” tests) that have students working silently in isolation — without their electronic devices — make no sense and are unlike the work we do everywhere else outside of school. We need to re-think our assessments and make them more real-world and project-based, as we will do at Triangle Learning Community middle school (opening in fall 2013).

The structure of our educational model — six or seven periods in a day where the teacher is the one person students have to please in order to get a good grade — makes no sense, given how today’s students can learn from and collaborate with people all over the world (assuming they are connected to the Internet).

Will Richardson recently gave a fantastic TED Talk in Australia where he made several points about the new realities of today’s learning landscape that schools need to do a better job of recognizing and dealing with.

Here are four of his big points:

1) content is everywhere — we’re drowning in information — we need to help students manage massive streams of information and identify quality sources, rather than have teachers present pre-packaged bits of information for students to memorize;

2) teachers are everywhere — students can connect with experts from around the world and teachers need to get used to the idea that they won’t be the expert on every question a student asks

3) networks are the new classrooms — Will told an amazing story about how his son, Tucker, taught himself how to play the online game Minecraft in two hours. Will went out for a few hours, expecting to help Tucker figure out the game when he came back.  Of course, when Will returned, Tucker was already playing the game — he’d constructed several complex structures and was chatting with about eight friends online while he was playing the game. He was also consulting YouTube videos that explained various aspects of the game that were not intuitive. [Will noted that if Minecraft were taught in school they'd probably give Tucker a book and say "read chapter one for tonight..."]

4) we can learn anywhere — you don’t have to be in the classroom to learn; a sick student from home can participate just as well, assuming his/her brain is working okay

My blog is titled “What I Learned Today.” I’m learning all the time from writers and thinkers and TED Talkers all over the world. I don’t need to be in a classroom to learn.

If there’s a well-facilitated conversation going on, where people are discussing a difficult topic, I probably do need to be there physically to interact with my classmates and see their non-verbal communication — especially early in the school year when we’re developing a sense of community.

Once that sense of community is formed, however, sick students can participate from home. A great article, titled No Back Row, notes that a UNC business school class

… has created a virtual classroom that is more intimate than 90 percent of the seminars I’ve taught in or taken. That’s because a quarter of every student’s computer screen is a grid of the dozen other students in the class – in close-up!

Within minutes of signing into the class – and this particular class was “live” (referred to as synchronous) – I realized that each of us was sitting in a front-row seat. The professor was going to call on each of us. He could also capture and share our computer screen with the other students.

Which meant that all 12 of the students in the class were going to contribute. There was no perusing Facebook, no e-mailing, and no shopping during this 90-minute class. Although it may be hard to believe, there was closer intimacy in this virtual classroom than in most of the dozen-person seminars I’ve experienced in law school. Perhaps it was the close-up of each person’s face in the upper quadrant of the screen. But I got a sense that each student knew that he or she was expected to contribute to the class discussion. And that shared expectation raised the bar for all.

There are differences, of course, between middle/high school students and business school students — but there are also lots of similarities. Lots to think about…

If a student wakes up sick and might infect others, why not have that student participate virtually for the day?

It’s not a question of “disturbing” classmates with a sneeze or cough — in fact, if students are not interacting with each other — discussing and debating and challenging (and even disturbing) each others’ thinking in a respectful way — it’s probably not the best use of everyone’s time.

The industrial-age notion that 20-30 students (or closer to 40, for students in California) will all learn the same thing at the same time in the same way without “disturbing” each other during class makes no sense.

The best teachers know this, and time spent in their classrooms is time well-spent. They do things to create a classroom community where people feel safe and where there are high expectations for learning. Students love those classes. The problem is that the overall structure of school makes the learning harder than it needs to be.

Our industrial model has students move from room to room every 45-50 minutes. On the delicious and rare occasions when students get excited about a concept in school, we often find that just as things are getting really interesting, the bell rings, and they have pack up and move to the next class.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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One Response to Structure of school inhibits learning

  1. hnaylor62 says:

    I am the headteacher of a primary school in the UK. We are very sympathetic to the ideas you are presenting here. It has been so reassuring for me over the past 12 months of decision-making to read about and learn from fellow professionals like yourself who have dared to break the 20th century mould. I know the children of our school are living a more exciting and relevant school experience as a consequence. Thanks!

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