The stimulating classroom
It seems paradoxical, but the most boring classrooms tend to be the ones that are full of technology – and little else. The worst ones I’ve been into are those in which 30 or more computers are crammed into rows, allowing no room for note-taking, let alone collaboration. But even the ones with wall-to-wall interactive display screens, visualisers, graphic tablets etc etc are often, to be frank, Tedium City. How come?
I think the reason, in a nutshell, is that in the sorts of classrooms I’ve just described, the emphasis is on technology rather than learning. What a shame. What a missed opportunity. Even if all you do is look at the headings in the (now disapplied) ICT Programme of Study in England, you will discover rich prompts for stimulating learning, such as:
- Finding things out
- Developing ideas and making things happen
- Exchanging and sharing information
Primary (elementary) classrooms tend to have this more right, or right more often, than secondary (high) schools in my experience. Secondary schools are serious, with a timetable to stick to come what may, whereas primary schools have still not entirely lost that ethos of exploration they are so good at, despite numerous “initiatives” over the years to ensure that anything that moves, or even anything that doesn’t move, is measured.
So what sort of things should a classroom have? I’m basing this list partly on my own experience of having taught in secondary schools over many years, and my visits to what I considered to be the schools where the ICT classrooms were the most vibrant.
Different sorts of activity require different kinds of spaces. Within the classroom there should be an area where students can use the school’s computers, and places they can sit and plug their own device in if they need to. There should be places where students can collaborate, using pencil and paper if necessary, at tables. There should also be, if space allows, some comfy chairs too. If the school wireless network, layout and rules allow, the classroom can be extended beyond its walls by allowing students to work outside.
In my experience, even if the room you have is incredibly small, you can still arrange furniture and equipment in such a way that you can accommodate different sorts of spaces. And if you can’t then I would suggest, at the risk of being designated a pariah, that you might consider getting rid of some of the equipment. Nobody needs one-to-one computing all the time, and for learning purposes it’s not usually the most effective strategy anyway unless you build in opportunities for collaborating with others.
Not e-books, but books. Not because I’m a Luddite (I’m not), but for four reasons:
First, the very practical one that if you have a few manuals and other books around, it is easy to pick them up and look things up while your partner is working at the screen.
Second, the nature of the books don’t have to be restricted to manuals. There are science fiction novels and short stories related to technology, books about the development of cyber warfare, books about the rise of Google and the fall of Boo. All sorts of technology-related books to stimulate thinking and broaden the mind. I dare you to start a class library.
Third, there’s a hidden message that old technology is still important and useful. Ebooks are great, no doubt about it, but there’s no reason to ditch paper ones, especially as you can’t display ebooks on a bookshelf as far as I know.
Fourth, I think it designates the classroom as a place of learning, not a hub of technology. I think that’s important.
Magazines and other periodicals
I always had newspapers, magazines and even comics in my classroom. I used to buy a lot of computer mags, and I’d bring them in when I was finished with them. If you want a student to write a software review, show them a variety of types of review in different magazines; they’ll soon get the idea. Even the Sunday newspaper supplements sometimes have interesting articles, such as on cyberbullying. And the comics? Well, comics like 2000 AD or the Marvel comics, though somewhat outlandish in many respects, have interesting ideas and a great appearance from a design point of view. One of the requirements (disapplication or not) of any ICT curriculum worthy of the name should be the ability to present information in a variety of formats according to its purpose and intended audience, and comics or, if you prefer the grown-up term, graphic novels, can be pretty effective.
A stand-alone computer
I always liked to have a computer that wasn’t connected to the rest of the network. Yes, I know it’s a bit retro, but it meant that students could check out DVDs without having to go through a whole rigmarole to gain access to the DVD drive. It also meant that they could use programs that were not available on the network, or in the cloud but not available from the network. I also used it to play music while we worked – Vivaldi, which tended to keep the kids both calm and productive at the same time!
These are just a few ideas, and I don’t even think I’ve scratched the surface. In my opinion, the classroom should be a powerhouse of learning and exploration. If that’s the starting point, then in my experience learning will follow much more than if the starting point is technology.
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