The myth of the unchanging classroom

Waiting at a freezing bus stop at 11pm in January, I was astonished at the sight of a number 49 bus. Sleek, modern and silent, it glided into view, a mobile beacon of light and civilisation in an otherwise desolate urban landscape.

My astonishment arose from the fact that the number 49 is nothing like the way I remember it. I used to travel on it a lot, from my home to a local park. In those days, the bus was old and the seats narrow, and that is how it has stayed in my memory. It had never occurred to me that it would have undergone, in the last 40 years, a transformation. I suppose that's a bit like meeting nieces and nephews you haven't seen for a long time. You remember them as they were when they were 15, and are genuinely surprised when, at 25, they turn out to have changed.

bus interior and interesting bldngIt seems to me that the people who say that the classroom hasn't changed over the last 20, 30 or 400 years are suffering from a similar lack of insight, knowledge or both.

It's true that on a superficial level the classroom of 2011 looks much like the classroom of 1911 or even earlier. One of the common examples given is that if a time traveller from the 17th century arrived today she wouldn't recognise a hospital or a doctor's surgery, but would immediately feel at home in a school or classroom.

But that's no different from saying that a traveller from 1911 would instantly recognise a bus, and from that observation drawing the conclusion that buses haven't changed. A bus is, basically, a box on wheels which carries a large-ish number of fare-paying passengers. But nobody would seriously claim that the bus hasn't changed over the years.

I believe it's the same with classrooms. In the best classrooms, the following will be true:

  • The chalkboard has been replaced by an interactive whiteboard. That will enable the teacher to bring the internet, and even other classes, into the classroom. A good teacher will have the students coming up to present their work to the class. Modern whiteboards will even allow two or more people to work on the screen at the same time.
  • In an increasing number of classrooms, the overhead projector has long gone (in the last 20 years I have only seen OHPs in university settings). Today's equivalent is the visualiser, which allows you to do so much more.
  • Teachers are much more likely to pay attention to the idea of personalised learning, perhaps even using a student response system as a way to facilitate that. Some teachers may even use technology to support the introduction of assessment for learning techniques into their lessons.
  • There is an increasing use of mobile devices in the classroom, enabling students to work individually, collaborate with each other, or with others on the web. (And see Steve Wheeler’s interesting discussion about student-owned devices.)
  • Many classrooms now have flexible furniture, such as desks which can be turned into computer desks by flipping them over, or by a press of a button. The use of mobile devices also enables ordinary classrooms (by rearranging the furniture), informal areas and even outdoor spaces to be turned into collaborative working spaces.

I think these examples indicate that the classroom really has changed, even if some people can’t see it, and even if the change has not been as widespread as one might like. However, another consideration is that the classroom is actually the people within it, and their relationship with each other, and what they bring with them to the room. There have been enormous changes in those respects.

There are two other points I’d like to raise. The fact that the basic appearance of the average classroom hasn’t changed over the years (ie it’s a room with chairs, desks and a central display) isn’t by definition a bad thing.

First, going back to my analogy about buses, I think it’s pretty good that buses have looked the same over the years, and in all parts of the world. It means, if nothing else, that when I go abroad and someone tells me to catch the bus I know what they're talking about and what sort of vehicle to look out for. When I’ve visited schools abroad, I was able to understand what I was looking at and what to look out for. There is nothing wrong per se in some things remaining the same.

Second, the people who go on about student collaboration, the teacher as guide on the side, and so on ignore the fact that sometimes the most efficient way of getting something across is to tell people rather than waste everyone’s time getting them to collaborate and hope they discover it. As Morten T. Hansen points out in his book “Collaboration”, what’s important is not collaboration as such, but the right sort of collaboration.

Bottom line: let’s have an informed debate about these issues rather than mantras, soundbites and pub talk!