14 September 2011

If school isn't for collaborating, why does anyone come?

If your school, and your school day, is not about students collaborating, connecting, and building knowledge and understandings together, why would anyone come?

The American Office as represented in the 1960 Jack Lemmon-Shirley MacLain film, The Apartment
Serious question. If students want to learn in isolation; if they want to sit at a desk and work on their own stuff, occasionally checking in with an "expert," they have no reason to come to school. They can do a lot better at home, or at their local coffee shop or even the public library, where both the coffee and the WiFi connection will be better.

Haworth Office Systems headquarters, Holland,
Michigan. Transparent Collaboration
Actually, this isn't new for most students. For years we've talked about (or we may have even been) kids who've only come to school because of team sports, or music groups, or theatre, or even hanging out at lunch. But the technologies of our time have made the situation almost universal. If school isn't about doing things together, just about everyone has better places to spend their day.

But today, far more classrooms, far more school schedules, far more assessment systems, and far, far more assignments, mimic the office in the picture above. It is 1960 and everyone is reduced to doing duplicative tasks because individual work cells and career competition prevent any reasonable sharing or building of community cognition.

The world of work has moved on, but the educational structure, despite the efforts of many individual teachers and administrators, crawls along, hoping the big Nixon-Kennedy TV debate will help them decide on who should be the next president.

Google's London Offices - the striped "beach shacks"
in the rear are small conference rooms.
It really doesn't matter what a company makes or does any more. Could be the world's biggest information provider, or a mortgage bank, or a manufacturer, the workplaces are now open, transparent, and places of continuous collaboration. They are also "wall-less" by nature, with employees and consultants communicating from wherever on the planet they might be at the moment in question. And, naturally, collaborating with customers and clients synchronously and asynchronously across 24+ time zones in many, many different languages and dialects.

Somehow though, a vast assortment of educators, from that crusty old mathematics teacher proud that she has been "teaching the same way for thirty years," to Bill Gates favorite boy Salman Khan, believe that kids sitting alone, working by themselves, with canned, inflexible data in front of them, is the best preparation for life in the present and future.

Somehow, these educators think the information of the world still moves via paper and pencil, that there are "correct answers" to everything, and that there is a structured cultural norm of learning behavior, best exemplified by the silent child bent over a wooden desk with a thick physical book, which must be duplicated if a student is to succeed in their learning spaces.

Sagasaki Monitor Group of Mitsubishi
No wonder nobody wants to come.

So here is what your classroom, and your school, needs to offer kids:

1. A learning environment in which students make most decisions. Where will I work? What devices will I use? How will I use my time? How will I get help? How will I work with others? How will I be comfortable? This doesn't mean a situation without guidance or mentoring, but it does mean that if your students are not continually moving your students toward self-determination and control, the school and the teachers are failing. (Key: No higher grade classroom should ever look more structured than the kindergarten rooms in your school, district, division, LEA...)

2. A time environment in which students learn and work along a schedule which makes sense to them. Every time a bell rings, or classes "change" according to your pre-set ideas, you are stopping students from learning, pursuing, accomplishing. "Sure you are interested in this bit of history, but its time to memorize equations now..." - could you possibly do more harm to the learning process? You have to create schools based in Project-Based Learning where students can work toward their goals in a "natural" human learning environment. (Key: Your school should look more like a studio than a factory...)

The American Office in this Century:
Workers find their own comfort, their own
collaborative environments, and learn to build
their own privacy and schedules.
3. A technological environment which supports collaboration across every barrier. Sorry, if you have purchased a single device for all of your students - you've made a major mistake. If you don't have open internet access in every room (OK, you can filter for true pornography if you must) - you are denying your students basic tools. If you prohibit student-owned devices or block social networking, you are failing your students in the most basic ways. Students need to learn how to function in this world, not the one your grandma grew up in. Every place they go, people will be using a flood of differing devices. Every place they work people will be Skyping, Twittering, Chatting, Texting, working together in Google Docs, translating, searching for information and data, and building social networks. If they are not learning the best ways to do all this, your school is a failure, because your students will lack essential knowledge and social skills. (Key: If you can walk into a classroom and see a bunch of kids doing the same thing in the same way on the same device, you still have a 19th Century school.)

4. A social environment where adults do not rank students according to their oppressive standards. Honor Rolls, adult-determined awards, published class ranks, treating one sport as more important than another, these acts all stratify the social environment, create bullying, and prevent students from recognizing talents among their peers - which is an essential skill. You and your fellow educators and your community must back off and let kids build their own social networks without your inherited prejudices. Every time you post an honor roll or 5,000 people attend a Friday night "American Football" game while 50 show up for a Wednesday night "Soccer" game, you are sending destructive messages. (Key: If students are not all known for what they are good at, there is a problem.)

So, take a look around at the learning environment your students enter. Is there any reason for them to be there?

- Ira Socol


sensor63 said...

Brilliant! This I will share as widely as possible!

paul bogush said...

I can't even make this up...I know teachers who make these wooden barriers that they put on desks so that one kid can't see the other when they work. One teacher is improving his by making them higher this year.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Ira Socol,

I do love the concept that you bring forth, but it is mere theory and there is nothing that I can hang my hat on. How do you implement this in a school that does not have the resources to cope? How do you take a school that dose not have the space or money to create learning spaces as decadent as you propose...the corporation are making the billions and at the expense of their workers and the rest of society can provide lavish environments, while schools can't even furnish themselves with the proper resources needed to get anywhere close. Maybe we should start influencing the businesses to give back and to provide for those environments that you believe are necessary. I also have seen very few workplaces that prescribe to such models...it is where we should be going, but are not there yet!

Alien endeavors can create a fruitful end product...

Rachel said...

The real key to doing this - and it can be done- is understanding that we are not in charge of children's learning - they are.

Teachers can facilitate, encourage, guide, assist, but they cannot make a child learn.

(Actually, Montessori schools that stick to traditional Montessori philosophy are already like you describe above.

Montessori mentions the exact same issues you discuss, and she wrote it in the early 1900s. When will we learn?!)

Miss Angel said...

I observed in a 2nd grade classroom the other day where there were no desks at all! The students sat in groups at large tables, with their supplies in small tubs attached under the tables. Even during individual work time, such as work sheets, they were able to talk to each other and help each other. They were all so happy and busy, it was amazing!