Saturday, 14 November 2009

Redesigning traditional classrooms

Most people have a fixed idea about what classrooms should look like - desks in neat rows facing the blackboard on one wall, in front of which the teacher is supposed to teach. The industrial model, deeply entrenched in people's consciousness, around the world. Difficult to change, too, with tight budgets and old school buildings, with the traditional square and boxy classroom design. Nevertheless, I have noticed that primary and middle school teachers even in Finland have been slightly more adventurous in rearranging their classrooms, but the higher up you get on the educational ladder the more set are the rows of desks.

Inspired by a colleague, who arranged the desks into groups of four, I wanted to experiment with the same arrangement last year, with quite encouraging results. After some negotiation with the principal and the school development group, we managed to get the green light at a staff meeting to make this a permanent arrangement in two classrooms. The reason why we need to consult all the teachers, is that we are not lucky enough to have our own classrooms, but instead each teacher changes rooms all through the day and week, and consequently several teachers share the same rooms.

Since then I have had all my groups study in this format - 3-4 students together in a small group.

I must say, this suits foreign language learning very well, since we do spoken work and practise communication in the foreign language in every class. Having more than one partner to exchange ideas with leads to more active participation by all the students and wider perspectives on the topics discussed. What's more, this is a simple little change to make me throw the learning ball to the students more often in my lesson plans.

How to arrange students into the groups then? I have tried different ways. I had read earlier that the teacher should set up the groups, making sure that there are both boys and girls and students with varying abilities in each group. Doing this is rather time-consuming, and I don't always know the students enough in advance to be able to gauge their ability. In addition, I am often unaware of personal chemistry problems between students, which may lead to unnecessary conflicts and unconstructive collaboration. Our high school system, as I have explained in a previous post, is unique in that it is more like a university system. Students choose the courses they want to study in each of the 5 grading periods, and so the compotisition of each group changes five times a year, so in every group I teach I usually have some students that I meet for the very first time.

After a couple of failed attempts, I decided to let the students choose their own groups. Quite expectedly, this led to some disruptive groups of good friends and a few shy and quiet students helplessly standing by the door, too afraid to join anyone voluntarily. This didn't work all that well either.

My latest system has worked quite well. In the first lesson of a course, I let the students sit in pairs that they choose themselves. After that I will join up the pairs and individual students in mixed groups of 3 or 4. In this way the students are given a little of bit of choice, which they like, but I can interfere, too, with hardly any opposition from the students. Lonely students don't stick out like sore thumbs, and the noisy ones are kept apart.

I don't think anyone has come up with one, universally working solution for organising classrooms and learning in a school setting. If that solution had been found, I'm sure we'd all know about it by now!

Naturally, not everybody likes the new classroom set up. Students protest because more active participation is expected of them. Sitting in rows allows them to spend more time quietly in their own thoughts, or withdraw totally from any participation in class. Not so in the groups, where they have to at least recognize the existence of their group mates in one way or another. Shy students find it difficult to sit facing others. Some also complain that when they do have to face the front of the class, with the board and the screen, it's awkward to keep moving their chairs to be able to see properly. Other complaints have been about the difficulty of moving between the groups in a crowded room.

Colleagues who share the same classroom complain that it is impossible for them teach their subject with this desk arrangement. This is especially true about maths teachers. Last spring we had rather a big conflict, where one maths teacher couldn't find anyone to change rooms and so started demanding me to put the desks back into rows for her to be able teach in the room. I didn't comply, since I had the staff meeting decision to back me up. On the other hand, some other colleagues who have been intially forced to teach in this room, have actually found it good, and have changed some of their classroom routines accordingly.

The latest criticism, just this week came from a cleaning lady. She was waiting for me outside the classroom, ready to come in after my last lesson in the afternoon. She asked me why I had the desks in groups and suggested I go back to the old arrangement, so it would be easier and quicker for her to wipe the floor. I was rather astounded by this sudden comment from an unexpected source. I considered it wiser not to start throwing pedagogical jargon about collaborative learning to her and gave a simple explanation of group work. She then went on to enlighten me that I was actually preventing students from learning properly, since most of them weren't facing the blackboard! Oh well, maybe next week I should offer her some good tips about cleaning in return...

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