Instructional Challenge #2 – What if?

Life is full of What If’s. I teach history and if anyone knows about what if’s, it is a history teacher. What if Pickett’s Charge on the 3rd day of Gettysburg had succeeded? What if the Christians had not defeated the Muslims at the battle of Tours in the Middle Ages? What if Hitler had just been accepted to art school and pursued that interest rather than anti-Semitism? What if?! A person can spend an entire lifetime thinking about the possibilities, but unless you are going to invent a time machine, they can never have a different ending than the one currently in my history books. School education, on the other hand, is another thing altogether. What if a generous donor decided to give my school $150,000 to do with as I see fit in creating a modern, tech-savvy and student focused educational space which my entire school could use? Well I can most certainly answer this one.

Something that I have come to realize thus far in CTER, especially in EPSY 457, is that I do not encourage creativity nearly as much as I would like to. Part of this is forced on me by time constraints and curriculum guidelines which control to a certain extent what I can and cannot teach. Usually it goes a little like this: “I don’t have time for that because we still have to get through x, y and z.” and the “that” is usually something that would let the students be creative. Essentially creativity is often thrown out in favor of learning basic facts – a real shame when you think about it. Basic facts can be picked up at any old time using Wikipedia or an encyclopedia, but creativity is a skill which must be sewed, nourished and harvested as if one were growing a cash crop. If we as educators do not spend time teaching our students how to be creative, it is very likely that #1) they will not put much importance in being creative and #2) will not be very creative as a result. Once again, speaking as a historian, most of the great innovations of the past century came from rather creative people like Albert Einstein, Alexander Fleming and Guglielmo Marconi.

So how am I going to encourage creativity? Well, first off I am going to let the layout of the room do a lot of the work for me (see below). Many modern class rooms are so small, cramped and stifled that it is no wonder that great ideas do not emerge from them – there is no room for them! My room is going to be big, as in 1,350 square feet big. It is also going to be very open because I think that the more students feel connected rather than shut off, the more they are able to collaborate and create really great ideas. Now by open I do not mean that the room will be one big open space, there will be sections, but there will be no walls. The “front” half of the room will have the teacher desk with student desks in a semicircle around it. The desks will be on wheels along with the comfy chairs so that students are not stuck in one spot but can move around to discuss work and ideas. The comfy chairs are really common sense – how can anyone think while being uncomfortable? Edutopia says it all “A considerable body of research about environmental design shows the positive effect comfort can have on learning, human productivity, and creativity.”The other half of the room will have a super comfortable couch, plush carpet area to one side and then on the other 2 big conference tables. The plush couch section is for students to once again collaborate in groups on projects, ideas and other issues that arise in class. This section can obviously be used as a reward for groups of students that have been working hard. The conference tables are also conducive to group work as they allow a group or groups to plan in semi-seclusion from the outside world. On the walls will be a variety of items such as white boards (which will also serve as screens for projectors), smart boards, book shelves, cubby holes and coat racks. Referencing Sir Ken Robinson who argued that intelligence is diverse, dynamic and distinct, I would argue that a room used by diverse students, studying a dynamic curriculum should learn in a distinct learning atmosphere. All in all, the room should make students feel special if nothing else – which is often half the battle in teaching.

If you would like to see the materials that I would like to purchase for the class room, check out this handy dandy spreadsheet that I created laying out all the expenses. Note: you will need Microsoft Excel to view it.

Now that you have an idea of what the layout and materials will look like, let’s discuss how I envisioned the room being used. The great thing about the room is that there are so many different ways it can be used. The front of the room is designed perfectly for lectures, presentations or discussion. Each student will have a mac laptop at their disposal during class and as a result can interact with each other and the instructor like never before. If a teacher is giving a presentation on history of native peoples, he or she can have the PowerPoint slides on one screen while a live chat room using twitter is happening on the other. Monica Rankin and a few other teachers have used this type of idea successfully in collegiate class rooms, so why not in high school? Another great exercise would be for a teacher to present a new topic and then as a pre-teaching strategy, students could Google the topic and use social bookmarking to create a good list of websites on the topic which could be used later for research and also as a chance for the instructor to point out good information gathering strategies in pointing out good websites from bad ones. The best part of both of these instructional strategies, is that it is not just the teacher talking to the students in a one-sided manner, but rather the students analyzing the information, exploring alternative ideas and synthesizing new ones. According to David Kelley of Ideo, synthesis is the very same step at which innovation really occurs. Therefore, the more you work on that step, it could be argued the more innovative your design thinking students become.

Other uses of the computer abound ranging from research projects to art projects. Computers are great at allowing students to approach a problem from whatever angle is best for them. As Gardner showed with multiple intelligences, we all understand information, just in different ways. Where as I may understand something best when I read it, someone else may like to write it down and still another would prefer a picture. Computers account for all of these different styles. If I asked my students to create a project on the computer showing their understanding of the Harlem Renaissance, students could write an essay or craft a poem in Microsoft Word, create a multimedia presentation in PowerPoint or design a picture in Photoshop. Another great program for the visual learner is AutoCad which will be great when learning about ancient architecture as the students could actually build themselves a virtual Roman Villa if they wanted to. Who is to say which of these projects is better? No one, because they are all equally advanced in content understanding, just presented in different forms. So rather than having an end of unit multiple choice test in which part of your class bombs because they are not good test takers or their brain does not work that way, you have a class of A students who now have a new sense of self-confidence ready to take on a new challenge rather than being afraid and resentful of learning. Back in the normal class room the teacher could take advantage of this new-found enthusiasm and turn it into results.

A word of caution for the use of computers, however, they are not a panacea for all the ills of school. With all this great space and new technology, a teacher may think that he or she can just walk away for an hour come back and the students will just be waiting there with completed perfect projects – unfortunately it does not work that way. According to Nelson & Ketelhut, students still need guidance even when working with a powerful machine like a Macbook. The researchers found that the students who were not doing well, or thought they were not doing well, would not seek out help. Students who have experienced a great deal of failure whether in school are at home become accustomed to it, akin to learned helplessness. The only way that this process can be reversed is by showing the student that they can succeed. With a little self-efficacy, students are more likely to not only solve a problem, but also more likely to approach it and try it in the first place.

In addition to all the ideas above, I also wanted to incorporate the findings of Dan Pink. His research showed that despite the simple idea that people work for money, money is not always the best motivator. This came as a shock to me, but the explanation made sense. Money works for mechanical skills in creating incentive, however, when applied to high level cognitive skills, money actually made people perform worse. Whether it was a result of stress or lack of interest at that point, who knows, but the important thing is that simple rewards that we are used to do not always work like me might think they will. Granted we are not handing out $100 bills in the class room, but this idea of a carrot on the end of a stick can be applied to learning as well. I have recently discovered a web-based math program named “ALEKS” that fits Dan Pink’s ideas for creating an effective incentive. First and foremost the students do much of the work in an autonomous fashion on the computer. An instructor is there to help when needed, but ALEKS is a fully self-contained instructor in that it provides instruction, explanation, feedback and assessment. Students start with a pre-assessment that determines what skills they possess and which they do not. The program then starts them at whatever point they need to – this alone is invaluable in teaching mathematics because a student cannot learn advanced skills without understanding the basic ones first. Thus another value of effective incentives is introduced: emphasis on mastery. A student is not allowed to progress until they demonstrate that they have mastered a certain type of skill such as distribution or multiplying exponents. No more copying homework, cheating on the test or any other method that helped students skirt by assessments in the past, they either get it or they keep working on it. The last piece of the puzzle is that the program continually challenges the students to prove their mastery of previous topics and if they have forgotten them, well then they get pushed back to that topic to re-learn it until they have mastered it again. Within this class room setting the program would be ideal for large groups in that an instructor could separate his or her lower achieving students and work in small groups with them while the higher level students work on their own setting their own pace the entire way. In terms of the layout of the class, the teacher could have the lower level at the desks in the front and the higher level at the couches or conference tables working autonomously. So as not to portray a negative impression on the lower level students, this arrangement could always be flipped as well. Individualized instruction does not end when students leave this room, however, teachers can diversify their materials and teaching methods in the normal class room as well.

Some might say that the design of this class room is too different and that in the end it will only serve as a temporary distraction with no long-lasting impact upon the students and faculty. I would respond by saying that the room is supposed to be different and that the skills learned while using the room will help the students and faculty the rest of their lives. The objective of educators is to create high achieving, self teaching life long learners who have an interest in bettering themselves. As shown by the research that the design of this room has taken into consideration, it is a very real possibility that student achievement will increase and stay increased. This room will make use of the disruptive innovation theory, as expressed on Edutopia, in which rather than just reinforcing the status quo, technology is used to create a new path that will be student centric. Technology will foster creativity and support different learning styles; allow student-teacher involvement in a beneficial manner for both parties; make individualized education an easy and productive task rather than difficult and strained one and finally, increase accessibility while reducing costs over the long-term. This is not a dream. This “what if” can really happen. This “what if” should happen.

Sources: – Dan Pink”

Nelson, B. C., & Ketelhut, D. J. (2008). Exploring embedded guidance and self-efficacy in educational multi-user virtual environments. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 3, 413-427. doi: 10.1007/s11412-008-9049-1


About Bryce Hartranft

High School Social Studies Teacher
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