By Doug Ward

Here’s a glimpse into the classroom of the future.

It’s huge, and I mean HUGE: big enough for a football field, a magical playground, a dig site for studying bones, and an area for playing with dogs, bears and dolphins. It has cool carpet and places for listening. The tables are spread out and you can choose among giant chairs, bouncy chairs and floating chairs. It has crayons, of course, but also drawers to hold skulls (from the dig site, no doubt) and a secret room. Best of all, it has a portal to a lake and a monorail that will take you anywhere.poster-8-garden

Are you on board? I was when I visited Paula Kahmann’s class at Rushton Elementary School in Shawnee, Kan., last week. Kahmann’s students are working on a project to design an ideal classroom, and they sought my advice on how to do that.

I did offer my input, although my philosophy of classroom design is fairly simple: A classroom should be flexible, but there is no perfect design. (Students wrote that down.) It should have movable tables and chairs, not individual desks. It should have good lighting (preferably natural light), whiteboards, electrical outlets, strong wi-fi, and a means of displaying digital screens. It should be easy to move around in, and it should be comfortable. That is, you should want to spend time there.

I explained only a few of those things because I didn’t want to be overly prescriptive. Nor did I want to go off on a tangent about the failings of traditional classrooms, which are little more than warehouses for instilling passivity than places for learning. (I didn’t say that.)

Rather, I wanted the students to approach their room with open minds and bubbling imaginations. Kahmann had done a great job of encouraging that in earlier class periods. Students had drawn pictures of what their ideal classroom might look like, and two by two they accompanied me to a bulletin board in the hallway and showed me. I’ve included some of those pictures in this post.

poster-1-paint-it-orange

One of my favorites included spare language that provided a poetic take on the world of learning:

I Would like Star.

I Would like plants.

I Would paint the Wall orange.

Students included many traditional elements in their classroom pictures and in our discussions. They thought an ideal classroom should have books, games, a snack bar, a bathroom, and a drinking fountain. It should also have places for listening, comfortable chairs, colored pencils and carpet.

Those are great ideas. An ideal classroom, no matter how futuristic, still needs to be functional.

After we had talked for a while, students asked me questions they had compiled before I came:

What kinds of desks should students have? Ones that allow collaboration, I said.

What kinds of chairs are best? Comfortable ones that fit the tables, I said.poster-9-slide-and-drinks

Should classrooms have iPads? (Theirs did.) Sure, I said, as long as teachers and students learn how to use them for learning.

Should students have homework? Sometimes, I said, mostly because it helps them learn in different places.

Should classrooms have live insects? (Theirs did.) Certainly, I said, as long as the insects don’t get loose.

My Socratic approach led to more chaos than learning, I’m afraid, and I left with a renewed appreciation for the work that elementary school teachers do.

I also left with a renewed appreciation for the minds of children. An ideal classroom should nurture those children. It should channel their energy and their awe, not contain it. It should foster experimentation and provide outlets for exploration. It should inspire them to learn, not force them to learn. It should encourage the unfettered creativity we all need to thrive in both the physical and digital worlds.

All of those things apply to college classrooms as much as they do to second-grade classrooms.

I’m not sure what sort of room design the second-graders in Ms. Kahmann’s class will end up with. No doubt, it will be one that inspires them and that makes me want to visit. Maybe next time, I’ll slip through the portal or climb aboard the monorail.

poster-4-snake-slide


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Sylvia Manning offers an insightful characterization of a college education that summarizes the challenges all of us in higher education face today. In a paper for the American Enterprise Institute, she writes:

The reality is that no one can guarantee the results of an educational process, if only because a key element is how the student engages in that process. The output or outcome measures that we have are crude and are likely to remain so for considerable time to come. For example, the percentage of students who graduate from an institution tells us next to nothing about the quality of the education those students received.

Poster that says "Just because kids know how to use Twitter, Snapchat, and Instragram doesn't mean they how how to use technology to enhance their learning."
A good message about students and technology from Sean Junkins, via Twitter: http://bit.ly/1yFYfY5

Manning is right. In a piece for Inside HigherEd last year, I argued that students and administrators had become too caught up in the idea of education as a product. Far too many students see a diploma, rather than the learning that goes into it, as their primary goal. I tell students that I can’t make them learn. My job is to provide the environment and the guidance to help them learn. They have to decide for themselves whether they want to take advantage of the resources I provide – and to what degree. Only after they do that can learning take place.

Colleges and universities face a similar conundrum. They have come under increasing pressure to provide ways to measure their effectiveness. As Manning says, though, they have struggled to find effective ways to do that. Most focus on graduation rates and point to the jobs their graduates get. Many, like KU, are working at decreasing the number of students who drop or fail classes. Those are solid goals, but they still don’t tell us anything about what students have learned.

I’m not convinced that we can do that we can truly do that at a university level, at least not in the form of simplistic numeric data that administrators and legislators seem to want. There’s no meaningful way to show that student learning grew X percent this semester or that critical thinking increased at a rate of X over four years, although critics of higher education argue otherwise.

A portfolio system seems the best bet. It provides a way for students to show the work they have done during their time in college and allows them to make their own case for their learning. Portfolios also provide a means for students to demonstrate their potential to employers. By sampling those portfolios, institutions can then get a broad overview of learning. With rubrics, they can create a statistic, but the real proof is still qualitative rather than quantitative.

As an instructor, I see far more value in the nuances of portfolios, projects and assignments than I do in the rigid numerical data of tests and quizzes. Until that thinking gains a wider acceptance, though, we’ll be stuck chasing graduation rates and the like rather than elevating what really matters: learning.

A defense of liberal arts, along with a challenge

Without a backbone of liberal arts, science and technology lack the ability to create true breakthroughs. That’s what Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, argues in The Hechinger Report. Botstein makes a strong case, but he also issues a stinging rebuke to programs that refuse to innovate.

“Students come to college interested in issues and questions, and ready to tackle challenges, not just to “major” in a subject, even in a scientific discipline,” Botstein writes. “…What do we so often find in college? Courses that correspond to narrow faculty interests and ambitions, cast in terms defined by academic discourse, not necessarily curiosity or common sense.”

Bravo!

He argues for fundamental changes in curricula and organization of faculty, but also in the way courses are taught. The only aspect of education “that is truly threatened by technology is bad teaching, particularly lecturing,” he says. Instead, technology has expanded opportunities for learning but has done nothing to diminish the need for discussion, argument, close reading and speculation. He calls for renewed attention in helping students learn to use language and to use liberal arts to help students become literate in the sciences.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Botstein’s comparison of teaching and learning to sex, along with the slightly sensational but certainly eye-grabbing headline that accompanied his article: “Learning is like sex, and other reasons the liberal arts will remain relevant.”

Related: At Liberal Arts Colleges, Debate About Online Courses Is Really About Outsourcing (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Briefly …

College instructors are integrating more discussions and group projects into their teaching as they cut down on a lecture-only approach, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. … David Gooblar of PedagogyUnbound offers advice on handling the seemingly never-ending task of grading … Stuart Butler of the Brookings Institution suggests ways to “lower crazy high college costs.” They include providing better information to students, revamping accreditation, and allowing new models of education to compete with existing universities.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.