Teaching Opinion

Throwback Thursday: Facilities and Teaching Practice - Getting the Order Right

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 04, 2014 5 min read
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How can we create an environments, both physical and in practice, that can realize the promise of the future? How long can we ask teachers to innovate within their practice in an old physical environment? Could we ask a surgeon to learn new techniques, hold them to new and higher 21st century standards and ask them to do it in 20th century operating rooms with 20th century tools? We are asking teachers to do exactly that. But if we don’t or can’t change the physical environment, the teacher practice must break free of it in order to successfully bring our classrooms in to the 21st century. It is the powerful combination of teacher practice and technology that will make the difference. Our plans as leaders must include creating and sustaining an environment that encourages innovative practice, a safety net for failure and trying again, and celebration of successes.

Plan for a Futures That is Unimaginable
A recent NY Times article reported that Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, jointly, are preparing for the future by designing a physical environment flexible enough to hold the changes that our unimaginable futures will demand. Their idea is about creating an environment that makes room for the future, whatever it may be. Although a higher education idea and one that can command far more funds than we in public education, this effort is a lesson for us.

Those responsible for building the campus of the future will not pretend to know what the future holds. They only hope they are building something malleable enough to handle it..."My goal as the dean is to create an environment where it will be very open-plan like this. Does every faculty member agree with that view? No,” he said, adding, “I don’t know whether I’ll be successful in that cultural change or not.”

Will they be successful in making that cultural change? It rests heavily on the leadership capacity to lead change. Leading the cultural change is a challenge no matter the institution being led. We can change the walls but we also must be able to change the mindset of those working within them.

We Once Tried to Change Practice to Fit Our Buildings
Public schools, especially the neediest ones, rarely have the financing to renovate outdated buildings. In part, our buildings may be one of our most constant traditions and limitations. But what can we learn from the “open classroom” movement of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s? The tradition of the separate classroom was torn down, physically. Teachers were asked to manage a new space in new ways. Perhaps a good idea in theory, within a short period of time walls were rebuilt and tradition was restored. But, teachers are adaptable professionals, and what followed was a continuing move toward station-type learning within the classrooms; in effect, an open classroom within a classroom with pods for collaborative work. With the breadth of differences students are bringing to our schools, mini-open classrooms might just wind up to have been a better step toward the future. In the case of the open classroom, just ten years ago Stanford University Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban was still reflecting on the movement:

As the idea of open education gained momentum, thousands of elementary-school classrooms became home-like settings where young children moved from one attractive learning center for math to another for art. Additional learning centers engaged them in science, reading, and writing lessons. Teams of teachers worked with multiage groups of students and created elementary schools where children were no longer assigned to grade levels. Some school districts started alternative open education programs at the high-school level and gave teachers discretion to create new academic courses where students directed their own learning, worked in the community, and pursued intellectual interests. At both the elementary and secondary levels, open education meant teachers were acting more as coaches in helping students than as bosses directing children in every activity. Avid promoters of open education commissioned architects to build schools without walls. Teams of teachers worked collaboratively with one another, using movable dividers to reconfigure the open space for large- and small-group projects and individual study...

He noted that by the mid-1970’s, simply a few years later, " the ground shifted.” And the perception arose that “academic standards had slipped, that the desegregation movement had failed, and that urban schools were becoming violent places.” Open education was abandoned and a return to the basics completed this pendulum swing. For this #tbt we searched Education Week’s online archives that date back to 1981. A search within them found no mention of open classrooms; evidence we had abandoned that thinking and were off to other things.

We May Not Be Able to Change Buildings But We Can Change Practice
We may not have the ability to create a new physical environment to support 21st century teaching and learning, but our responsibility is to make those cultural inroads that will open thinking and change practice. How can we expect to change teaching and learning practice and measure success with the tests we used to measure in an old paradigm? Perhaps it is our tendency to look for quick fixes and abandon some practices far too quickly and hold on to others far too long. We are still looking toward the same things... teams of teachers, multi-age classrooms, new courses, student directed learning, teachers as coaches... that sit within the literature, past and present, on how students learn best.

A lesson learned from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s is that changing the building before changing teacher practice is ill advised. Until we attend to the changes in practice and beliefs about teaching to unleash 21st century education, building changes won’t matter. The work is human work. What good will it do if Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology build a magnificent flexible building if those working within it have not changed their practice? Possibly the building will hold promise, but it is the people within that will carry the business forward. Not being able to build our visions physically does not prevent us from leading the changes in practice. Let the brick and mortar come next. Practice matters. Perhaps this time, we can let teaching practice call for a different kind of building. Then practice and building, in harmony, can realize the promise of the future by embracing flexibility that allows for a future we cannot possibly imagine.

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