computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sick of gurus

I’m sick of gurus.

The gurus of Web 2.0 in education seem to be en masse guilty of the Bellman’s fallacy (proof by repetition) and I actually find myself in a state of guru-fatigue lately. Attended a conference a few weeks ago and, while it’s always fun to hear big guns like Will Richardson, the whole exercise left me angry and depressed. For one thing, if I hear one more expert lecture in front of a large, passive audience to tell them that lecturing in front of a large, passive audience is a bad way of teaching, I’m going to scream.


What really gets me is how far removed the party line seems to be from the reality I experience every day in the classroom. So many of the big gurus seem to be saying the same things. What’s wrong? What is it that the gurus do that peeves me so much?

1. Overestimation of how plugged-in our pupils are.

2. Pretending that all this stuff (web-based or web-focused digital technology) works all the time.

3. Confusing access to information with learning. (A related sin: confusing collaboration with learning)

4. Demanding, on a knee-jerk basis, curriculum reform.

and the big one,

5. Underplaying the conflict inherent to schools.

This became a monster post, so I’m going to divide it up and address each of these points in a post of its own in the immediate future. I’ll link forward from here as these posts are made.

Post Script:

What I’m talking about here is slightly different from the ‘social media guru’ debate that has raged in certain quarters of the web lately. That has been more focused on self-appointed experts in the private sector.

So, not quite on topic, but this video has been produced with technology simply overwhelming in its sheer awesomeness. You know who’ll be playing with this soon…

I found this via Jason Falls, who made this video of his own:

So, again, not quite relevant, but the "shut up and get back to work" bit we could all hang over our desks.

This debate has been about what I would call ‘experts’, not ‘gurus’. The difference? You hire an expert to fix your problem. A guru cannot be booked to fix your problem, but some of them can be contacted for advice and many of them will appear in front of the congregation to give an uplifting speech (for a price).

The private sector is also a bit different, clearly, but maybe not soooo different…

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How important is the furniture, really?


I’ve received the following comment on my last post, itself a follow-up post to my musings about how we place pupils in the classroom:

“Back to the Eighties”, I find that simply weird. "How structure influences human interaction". This structuralist explanation has been left behind by many of us. Interaction itself is an independent phenomenon, which in its form and content interacts with many more factors than that which physical structures bring to bear. Cognitive anthropology: has to do with thinking, and the thinking of all those thought to be part of this interaction. This structure-interaction thinking is, I believe, based on what some would call an authoritarian mindset. The material structures - what about the social structures, or what about emotional, cultural?

Bottom-up thinking could give us a lot of information about what is really going on, if we let those who have something to say come forward. Do you find this soft-hearted?

You refer to the importance of your role as leader. How much you need to work towards the students to get them to obey you and your structuring. Can all of this be understood as an attempt to gag the students in what you perceive as the more or less hedonistic development of their lives?

Are you perhaps seduced by the computer and desks and horseshoes? Take the computer away for a day and see what the students get up to. Talk to them and let them talk for a whole day. Maybe you can seduce them with more than your ability to organize desks; seduce with what you can mean to them as a person. Maybe they will turn their backs to the wall and listen to you and others in the classroom? Listen, reflect, think, go out of the classroom with new insights and a wonder that can mature and then become well-being. Disorder is not so stupid sometimes. The whole discussion about how the students sit, is for me a complete "fake". Should they also march in a row when we meet them in the hallway outside the classroom? Have we no different role for them than the leadership position we think we need to mark out in some room?

As I wrote in a comment to that post, I may have expressed myself badly. There aren’t too many these days who would argue that the furniture somehow determines interaction. The fact that physical structures influence interaction is, however, beyond doubt. But there’s more: the way we furnish a room conveys expectations, values, etc. Some of my sociology students recently suggested some messages contained in the configuration I call “the bus”:

P9160008 a) what is important happens at the front of the room. b) it isn’t important to be able to see your classmates (and by extension, hear and interact with them, either).

A configuration where the pupils sit facing the centre of the room, without stuff in front of them suggests that something important might happen between pupils. When they turn and individually face their own work, there is a clear expectation that they do something. I suspect some 0f the resistance I encounter to getting rid of the bus is that some of my pupils have been well trained to a passive role and the horseshoe configurations clearly expect activity.

It’s interesting that the commenter above seems to accuse me of being authoritarian for trying to lead my classroom, but then suggests putting away the computers for a day. Wouldn’t that involve giving orders to my class? I myself find it strange that some of my colleagues get their students to stand by their desks at the beginning of class. Could it be that giving the orders we are used to just seems a natural part of our role, while different kinds of direction seem authoritarian? I can’t understand this comment in any other way, really, since this person is simultaneously encouraging me to do specific types of things with my class (which would require using my authority) and accusing me of being a little…power-mad?

Personally, I’m no natural leader, but the whole project of learning in large groups is doomed unless the adult in the room is willing to take responsibility for what happens. This isn’t quite the same as being a dictator or planning everything in advance, it’s simply being a good leader. My own experience painfully confirms the research here.

Am I seduced by computers? No, but I see their huge potential for learning. I also note that they have radically changed the world outside the classroom. Bringing them into the classroom does not automatically increase learning, however. Unless we as teachers have clear ideas about what we want to use them for, I see a serious potential for decreasing the amount of learning going on.

Is furniture that important? No – there are more important things to talk about. Still, you can’t avoid the furniture. I can’t abandon the classroom entirely (although I’d like to), so the furniture has to be arranged. The question is how. There is no ‘neutral’ arrangement. For me, the classroom is supposed to be an arena for learning, so I want to arrange it to facilitate activities for learning.


So, I want to get off the bus. I teach primarily French as a foreign language and it’s pretty clear to me that my pupils won’t get far by just listening to me talk. I love to talk (probably too much) but my background is as a climbing instructor and I see learning as something that happens when the pupils do something that they haven’t done before.

Photo credits




Thursday, November 12, 2009

Furniture revisited

As a student of cognitive anthropology back in the ‘80s, I should be highly aware of how physical space structures human interaction, but I’m still amazed at how this works in the classroom.

I continue to focus on my double-horseshoe, backs-to-the-centre arrangement, and the difference it makes is remarkable. It enables a clear switch between activities and thus tends to improve the quality of both individual activity and group discussion. Most importantly, it greatly improves the mobility of the teacher in the classroom.


From an excellent article in ‘from now on’ – a great resource for the 1:1 classroom.

One of the points to having the pupils sit with their backs to the centre of the room is that they need to turn towards the middle for teacher- or group-centered activity. A large number of pupils do not do so unless they are specifically instructed to do so, and then they don’t turn away again for individual work until specifically instructed to do so. It’s clear that the teacher is important as a leader and that re-arranging the furniture does not change this – indeed, the benefits of changing classroom lay-out come only when the teacher is willing to be a clear leader.

Many pupils try to modify or sabotage, as well. Re-arranging the furniture so that their screen is not visible is of course a key goal. Again, the teacher has to be willing to steer the class and to insist on having things their way. (I keep getting burned on that one…)

The picture above is from someone far more experienced than myself, but for me there are some mistakes. The desks along the walls need to be taken to the back wall.


If you leave the corner open, as in the diagram, as below:


Then what happens is this:


And, not surprisingly, the participation of the pupil sitting in this spot becomes markedly different. Of course, we are now back at the teacher as leader, since the teacher can simply order the kid to move. However, there is a pay-off in structuring things to avoid having to give orders too often. Too much conflict gets in the way of the real work of the classroom, learning.

One colleague I told about this seemed all gung-ho, but then when I walked by their classroom, they were all sitting in rows as if on a bus. I asked my colleague “What happened?” and was told “I need to get a grip on them first, establish the right working tone before I try anything new.” This person was worried that they would somehow lose control if they did anything weird. The irony is that from the back of this classroom, you get an excellent view of the laptop screens of the pupils. Facebook, solitaire, chat, games, etc. (The teacher stands at the front.)

A couple of other colleagues have tried the double horseshoe and have come back to me with glowing reports. They were particularly pleased with the clear shift of focus when moving from one activity to another and with the improvement of discussions when pupils are not hidden behind desks and screens and can see each other more easily.