I would like you to concentrate on the first image that comes to mind. Ready? Here is the question: What does learning look like?
Did you picture a classroom? Was there a teacher? What were students doing? Were they working quietly and individually? Or were they noisily collaborating? Were they sitting passively and listening? Or were they actively constructing something?
When I pose this question to groups of educators, I’m struck by the diversity of learning visions. For some, there is no teacher with the students, and the students are learning entirely on their own. For others, there is not even a classroom and students are helping students. In a world of ubiquitous mobile devices, where we can connect with information and people anywhere and any time, limiting student learning to a traditional classroom environment seems increasingly shortsighted.
In the winter of 2012, I spent time at the Jarong “Future School” in Singapore. One of only six Future Schools in this city-state of 5 million people, the school’s mission is to lead in the integration of technology into the curriculum and pursue a “novel” problem-based approach to school design. More specifically, it aims to help students with critical problem-solving skills, often by taking them out of the classroom, to conduct first-hand observation, research and analyses. As for technology, the school features computer design labs, desktop and mobile devices, and even a video production lab. Standing in a classroom devoid of technology, however, the school’s IT Director articulated the school’s mission and the role of technology in one word: collaboration.
The Director and other administrators at the school had a vision of what learning should look like. In that vision, students would be working with each other, interacting and collaborating in small groups. Together, they would solve problems. To facilitate collaboration, administrators bought mobile, pie-shaped classroom desks that form a circle when pushed together. Tilted vertically, the desks are easily pushed to the side and out of the way. In other words, administrators designed a physical space that made it easy for students to interact with each other so that they could collaborate.
Similarly, curriculum specialists designed collaborative digital spaces. Students and teachers were brought together on platforms such as Google Drive that facilitate both live and asynchronous collaboration. The school technology leader had not simply concentrated on a device or a technology. Together, with other admins, he created integrated learning environments that could be modified in order to realize a vision of collaborative learning.
Not every school can afford mobile desks, but every school can develop a vision for learning. Recently, I was at a fledgling, experimental school outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. It is a small, public school with very little technology – some desktop computers and a handful of mobile devices. In the morning, students follow a traditional curriculum, but in the afternoon, they’re developing a presentation based on something they’ve written on a wall.
On that wall lies topics that interest each student. Every afternoon, for a period of two-three weeks, a teacher-mentor works individually with a student to craft an essential question about their topic and then answer it. The teacher helps the student research the topic, and consults the student on formulating a presentation about his or her research. David Truss, the principal, succinctly articulated the goal of this school: help students find and pursue their passions.
David reconstructed the curriculum and a physical space to nurture this vision, and as students worked online – both at school and at home – they were developing the critical-thinking and digital skills necessary to tackle their hand-written ideas. The mobility of the physical classrooms in the Singaporean Future School complemented the digital learning activities and reinforced a holistic vision of collaborative learning. The school in Vancouver created a physical “idea wall,” and then brought students online to flush out their ideas.
In answering “What does learning look like?” we need comprehensive and integrated learning spaces. We need to think about how the physical and digital spaces compliment and reinforce each other. If we can align physical and digital activities around learning goals, we can ultimately progress towards our learning vision.
Tom Daccord will be talking about the Future of Learning during his featured sessions at the July 28-30 EdTechTeacher Summit in Chicago. You can also learn from him during Summer Workshops in Cambridge.