William Sprankles @wsprankles
I’ve been spending a lot of my time recently talking about the new building (the 530,000 square foot middle/high school we are designing). I meet regularly with architects, interior designers, and technology experts. Our goal is to put in place a true 22nd learning environment. Many of these professionals ask me “What’s wrong with the standard classroom?” or more specifically, “What is the goal for your new/modern classroom?”. So I have done quite a bit of thinking to explain what I hope for and I’ve come up with a comparative analogy.
Classrooms are like countries. Some are authoritarian monarchies. Others are democracies, or as I like to think of them, villages. In a standard, I will even say “old fashioned” classroom, we have an authoritarian monarchy established. Sometimes we even call this a “sage on the stage” mentality. It is easiest to spot these kingdoms because they always have a castle. The castle is where the king or queen lives. It has bulwarks and appears to be a solid barrier between the king/queen and his/her subjects. The castle is a place of safety and security for the monarch. It contains the keys to the kingdom (answer keys to the tests?) and probably even a throne (much more comfortable chair than a student chair). From this castle the king can make pronouncements to the peasants, I mean students. Learning in this classroom is competitive, cut throat and seen as win or lose, pass or fail. It is a very top down mentality and is best described by Phillip Zimbardo in his seminal work, “The Blackboard Penitentiary” (Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1975, June). Stimulus/Response: The blackboard penitentiary: It’s tough to tell a high school from a prison. Psychology Today, pp. 26, 29-30, 106.). Zimbardo, famous for his prisoner/guard studies of the early 70’s, describes in this article the nature of the teacher/student relationship in a typical school and posits that much of student misbehavior can be attributed to the “prisoner” mentality. Almost makes me wonder why there aren’t more revolutions?
On the other hand, there are classrooms that are set up much more like a village. Frequently all of the desks in these classrooms move. They move based on a particular activity, sometimes in rows, but more likely in a circle or in clusters with each cluster operating on a different assignment. In these villages/classrooms the teachers are frequently seen moving among the students, (this has sometimes been referred to as the “guide on the side”) facilitating the process in a way that keeps students moving toward the learning goal but not forcing them into a particular mold. Don’t get me wrong, the chief of this village is still in charge, but the operation looks radically different in this classroom. Learning is collaborative, cooperative, win/win.
So the question is, if you accept this analogy, is there a difference? I don’t want to present empirical data, I just want you to think about it. How do you react when you are the student? Which class (kingdom or village) would you rather learn in? If you were designing a new building, what structures would you impose? What structures would you eliminate? And most importantly, what would you need to begin doing now to prepare yourself and your students for such a transformational change?
By Tim Dugan
Princeton City Schools
Lifetime Educator, Director of School Improvement & Technology