Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Change of Scenery

I wanted to reflect on something that I observed recently both in my own class and in the class of another teacher. Setting makes a difference. As teachers we all know this, but sometimes we assume that our only options exist within the four walls of our classrooms and that is simply not the case. I'm going to relate 3 observations from the past few weeks that highlighted how effective a change of environment can be on student learning. 

Two weeks ago I took my class to a local cafe to do our lesson. We were studying a particularly dry poem from the 18th century and my (admittedly weak) curricular link was that the coffee house was invented in the 18th century so we had to do some "research". In truth, the students just completed a lesson that they would have completed in the classroom but it was a well needed change of scenery. The result was that the kids took their tasks much more seriously than I believe they would have if they had been back in the classroom. The environment in the cafe was mellow and comfortable and as they worked we chatted about how many discussions and breakthroughs happen outside the classroom and in informal environments. To be fair, I had carefully planned the lesson, structured the activities purposefully and made up the groups ahead of time, but I know that the results were far better than the same activities would have been in my regular classroom. 

This past week we went to the graveyard to study another poem (this activity comes directly out of the Literature 12 IRP) but again, the change of environment worked to enhance the experience and overall effectiveness of the lesson. In this case, the setting of the lesson was directly related to the learning objectives. For this class I also added another component  to save time. The bus ride to and from the graveyard takes approximately 15 minutes so we used a "flipped" approach where I made an 8 minute video to cover the introduction to the lesson so the transport time was used effectively and the students were briefed for the lesson while I was driving to the site. During the return trip students were asked to jot down notes for a final reflection or "exit slip" so I could assess their learning.

Finally, on Friday I was working with a math 9 class that was completing a lesson in the foods lab on rational numbers. For a more detailed breakdown of the lesson itself please see the blog of a teacher who did this lesson previously. Afterwards when the math teacher and I were debriefing the lesson I asked him if he had noticed a difference in the engagement of the students compared to more of a "stand-and-deliver" model in the classroom. What he said was that while he certainly felt that the activity of making the food  increased the engagement the students, he had tried active and hands-on options in his class before and he felt the change of setting (different room/different adults involved etc.) had an even bigger impact on the focus of some of his students. He went on to say that in his P.E. classes he could see a difference if he had the same P.E. class play a game of soccer in the gym vs. outside on the field vs. downtown in the city's indoor soccer facility. He was amazed how differently the same students involved in the same activity could react in different environments.

All of these observations have got me thinking about how we really should be looking at ways to break down the walls of the classroom. At the high school level especially we have big obstacles such as curricular and timetabling constraints.  However with possible huge changes coming our way (see Darcy Mullin's blog) I think now is the time to start looking at throwing the original model out the window. Creating freedom for learning outside the classroom and outside the school building should be a priority. I was able to take my Literature 12 classes on these trips because of a number of factors:  I have a class-4 drivers licence, my vice-principal  drove my students who we couldn't fit on the bus, I work at a school that has a bus, and I am comfortable enough with technology that I could make a video (which I was able to show on the bus because it has a TV and DVD player) to make up for the class time we were missing in transportation. This trip would be very difficult (if not impossible) for many high school teachers and that needs to change. However, while we are waiting for things such as curriculum to be reduced and timetables to be altered,  teachers can still do creative things outside the classroom that are less intensive (such as taking classes outside, planning field trips within walking distance, or using the gym or foods lab etc.) but it really is time to start looking at breaking down the structural barriers at the high school level so our students will benefit from opportunities like those mentioned above (and so much much more). There are many people already thinking this way (see this awesome blog by David Truss for a start). 

These personal observations in recent weeks, combined with the thoughts of a number of my fellow educators have led me to the conclusion that our entire education system needs a complete change of scenery.