Have you been in a classroom in the past 10 years? What about the last 20? What’s the first thing you envision when you hear the word “class,” “school,” “student,” or “teacher?” Most likely, it’s a landscape of paper, wooden desks, and children sitting in rows with an authoritative adult at the front of the room. The teacher, orating in front of their disciples, points to a porcelain enamel board, scribbled with chalk (or a whiteboard, scribbled with marker), conceptualizes, and then deposits valuable information into eager young minds. Sometimes the children rise from their seats to speak with one another, but more often than not, sheets of paper rest on the cold, single-form desks in which they sit–one of the classroom commandments handed down from generations past: Thou shalt work on a sheet.
Something about K-12 academia beseeches this snapshot of classroom life. It’s become so married to what we’ve been told school is supposed to look like that when it doesn’t, we begin to get uncomfortable. Sure, we give children glue sticks and construction paper – but not for too long, lest we deprive them of “real” learning. We give them iPads and computers to create with and research on – but eventually, we need to corral them from this playtime and back to reality – the one in which we are in control of what they know, when they’ll know it, and how they’ll show they know it.
This “banking” concept of education, made famous by Paulo Freire in 1968 in his book “Pedagogy Of The Oppressed,” posits that “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing...The teacher presents [themselves] to [their] students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, [they] justify [their] own existence.”
Fifty years later, the landscape of what we envision classrooms to be at their core still echoes this description. Even when we introduce technologies that are revolutionary and have the potential to alter this paradigm, this school model of “sit, receive, dispense, repeat” seems to prevail regardless of how many tools we throw at it. To illustrate this point, let’s look at how another industry goes through change: Apple, Inc.
If you asked the next person you ran into to tell you what Apple is as a company, you’d undoubtedly hear that they are a technology company that makes phones and computers (and maybe iPads). However, this isn’t necessarily how they view themselves. In a video essay published by PolyMatter, they claim that “[Apple’s] business may involve transistors and resistors, but from their perspective, this is only incidental. Technology is actually the enemy–a distraction; a source of confusion. In the ideal world, no one cares about RAM. Or even knows they’re using a computer. They’re just drawing, reading, or talking.” Apple’s technologies have purposefully and quite deliberately been designed to make them as far removed from a “computer” as possible – removing ports, bezels, and sometimes buttons (looking at you, iPhone X). The goal is to make these devices just “work–” to make them transparent as a computer, but to turn into the exact thing you need based on the context in which you are using it. These philosophies lead to the kinds of decisions that upset customers in the short term, but ultimately lead to success in the long term.
Apple is also not afraid to kill products that they don’t see as fundamentally in line with their vision, and don’t look to other companies’ successes as benchmarks. Instead, competition exists within the company itself to try and render past products obsolete. Steve Jobs famously teased three revolutionary products in his MacWorld 2007 Keynote–an iPod with touch controls, a mobile phone, and an internet communications device–only to reveal that they were all encapsulated within one device: The iPhone. Now, people view their phone as being able to do at least these things right out of the box.
Making changes to a product line as well-known and widely-used as Apple’s isn’t without some customer blowback (the removal of the iPhone headphone jack is just one example along with the removal of the CD and floppy disk drives). However, the negative press is something worth weathering to them because long-term success is something that far outweighs it. They’re not always right, but their success speaks for itself–and they can afford some hurt feelings along the way.
“School and student success is standardized in such a way that criminally undermines the massive potential for learning these devices open up.”
What if we took this theoretical approach and applied it to schools? Teachers with classrooms filled with devices equipped with this type of transparent technology find themselves at odds with what we’ve been conditioned to believe must historically happen in a classroom (and, quite frankly, is what their evaluations indicate as best practice). School and student success is standardized in such a way that criminally undermines the massive potential for learning these devices open up. Instead, by decree, revolutionary internet communications devices like the iPad are reduced to test prep vehicles, or worse, crippled by device management systems to the point of regressing into confusing computers again.
The principles that are the heart of any school’s decision making processes should be what is best for the children attending that school–period. Honoring what made a school successful in the past is important, but just as important is the need to make theoretical predictions about the future of a school. What’s the plan for when every child who enters a classroom has a phone that is also a portal to the internet, a music and video player, a crowd-sources encyclopedia, and a literal stream of consciousness of the world? Are schools equipped to teach kids like this? What do schools do about children who don’t readily have these devices? When teachers are given a laptop, projector, iPad, and touch devices to teach with, isn’t it a little bit hypocritical to tell children when and where they should be learning with their own?
“If we neglect to invest in what we think is a better way of doing things for fear of being compared to how everyone else is measuring success, schools and classrooms will never change.”
If schools are truly motivated by current trends and the ways in which human beings consume and create meaning with the world around them, then we should be okay with classrooms that are designed have children interacting with technologies the same way anyone would to get what they need out of them (with guidance, of course)–classrooms that don’t look like traditional ones–and, by necessity, aren’t measured by the same standards. Teachers shouldn’t fear that the loud, messy learning going on in their room, fueled by design (and not technology), will be viewed as substandard because the lens they’re being viewed from hasn’t been updated since 1960.
If we neglect to invest in what we think is a better way of doing things for fear of being compared to how everyone else is measuring success, schools and classrooms will never change. If we’re willing to upset some people in pursuit of what’s best for children, then maybe we’ve begun sowing the seeds of a revolution for our nation’s schools.