I have been reading a great deal about instructional strategies, differentiated instruction, and research on how the brain learns.  Mind, Brain and Education is an excellent source for current research on how we learn and strategies teachers could implement to improve their instruction.  As a result of some reading and thinking in preparation for workshops with teachers, I was wondering what it would look like if we designed our classrooms with these principles in mind.

  • Teachers exhibit “genuine” interest in what is being taught, thinking of themselves as “designers” or architects of curricula, not merely distributors of someone else’s curricula.
Example: What if teachers were given more license to build their curriculum around the things that interested them?  What if we were given autonomy on grade-level teams, our department, or our school to design around our interests?  If teachers were allowed to construct curriculum based on their interests, while paying attention to critical, agreed upon standards, then they would likely be more committed and passionate about what they design.  It would be there’s.
  • Teachers exhibit a commitment to their own learning as a guiding principle
Example: Teachers are committed to their own learning as much as they are to their students’ learning.  What if we were exemplary role models for lifelong learning?  If we walked in our students’ shoes on a regular basis would we gain empathy with their sense that school is “boring?”  (click here for results from a national survey of 441,000 students)   What does it mean to be a lifelong learner?  Why do so many students (greater than 40%) experience school as boring or not relevant to their lives?
  • Students are encouraged to analyze their own thinking processes and classroom practices.
Example: Throughout every lesson, what if students were given the opportunity and time to reflect on their learning, answering the question: why do I think the way I do?  If I’m struggling with this math problem, what is it asking of me that I don’t understand?  Why is the teacher asking me to complete this activity in class?  Most of a student’s time in school is comprised of isolated, unrelated events over which they have little control.  What if students were given time to connect the dots from themselves?
  • Students are asked to explain why they are doing what they are doing.
Example: When we ask students to explain, verbalize or illustrate why they are learning a certain concept, they must reconcile the knowledge they possess to understand versus the knowledge they lack to achieve clarity.  The act of making their thinking visible results in deeper understanding of what they are expected to learn.
  • Students are asked to change their positions as a result of what they are learning.
Example: In studying a particular discipline, students come to understand that they hold certain beliefs or values.  Where do their beliefs or values come from?  Once students have interacted with others as a result of learning a concept, they should be challenged to synthesize, analyze, and evaluate what they have learned, potentially changing their point-of-view.  Learning should be the impetus for change.  Through engaging in a debate, students would have to defend a point-of-view, sometimes not their own.
  • Students and teachers are willing to admit a mistake and then given the opportunity to grow from that mistake
Example: Students and teachers need to feel safe within the learning community so they can admit when mistakes are made.  This openness begins with the teacher models the behavior.  Students need examples of what it feels like when someone admits to a mistake.  Teachers need to be effective role models, showing we can recover from our mistakes.  Teachers need to design the learning environment so that students can learn from mistakes and not be penalized.  Learning is a continuous process, not a discrete one.  This means that students should believe recovery is within their grasp by getting chances to redo assessments of their learning.  Grades should not be used as a reward or punishment for what was or was not learned, but used as a measuring stick for where a student is on the learning continuum.
  • Students are allowed to participate in setting rules and making decisions related to learning and assessment
Example: A classroom is a community of learners.  For students to see it as a community, they need to have some input into the rules that govern the learning.  Should we include students in setting classroom norms?  Design a process for using the norms as a tool to build community.  This will help students develop decision-making skills, and help them understand they have responsibility for how a community functions.  Engage students in assessment practices.   Build an environment in which there is co-ownership of assessment.  If assessment is a mechanism for measuring where students are on the learning continuum, then it seems reasonable to actively engage them in the assessment culture.
  • Students are encouraged to follow their own train of thought, their own thinking and not merely repeat what the teacher wants
Example: If we want students to become independent thinkers and learners, then they have to be given opportunities to follow their own train of thought.  Allow them the voice and choice to decide on a project that ties to the learning objectives.  Allow them to research their topic, assemble their thinking, and share their thinking with others.  Create opportunities for them to explain why they think the way they do about a concept or idea.  Rather than repeating only what the teacher thinks and says, students should be challenged to understand why they think the way they do, defend their way of thinking and modify it based  on information they assimilate.
  • Students are allowed to make choices for how to learn and what to learn within the boundaries of the standards….more voice and choice
Example: When content and skills have meaning and relevance to students they are more likely to learn it deeply.  This means we need to find ways to give them voice and choice in what they learn or how they learn.  When we design curriculum related to the standards, we need to put it through the lens of meaning and relevance for the student.
  • Students are expected to engage in the full range of thinking modeled in Bloom’s Taxonomy
Example: We want to be sure that the activities and tasks we expect students to do have both convergent and divergent thinking requirements built in.  With regard to Bloom’s taxonomy, we should design activities and tasks that call up the full range of thinking skills, from recalling information to creating new knowledge.
What would a classroom look like if it were designed through these principles?  I would propose that it would look more like an innovative workplace.