If they could take a picture of your teaching five years ago and another one five years from now, how different would two pictures look? And if they could do the same for your students’ learning, how different would that look? These were the questions in my mind after I interviewed my colleagues, Cyrus Carter and Cecile Popp, on the use of learning spaces and 1:1 laptop project at Robert College. They have very recently given a presentation on the same topic in two different conferences in two different countries.
The interview has given me a lot to think about.
Cyrus and Cecile, thank you very much for such a genuine and thought provoking conversation.
Aybike: Does use of space affect learning?
Cecile: I think the use of space can affect and enhance the learning. I think space can also hinder the learning. A simple example would be a very unmotivating environment that somehow does not foster creativity or somehow sucks your energy. So, we teachers need to be careful with the classroom and the positive environment. Whether types of lessons or creating an ambiance.
Cyrus: I think the definition of space is also very important. It’s not just the use of space like floor. How we use our walls and colors are also very important. Also the visuals. When kids are not tuned in to the work they’re doing, is there a place that they can go where actually some learning can go on? For example, the top right corner of the room. If you hang something up there, students will learn it within two weeks. So are we using the space as a guide to help students understand the lesson or an attitude. Second thing of use of space is; are we really giving kids the responsibility to make decisions about their own use of space? It’s really funny how they make really good decisions. For instance, if you make a seating plan, it’s top down, without them being involved in the process that would probably not be meeting their needs whereas if you leave it to them and really leave it, they come up with better choices and better designs than you could ever have.
Aybike: Can you think of a few examples of how you use space in your classrooms?
Cecile: Something that allows the kids to leave the classroom is to use the stools in the hall and the empty classrooms. Another is constantly changing the seating arrangement. My classroom has special furniture. It’s really easy to do that because they can literally move all the tables into a U shape around one special space in a matter of seconds. They can very easily have two, three, eight people around one table. They can very easily break up into pairs so mixing things a little bit really changes the energy. And color. I sometimes use different color post it notes as exit slips. Also, making sure that student work is up on the wall. Changes regularly.
Cyrus: One thing I did was I took a board and I kept pretty work on top of the board and it grew as the year went on. At the end of the year, we peeled back the layers of everything the kids have done and kids loved it. We talked about it at the beginning that we would just keep adding and adding and adding. But the use of space, there are no limits. Unfortunately my desks are solid. Difficult to move around. So when we make a decision to put certain desks in a certain way, it limits us but it doesn’t limit the movement among the desks. And chairs can move around.
Cecile: And going outside, too. There’s also outdoor space that we can use. There are amphitheatres that we can use in different buildings.
Cyrus: There are two elements involved in that. One, we are not allowed to use outdoor space in the school yet. However, what we are trying to work on is sign up spaces. We want to make sure that students are accounted for at all times. And we also want to use this incredible space that we have.
Aybike: What do you think about the current use of space in Robert College? What does it say about the school’s educational philosophy?
Aybike: Cyrus you asked a question to the audience in your presentation.
Do we give the best space to the wrong people?
Can you elaborate on that?
Cyrus: We have a problem with scheduling. There are not enough classrooms. It’s mostly that a lot of the spaces are used for offices. There are offices which could be easily used as massive learning spaces. And they’re being used to house the departments. There are two problems with this. The first one is we’re compartmentalizing people by departments. And that’s the old way of doing things. That’s very 19th and 20th Century. The new way of constructing life is in projects. Bringing departments together for projects and then moving them away. Together and away, together and away, together and away. But by isolating people we’re saying that you are the teacher of the subject, not the teacher of the students. Now, the radical idea is to get rid of all the offices. Assign two or three teachers into a classroom. Give them ownership of the classroom. It can be cross curricular or it can be within curriculum for people first to feel safe about that. Use the rest of the space to schedule classes more easily. And have two common rooms for teachers. Right in the center of the school. One can be the noisy, social room where people can go and have coffee to get to know to each other and the other may be a quiet area where people go just to work on. The point is it’s suddenly cross departmental. Suddenly, the conversations are much richer than before.
Cecile: People who are proponents of collaborative teaching often use the word silo to describe the offices and in a way our buildings are silo. In most cases, if you go down to the first floor to move from one building into the next, most buildings are organized by departments. I’d love to see what Cyrus is describing happen but I also enjoy having my colleagues within reach. The way our office currently is, because it really makes me a better teacher. That’s not to say that having teachers from other departments into the mix wouldn’t also be inviting but I wouldn’t want to let go of having other prep English teachers nearby because that is for me is like an immediate need. It’s a reality of my mind that I don’t go to the tea time in the Faculty Parlor because it’s too far. I don’t have more than X minutes. Maybe we need longer breaks during the day.
Cyrus: I would agree with Cecile on the idea that it’s a wonderfully collaborative office that we have and I’m sure that there are many like that. In making the transition, we may consider putting the same subject teachers in classrooms so there can be sort of a natural walking down the hall and talking to people. That’s the first thing. The second thing is the idea of longer breaks that has been talked about as a necessity as well. There’s one other reason. If you have a classroom you’re sharing with someone, first of all, it’s a signal to the students that collaboration is a part of the school. The second thing is it makes pastoral care so much more natural. Kids don’t like going to your office but kids will wander into your classroom if you’re free during a break time. They will come in and you can have one to one conversations with students. What makes our school so special is pastoral care and it needs to be built on.
Aybike: Also in the conference, you mentioned that 1:1 laptop project has initiated a change about the use of learning spaces in RC.
What does technology have anything to do with the use of space?
How has the 1:1 laptop project triggered all of these questions?
Cyrus: The first word that comes to mind is control. Before, teachers were always in control. 1:1 content is in the kids’ hands. Teachers are no longer the repository of knowledge. Although they may have some good stories, kids will never get off the internet. They can add richness, texture to the learning but content now is more and more in the kids’ domain. So it’s up to the teacher to guide them necessarily. So the whole role of teachers is being revised. Also teachers are looking for professional development now because they realize “Oh my Goodness! I’m not ready for this.” We paid lip service to being life-long learners. Now, we have to be life-long learners. If we don’t model it, if we’re not out there getting professional development? All this has been triggered by the relinquishing of control. Many of us are scared, we’re all nervous, and some are excited but it’s about control.
Cecile: Also, in order to use the laptops well -not just to have a classroom that happen to have laptops where the kids are just typing instead of handwriting, and that’s the only difference, and maybe submitting assignments by email- if you really want to have a 21st century classroom and use the technology to its potential, the students should be collaborating. And students are now doing different things in school than they used to do. They do different things at home than they used to do. So there’s a whole shift in the kinds of activities and behaviors that are happening at school or in the classroom. Ok, the learning is in the students’ hands but what does that mean? You’re not teaching knowledge, you’re teaching how to find knowledge. And the knowledge is almost secondary. It’s more creative in some ways. It’s about producing stuff, creating stuff instead of just reading and writing, reading and writing, reading writing. I think it’s the technology, the laptops that allow you to do things totally off the wall. Use artistic ways that now mainstream people do what only the eccentric artists did before.
Cyrus: You bring up something important. Of course Bloom’s Taxonomy was rewritten for the Digital Age. And the peak is to create. Within the classroom, now, the kids are taking things and they’re making connections, they’re analyzing, they’re synthesizing, and now people are getting together. You mentioned collaboration to create something new. And this is out of the teacher’s control. Meaning, teachers can say create, these are the parameters, but within those parameters the kids are coming up with new thinking and they’re surprising all the time.
Cecile: Yeah, we can no longer predict the outcomes of our students’ work.
Cyrus: There’s no single right answer anymore.
Cecile: But it’s really exciting because in a way, every project has the potential to be real. You know what I mean? Like there was emphasis on every assignment should have a real purpose and a real audience but we tried hard to create a mock purpose and a mock audience. But it’s really real now.
Cyrus: Which is publishing. Somewhere out there, someone is going to find it and republish it online.
Aybike: How do you think the students are taking this change? Ok, as teachers, we have mixed feelings but how does it look from where the students stand?
Cyrus: Last year’s prep ended up accepting the new model because for them it was a natural transition. The kids in grades 9, 10, 11, and 12 said “Oh, we don’t want this.” because they had already constructed their viewpoint of Robert College in a different model. So we’re doing it the right way. We bring it one year at a time because it has to be introduced as they are introduced to Robert College.
Cecile: I think for the kids, it’s not a real struggle or challenge. They are open to new things. I mean, of course, we sometimes make the mistake of assuming they are more fluent than they are with the technology but at the same time they more fluent in subtle ways. They might not know exactly how to bookmark a page but they can do so many other things that are more fundamental like the motor skills that go with learning how to use technology. They learn it really easily. I don’t see them struggling. And I think for them if anything, it makes the whole school experience more colorful. Every day, every week, every month, there’s something new, there’s variety. I think for the teachers, a teacher is excited by this. I think it’s kind of an exhilarating roller coaster ride in a way because we’re trying to keep up. And I think there’s so much to learn that you can’t learn all of this in one summer and be ready to go at the start of the new school year with your whole tool kit. I find every week I’m trying to add one new element to how I use technology. It’s definitely a never-ending, exhilarating roller coaster ride but I can see how that’s very tiring and stressful to anyone who doesn’t have that mentality of ‘this is something I really want to do’.
Cyrus: This is well before your time. In the 70ies, I was introduced into thinking of computers. It was different than the thinking I had done before. The thinking of computers is flowchart. We didn’t think in flowcharts before that but linearly. We didn’t think ‘if … then..’, ‘if… then…’. In 70ies, when I was in school, when I was introduced to computer science, I still remember thinking ‘Hmm, this is a new way of thinking’. So for me, it was hard not be on board at first. That element is just the way people think now. They think in ‘if then models’. I think the kids are already on board.
Cecile: Like they know how to flip pages on an Ipad.
Cyrus: One of our colleagues said that’s how one of his kids tried to make the TV move. That’s the new model.
Aybike: How do you see or define yourself as a teacher in the 21st century?
Cyrus: Excited. I don’t want to retire when I’m forced to retire ten years from now. I think it’s the most exciting time of my life. It’s like being a kid again. Because it’s all so new and I’m never bored. Yuppie!
Cecile: I feel that way, too. I think it’s also a little bit of danger, a little bit of adrenalin, like I’m always on the verge of something. I’m in the water. I mean it’s really sink or swim. And I mean that in the most positive way. It’s about constant change and it’s about constant motion. Like the students, I’m learning, too.
Cyrus: The downside is the amount of time I’m devoting to this process. I also try to make sure that I don’t try the every new toy I find. I limit myself and find the tool that best meets the most of my needs. For example, the Google docs, the whole Google platform. It’s a lot of my needs now. Even though I discovered a new one in the past few days, which I will look at, play around with but I won’t adopt it unless I see it as being a giant platform.
Cecile: But in way, this is now also what we want to teach our students. We want them to search but then to analyze and synthesize. We don’t have a textbook that says these are the things you teach. Absolutely, I spend energy on keeping it simple. I spend energy on finding that one thing and using that one thing to its maximum potential. And giving them a purpose for all of these things. And that is a challenge. And that’s what, I think, now more than ever, in some ways, teachers will need to be. Be a model of the very behavior and attitude that we want the students to adopt. There’s no more pretending. And now I think classrooms can again be happy, colorful, shiny, vibrant centers of exciting activity.
Aybike: What would you like to say to the teachers who will read this interview?
Cyrus: Experiment it, enjoy it and if you’re not in a place that you’re not having fun, go somewhere else.
Cecile: Being a teacher now isn’t and shouldn’t be what it used to be. So how do people now know if they want to be a teacher or not? There are probably lots people out there who should and could be good teachers but they don’t choose teaching because of what it used to be. And the opposite is also true. There are probably teachers teaching for the reasons that are no longer valid.