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Posts Tagged ‘classroom

Yesterday I tweeted this image of a new classroom.

First, some context. I visited the classrooms of a brand new building at a university campus. As there was very little foot traffic just after lunch, I decided to use the classroom like a student might.

I sat near the back where the door was and faced the instructor’s console. I worked in the room for an hour to let the experience soak in.

These rooms were already reviewed by critics and blatant design failures had been remedied. Or so they thought. I spotted some basics that were not addressed. I share a labelled version of the same photo I tweeted to highlight a few design mistakes.

Classroom critique.

A: The instructor’s console was awkwardly positioned

I get it — the console faced the glass wall so as to not replicate a lectern behind which an instructor might hide. I am for the idea of tutors learning how to be better facilitators instead of just deliverers of information.

I am not for a design that requires a facilitator to swivel 180 degrees to use the computer or visualiser and then turn back to face the class. A facilitator needs to constantly have eyes on his or her class to send and receive cues.

Even though such swivelling might be intermittent, a more involved presentation, e.g., the manipulation of a 3D object using the visualiser, will result having in the instructor’s back to the students.

Solutions: Swivel the console, not the instructor; provide professional development on facilitation strategies so that a properly-positioned console does not become a pedagogical crutch, fortress, or hideout.
 
 
B: Glass walls led to glare and buildup of heat

This was a corner classroom and three walls were almost entirely glass — the front (as shown), the left (not shown), and the back (where the door was).

Bright sunlight shone in from the front and left despite the leafy curtain.

I could not take the photo by panning from or to the left glass panel because the light was so bright. The glare might be reduced as the plants grow more thickly, but I cannot anticipate by how much.

Our Singapore sun is not forgiving. The glass walls created a greenhouse effect so that I started to sweat even though I was the only one in the room. Granted I had just facilitated a workshop elsewhere and was in a long-sleeved shirt. But imagine about 20 undergraduates in t-shirts and slippers getting a free sauna.

One solution: Provide pull-down shades to reduce the glare and heat.
 
 
C: Harsh and clinical lightning

Perhaps there was a green cast from the vegetation outside, so the room was equipped with bright white light.

I do not know if these were conventional fluorescent tubes or LEDs made to look like them. They cast a harsh light that reminded me of a hospital waiting room or the floor of a manufacturing plant.

As I write this, I am in a public library that has off-white lights to make the environment feel warm and welcoming. Visit any modern café and the lighting will be similar, if not warmer.

All three places have this in common — students studying — but only the latter two seem to leverage on psychology to make the user comfortable.

The positioning of the lights also created glare on the TV screens (E). If the students are sitting in the room with the TVs off, they will see the glare from the lights and the windows.

One solution: Opt for warmer white lights.
 
 
D: There were shared writing surfaces only on the right-side wall

The other walls were glass, so there were no boards on them. This meant that half the students did not have such surfaces. A facilitator would have to resort to using just half the classroom for board work.

I am all for using computers, mobile devices, and open online tools for cooperation, but some things are easier, faster, and more effective on a board.

One solution: Provide white boards on wheels for the other learning stations.
 
 
D and E: Peripheral boards and screens

The boards and TV were surfaces and screens for projecting media. These are fine for group-based cooperative activities.

However, they are terrible for whole-class presentations. Students are likely to look at the projections instead of the speaker.

I foresee students or the instructor using the board D as the main projection surface. When they do, they will have to position themselves awkwardly between the console (A) and the board, and/or walk distractingly between them.

Solutions: Provide a clear and logical primary projection surface. This might tempt instructors to keep lecturing, but that is what professional development sessions on alternative strategies are for.
 
 
F: Six seats per table

This was an example of a group table or learning station. In the relatively untouched rooms I visited earlier, I noticed that there were six seats around each table. This room had just been used and some seats were actually missing.

A designer probably thought that rounded triangle tables could comfortably seat two students on each side.

A better designer of cooperative work would realise that you need a small but odd-number of students for such work to be more efficient and effective. Groups larger than five make for slower progress; even-numbers leave no member to be a tie-breaker during decision-making.

One solution: Create seating for groups of five.

Closing thoughts
I will not share the other design faux pas that were part of the room prior to the initial round of criticisms. I will just point this out: It is far cheaper and more effective to hire a consultant to prevent these issues from seeing the light of day.

I hold my tongue when I use the rooms I am assigned for workshops. But when asked, I share mostly positive things and highlight one or two key corrections if I think my hosts can handle it.

The design of classrooms matters. While they affect budgets in the short-term, they affect learners and learning in the long run.

These two summaries below of research on flipped classrooms and flipped learning seem to exemplify what and how the phenomena has been studied.

First, studies that focus on test scores or academic results often report the “no significant difference” (NSD) phenomenon. This is typical of quasi-experimental studies that attempt to replicate test and control treatments.

It is not surprising that there rarely are significant differences in treatments because there is often just one key outcome — test scores. Like most social phenomena in schooling and education, test scores are subject to many influencing and confounding factors. It is impossible to implement pure treatment no matter how much you try to control for them.

Second, studies that review other studies reveal what practitioners might sense intuitively — reports tend to be cautious trials that tout ideas, but rarely follow up despite the claim for “future areas of study”. This results in the dearth of practice-informed theory.

Both are often symptomatic of the unethical research game: Propose studies, clear review boards by assuring no harm to human subjects, receive grant money, collect data, publish for appraisal points and promotion.

Who benefits? The researchers and publishers, especially the latter who put high-sounding work behind walled gardens. This crosses ethical boundaries particularly when the money is publicly sourced. If the money is from taxation, it does not help the people who paid the taxes because they can neither access nor understand the articles.

Even when they are simplified by abstracts and summaries (or dumbed down by this dummy!), the reported efforts offer NSD or offer no real answers. That is flipping research (and other research) in the nutshell.

 
This article reported that “around 80 percent of instructors around the world teaching or training others in flipped learning are three to five years behind current best practices”.

If their estimate is close, then that is an alarming statistic because teachers are not staying current with research-informed practices.

That said, I am just as alarmed with the use of “best practices”. What is best or good in one context is not in another. Here are my other objections to the blind adoption of this corporate term.

I am also worried that an article that claims numbers and standards of practice does not link properly to evidence. For example, at the time of my reflection, there was a sentence: “The standards were developed by a team of international academics from the U.S., Spain, Turkey and Taiwan”. The link leads to a non-existent page about the experts.

Strangely enough, the article took a twist about halfway through. It quoted Robert Talbert, a mathematics professor and author of a book on flipping:

Talbert noted, however, that the FLGI’s Global Standards Project is primarily about setting standards for flipped learning training, and not for flipped learning itself.

First, I was concerned that the group thought it could train adult learners.

Second, if you asked the question “Are You Flipping the Wrong Way?” (the title of the article), then why were the standards not for the implementation of flipped learning per se?

While my reflection might come across as an argument about semantics, it is not. Words hold meaning and their meanings stem from the beliefs and mindsets of the people who speak and write them. If they cannot get terms right, who are they to tell others that their practices are right or wrong?

All that said, there is value in the latter half of the article. If the premise had been better stated as teachers were not keeping up with research-informed practices, then the article did a good job of illustrating wasteful practices like investing in redundant LMS and providing every student with thumb drives.

It also had this to say about the emphasis on pre-class work:

“Using video for preclass work is still by far the most common approach, but more instructors are using some interactive activity instead,” said Talbert. Some instructors are reverting to assigning students a text to read with structured questions before class, he said. “Making a video is very time-consuming, and it’s not clear if video provides benefits to students commensurate with the cost of making those videos.”

Emphasis has also shifted in recent years from what happens before class to what happens in class, said Talbert. “In the early days, instructors tended to put a great deal of emphasis on students’ preclass work and then do nothing particularly special for class meetings. Now there’s a much broader understanding that the in-class activity needs to be designed first.”

Ultimately, the problem is not that teachers are not researchers and do not have the bandwidth for reading research:

“There are lots of common pitfalls, and it’s likely that in almost two decades somebody has tried what you’re thinking of and failed,” said Bowen. But finding out what hasn’t worked can be difficult, because positive results are more likely to get published than negative ones. Access to journal articles is also expensive, he noted.

The issue is that journals tend to favour positive results and are walled-gardens with premium access. The academic publishing system is flipping wrong. Teachers need to rely more on connected communities of practice, not just on central “training” bodies or pay-for-access journals.

This semester I had to resort to something I might have done as a classroom teacher 21 years ago. I had to manage expectations with a warning prior to a cooperative learning activity.

Some context: I model and teach assorted pedagogical strategies to future faculty. One of these strategies is a variant of the jigsaw method. This is a cooperative learning activity that replaces a long and boring lecture on even more pedagogical strategies and theories.
 

 
I have done this for many semesters, but I something changed last year. During the jigsaw, a few individuals would resort to selfish behaviours. I vividly recall three individuals at separate sessions: One shopped online, another used social media to chat with people outside class, and another played a mobile game.

An outsider might baulk at the actions of these three. They are Ph.D. students who are privileged to attend a well-respected university. Most students at this level are also sponsored for their studies, so this raises the privilege ante further.

I confronted these individuals to let them know they had responsibilities to their group — in a jigsaw cooperation, they were individually accountable and yet dependent on one another.

I realised I was reacting to this instead of preventing it. So this semester I set expectations like I used to as a classroom teacher. I told my learners that I would give them a verbal warning if they engaged in selfish behaviour, and if they persisted, I would ask them to leave the class.

No one crossed that line this semester even though a few were tempted. But I do not think that it was the threat of being confronted that led to positive behaviours. I also emphasised the rationales managing one’s self for the good of a group. The social pressure to conform and cooperate did the rest.

You might look at the obvious design and implementation flaw in the tweet below and wonder how this happens.

These are commonplace judging from the number of photos and websites that feature such flaws. They are easy to spot with a critical eye.

The flaws are obvious as is the physical harm users might experience as a result of such designs. However, some designs are easily overlooked.

One such less obvious design happens in “new” classrooms. These are helmed by agencies and vendors that claim they design for learning. They call these places hubs of learning or classrooms that are smart.

Recently I had a conversation with someone who had to test a new classroom. Some background: This campus had issues with pillars blocking views and platforms facing the wrong way.

Having experienced so many design flaws myself, I asked him what the problems were with the new room. Off the top of his head he mentioned that there weren’t enough writing surfaces. He also described a pillar with an odd configuration of displays. If I find this design faux pas, I will photograph it and update this page.

The people in charge were unhappy with the design flaws. This invariably led to delays in using the classrooms (time cost), modifications to correct the errors (effort cost), and budget negotiations (financial cost).

One reason why these errors persist is that these classrooms are designed without consulting progressive-minded policymakers and reflective educators. Most modern universities also have learning or pedagogy centres who can advise on these design. But these agencies are as easily overlooked as writing surfaces.

I suspect that many designs are based on photos of visits to cool-looking venues and administrators choose an item from A, another from B, and so on. All at the lowest possible price, of course. When this happens, the designers know WHAT to do and HOW to do this, but not WHY.

The WHY of the design of a classroom is not just about aesthetics or comfort. It is about pedagogy and learning. Including a person or a small team that has expertise in such design is not cheap, but it prevents bad pedagogical design of a learning environment.

It just takes sense/cents to save a dollar.

It is not my intent to propagate false dichotomies. But since some teachers (and a few people who teach them) do not distinguish between the flipped classroom and flipped learning, I have created another graphic to make a distinction:

The flipped classroom focuses on engagement. Flipped learning is about learner empowerment.

The flipped classroom focuses on engagement. It is about getting and maintaining the learner’s attention. On the other hand, flipped learning is about learner empowerment. The focus here is nurturing autonomy.

There are different flavours of both. Despite some common methods, there is no single way to do either. There are certainly no “best” practices for both.

A teacher might do both in a single session or over a school term. There will be times where a teacher might have to do both. The issue is finding a balance based on context.

This balance is rarely achieved because teachers tend to teach the way they were taught or in a way they are comfortable. New ideas are often assimilated into old ones so that the latter practices persist. For example, flipping the classroom with videos can simply reinvent homework and perpetuate ineffective lecturing.

One approach is not necessarily better than the other unless you have the learner’s long term development in mind. Which would you rather have: Learners who are extrinsically driven by your attempts at engaging them, or learners who are intrinsically driven because they are empowered to learn?

For what it is worth, I reshare the earlier graphic I made. It provides a huge clue on how to start on the journey of empowering learners.

The flipped classroom swaps WHAT happens WHERE. Flipped learning changes WHO does WHAT.

I discovered an unexpected source of ideas for flipped learning. It is a video of a teacher trolling his students after he banned them from flipping bottles.


Video source

At first glance, the teacher might come across as the embodiment of “do as I say, but not as I do”. After all, he did not want his students flipping bottles and did so himself.

Viewed through the lens of YouTube entertainment, the teacher was not only a master troll, he was also aware of memes and what connected with his learners. Even the groan-worthy references were gems.

Viewed through the lens of education, the video was a good example of practice, creative endeavour, and content creation.

The practice of bottle flipping required not just elbow grease, but also experimentation to determine the right amount of water. I have no doubt that there was much failure footage left out of the final video.

The teacher kept flipping bottles just like teachers might try flipping their classrooms. However, routine with both gets old quickly. Since the flipped classroom is still largely reliant on the teacher as driver, the teacher must design and lead interesting journeys. The teacher provided creative variations and levelled up the difficulty of bottle flipping. The same could be said about flipping classrooms.

The most important idea is that of having the agency to create content. This is one principle that distinguishes the flipped classroom from flipping learning. Learners must be empowered to create content so that they make their thinking visible, are teaching their peers, and acting on the feedback they receive. Only then does the flipped classroom transform to one that embraces flipped learning.

Bonus: This viral video also illustrated one strategy for creating videos for flipped learning. Every learner should show only what is critical. They do not need to create epic movies. They should be creating trailers that leave their peers wanting more.


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