In the UK, private schools often use ‘small class sizes’ at 6th form (16-18 years old) as a selling point to entice parents to choose their school over another. I regularly have the opportunity of teaching groups of 10 or less in their final year of study and this certainly has significant benefits.
What is fascinating about teaching 6th form students is how 2 significant things change in the classroom: the teacher stops standing at the front of the room, and the use of varied teaching resources stops. Of course this is a horrible generalization, but it is certainly true more often than it is in other lessons.
Frustratingly this combination is what stops pedagogical progress, both for the older students I have just described and the younger students who have a teacher at the front of the room, but more access to varied teaching resources.
The Current Setup vs Ideal Setup
Now consider what you usually read about the classroom of the future: picture huge, multipurpose spaces that allow for seminar areas, group work using a projector for feeding back to others, private work areas and an area for IT use. How many schools do you know that have classrooms with this amount of space? Perhaps if we were building a school from scratch then this is the type of room you would make, but most of us are not starting over, we’re trying to reinvent with what we’ve already got – small classrooms on long corridors and class sizes we can’t do a huge amount about.
So there’s no magic wand to make the walls we’ve got disappear and the students contained within those walls to diminish to a number that we feel comfortable with, but, by utilizing technology in the right way, the dynamics of the classroom could be radically changed for the better.
There is no need for a teacher to stand at the front of the room.
Whilst sometimes I teach a class size that doesn’t permit me to sit with them, because there aren’t any spare desks, since September I have at least had the option to change things, and not just when I’m teaching 6th Form and I can do this whilst utilizing the very best in technology-based pedagogy.
But putting technology to one side for a moment and if you don’t action anything else in the wake of reading this article, simply try sitting amongst your students; it changes everything.
My classroom is pretty standard in size; it has a desk at the front with an Interactive Whiteboard dutifully mounted on the wall behind it. I then have my desks arranged in two horseshoes, one inside the other. When I sit with my students I sit in the outer horseshoe as this still allows me to survey the group quite easily. From a practical point of view I was able to make some interesting observations bout the room, the way I teach and the ease with which my students are able to take on the information being relayed to them.
- The shape of the desks would work so much better if there was only one horseshoe as then everyone would be able to see everyone else.
- Sitting at the back of the room, the quality of the screen is poor and it’s hard to read – either I need glasses, or it’s time to increase the size of font I use.
- There is a lot of wasted space at the front of a classroom – the teacher’s desk is ridiculous dividing wall between student and the content that is learned during a lesson.
- There is no need to stand at the front of the room, but you still need to move around and engage one-to-one; whilst sitting with them improves the dynamic of the discussion and the quality of what goes up on the screen (because you see it as they do and not as something you are doing for them to absorb), being ‘static’ in the classroom can only work in short bursts.
But what matters more is the less tangible aspect of what happened. When I sit with my students they pass me their work far more often – they ask for feedback at ‘irregular’ times, ie. not at the end of a unit, or a set time, or after a homework. They just felt more able to let me look over what they’re doing. This kind of constant, informal feedback has been really useful in stretching the most able but also supporting the weaker students. It may seem obvious, but it also meant that often we were looking at the same thing in the same way. By this I mean that because I have my classroom set up so that in any given lesson, at the very least I have an iPad (often the students do too) and an Apple TV, no matter where I stand or sit, I can show my students whatever I’m doing, looking at, researching, teaching and they can do the same. So our attention may still often be set to the front of the room, but now I don’t get in the way. I see what they see – I see if what I’m showing them looks worthwhile, if it’s presented in an engaging way, if it’s even legible. All of these things matter, but when we’re at the front, we don’t remember that they matter.
In a single iPad classroom, it is still possible to go around, take a quick snapshot of someone’s work and push that up to the board through Apple TV. This in itself revolutionizes the classroom. If you have a 1:1 environment then you can bypass Apple TV altogether on some occasions and use Nearpod instead. This way there is no front to the classroom, there is a just a group of learners focussing on their device, but absorbing the same information. What makes Nearpod revolutionary is not the fact that they are all looking at the same presentation but on a personal device – this is barely any better than PowerPoint – what makes it great, is that each student can respond to questions within that survey with complete anonymity and yet their response to any question may be pushed out to every students’ device for discussion. Every student responds and engages in their own way, the stakes are raised as anyone may have their answer chosen and the quality of the learning improves as a result.
By moving away from the front of the room, you don’t have to give up teaching using dynamic resources, you simply need a way to take them with you. My current setup lets me do this. I can be delivering quality content (in fact often the content is better than it was when I only had the Interactive Whiteboard) but I can do it from anywhere. Anytime, anywhere learning isn’t just about students going off and learning in their own time, it’s about finding ways of making the classroom a more dynamic space. I can now be an anytime, anywhere teacher in my own classroom. The technology that students could have access to allows them to work in a variety of different ways. Without knocking down walls or installing multiple projectors and mini IT suites, they can work in groups, do private study or reading, create presentations and feedback to the class with just one device and I can be anywhere in that room and immediately show the rest of the group, the learning that is happening. The learning is more personalized, there is the feel of a smaller, more closely knit group and yet the makeup of my classes hasn’t changed. That, I believe, is the reality of the classroom of the future.