I’m sitting at the “front” of a classroom, scribbling notes for my journal entry as the students around me are sitting grouped together at their tables, chatting away as they bend over their personal devices or look at a neighbor’s. Some students are walking in and out the open door that leads to outside as they will.
This sounds like a recipe for disaster. This sounds like I have suddenly lost all classroom management skills that I picked up within my American tenth grade English classroom. If one of my students from America was sitting here, they would probably complain something along the lines of, “They get to wander off to other classrooms, but we could barely even use the bathroom?” Indeed, if an administrator for an American classroom walked in on this, it’s entirely probable that it would be the last day of my teaching career.
Here’s the thing though: the students are learning. They just don’t need me to do it.
I had previously walked around the classroom several times, checking in on their devices, and by the third time I wandered around, the students stopped even looking up when I walked over and bent over their screen. They are entirely driven by themselves. The only instruction they were given was at the very beginning of class.
“I want your movie to creatively share a message. This could be a safety message, a message about a problem in the world, a concept from science, or something else, but at t the end of the class we will share our movies,” Mrs. Toller instructed. After that, she quickly asked the students to remind each other of the policy about playing games on devices, to which someone filled in—”If you’re caught on games, your device is taken for 24 hours,” and then she sat at her desk, and they were off.
It was beautiful.
The noise in the classroom is a persistent hum. It is noisy certainly, but from my position at the smart board, I can focus in and listen in on any conversation I choose. They are all discernible even in their noisiness—that is no one group is louder than another. The kids are scattered all around the room. One sits by himself bent over an iPad. Two are huddled over together on a couch, looking at a shared screen. A group of girls each has their laptops open at a table and continues to point out things on each of their screens.
Two girls sit on the floor, one drawing on a white board and the other taking pictures of it with the iPad. They then alternate.
I see a small boy go to another group holding his iPad and ask if any of them knows a good app for importing pictures and playing them back quickly—they are working on a stop motion movie. People share different ideas and weigh the pros and cons of each app for doing what he’s doing what he wants to do.
A pair of girls comes into the classroom carrying a white board they have scavenged from another classroom on the campus—and yes, by campus I mean that there are multiple one-story buildings across the campus, each holding about four classrooms. There are no passes in their hands—the teacher had simply happily sent them on their way and told them to try to find a whiteboard—she didn’t even give them a class number.
A group of boys moves outside to take pictures for their movie.
I have only ever once seen a group of self-directed students, and that was in an Advanced Engineering class at Williamsport High School where students were building their own robots. This is phenomenal.
I believe a part of what accounts for such a difference in environments is a difference in teaching and learning philosophies. MBI’s practice is heavily influenced by “Invitational Learning Theory” which, in essence, states that students should be invited into places in school and be seen as partners rather than seen as employees. One way this comes through is in environments such as the one that Mrs. Toller has constructed. Another way is seen through the idea of “Trusted Classes.” Rather than being funneled into one place for lunches and locked out of the classrooms while teachers go to the lounge to eat lunch (everyone in the school has lunch at the same time), classes can make a presentation for the dean to show that they can be trusted to remain within the classroom without teacher supervision. Mrs. Toller’s class made a large board with sailing analogies to show what trustworthy behavior should be.
Additionally, when students are found to be untrustworthy or break a rule, they are often called in to help decide on a fitting consequence. If they do not follow a rule, they can either make things right by say, writing an apology letter, pay the consequence by doing detention, or do something else such as creating a poster about why it is an important rule.
Another philosophy that shapes MBI’s practice is that of personalized learning, which is similar to differentiation, but different in very important ways.
Perhaps the most key difference is that personalization is learner centered as opposed to teacher centered. In personalization, the learner “actively participates in the design of their learning” and as a result is responsible for achieving their self-made goals.
In differentiation, a teacher “designs instruction based on learning needs of different groups of learners,” and as opposed to individually selected goals, the entire class has the same objectives—they just reach them in different ways.
Other ways the two philosophies differ can be seen clearly within the chart below, but as a broad-stroke picture, personalization can be described as the quintessence of self-driven learning.
In many ways the ideas of personalization and invitational learning seem like ideals that can never work in practice—yet here I am, seeing them clearly working. To be clear, this is not to say every student is perfect. In fact, several students were called up to have private conversations with Mrs. Toller about their inappropriate behavior and the subsequent consequence, but such meetings were short and there was no dispute or push-back. Students realized it was fair, especially as each time Mrs. Toller informed them of how they could have more appropriately dealt with a situation. (i.e. Instead of texting your mother in class, have her call the school.)
This is also not to say that teachers have no place within the classroom. I am coming in at the end of the year, and it may have taken months worth of work to cultivate such an environment. And even if it only took a few weeks to establish, teachers are still involved in helping their students grow and ensuring a thriving learning environment. For example, while Mrs. Toller was able to work on some of her own things while students were doing their personal work, the minute she heard some off-task talk or noticed something was off about the classroom, she swooped down and addressed the behavior instantly.
I am also not ignorant of the the added factor of the difference in cultures between America and New Zealand, which may make such a design of learning so successful here but seemingly impossible in the USA. Regardless, I believe that working to achieve such a classroom where students are held responsible and making learning strides that are important to themselves, is something that America should be doing. Instead of saying “this wouldn’t work here,” we can begin to question–“What if it could?” and start making the changes ourselves. Maybe then, when I am asked the question in the faculty room as I was today:
“Are you guys still doing that thing where one person talks at the students and they have to write it all down as fast as possible?”
I can answer, assuredly and happily, “No. No one does that anymore.”
I am looking forward to doing more work on Invitational Learning Theory and the incorporation of personalization within the classroom over my next four weeks here, and look forward to sharing strategies.