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Monday, October 17, 2011

Redefining the Geography of the Classroom

Back in sixth grade we got new furniture. The desks were not desks per se, but trapezoidal tables that fit together like puzzle pieces. We students arranged them in our classroom and choose our own seats. I ended up at a table of eight students: seven of the smartest boys and me. It was probably not the best arrangement for educating the entire class, but we loved it.

Despite that arrangement, one perfect for collaboration, I do recall many an hour spent watching the teacher at the board. The grouped tables were really not used to encourage group work or much hands-on work. Now high school classrooms are being reshaped into studios designed to promote group and hands on work. In one Florida private school, Bishop Moore Catholic High, "studio" classrooms include white "smart boards," "writable windows" and giant touch-screen computer monitors.
The room is a showcase for state-of-the-art technology, but also for the belief that students learn best if teachers ask questions, present problems, prod them to think and then get out of the way and let them work.
The "studio" approach began at the college level, in physics courses interestingly, and is slowly expanding to high schools. The studio or TEAL (Technology-Enhanced Active Learning) lab, as its known at MIT, can be used for a dedicated subject, but at Bishop Moore the room is used by teachers in all disciplines.

While getting all the fancy tools in such labs may not be feasible for some schools, the ideas behind them are not. Group interactive learning works (MIT physics failure rates dropped with the new model) and keeps students engaged. A low tech model might use chalk boards in place of writable windows and traditional computers instead of smartboards. Different tasks might be assigned at different "stations" and student groups could move through them during one or more class periods.

How did the new studios make it to Bishop Moore? The school had graduates share how they were learning in college and introduced the studios based on their feedback. This model of learning has another benefit, it models how learning can (and should!) be done outside the classroom.

- Orlando Sentinel