Classrooms? We don’t need no stinking classrooms!

For generations, the primary organizing unit for a school campus has been the classroom. We line them up in nice and neat rows. They stack on top of each other really well. If the number of classrooms is equal to the number of teachers, then the building must be the right size! Each teacher gets a room with his or her name on it. Makes perfect sense, right?

Not so fast there, partner. While our schools have traditionally been this way, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way moving forward.

One teacher, one classroom, one big problem

Much of the modern school house—everything from how it’s built to how the curriculum is planned—can be attributed to industrialization. While the history is complicated and full of intricacies, the way our classrooms came to be can be summarized by a bias towards process and uniformity. The no-room-for-personalization assembly line model of the 19th and early 20th century worked well for industry, so the logic was applied to the classroom.

Since then—and especially as technology has taken hold as a valuable learning tool—experts have come to realize the flaws with this model. Think of the many millions of students across the country. Does it really stand to reason that a cookie cutter classroom with no room for flexibility would be the best space to promote learning for all of them?

The traditional classroom doesn’t leave much space for movement or collaboration. Desks are spread out leaving little room for anything other than forward-looking attention to a lecturer who either writes on a whiteboard or projects onto a screen. It isolates the learners to their individual spaces while symbolically and literally separating the teacher from the student.

When talking to students, teachers and parents during educational visioning sessions it’s not uncommon to hear participants raise some fair points of fear and anxiety that are directly related to the outdated one teacher, one classroom model.

  • Who is responsible for students when they are working in more collaborative settings outside the classroom?
  • Are others allowed to use another teacher’s space?
  • Who does a classroom belong to, really?

Moving into the future

Change is hard, and moving away from a more than century old paradigm isn’t easy for most districts. It requires those in control to abandon the images of what school looked like for them, in favor of a more future-focused model that may feel unfamiliar at first.

For the educator’s part, the change from an industrial to a collaborative model must also involve two key paradigm shifts as well. First, responsibility has to evolve from “these are my 30 kids” to “these are our 150 kids.” Second, teachers must abandon the “I teach in this room” mindset and push themselves to remember “I teach wherever the kids need it, and look at the choices we have!

Those educators and districts that manage to make the change find real opportunity for growth.

Collaborative models with open spaces that are flexible and able to adapt are, in turn, able to integrate disciplines. Whereas before it was hard to blend subjects—after all, science took place in the science lab and math took place in the math room—a blended space allows for the seamless integration of subjects.

It should come as no surprise that when classrooms are less rigid, staff and student collaborations happen more frequently and with ease. When the space allows a teacher to leave their front-of-the-classroom vigil and participate in the same space as students, collaborative questioning and discovery becomes organic and simple.

Organizing schools into Small Learning Communities (SLCs) is a great first step. By outfitting an SLC with a variety of learning spaces (direct instruction, small group, hands on, extra-large groups, outdoor, and teacher collaboration spaces) we are able to put a broad spectrum of options at the learner’s fingertips. Far more than what we can provide within a single classroom setting.