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Classroom Free Schools

Why is it that just about every idea for improving teaching and learning borders on the extreme?  The idea of removing classroom walls from the classroom, and having up to 200 students occupy the same learning space is pure madness.  The school will tell you it’s working well and that kids aren’t distracted (would they tell you it was a failed experiment, and that the students have suffered because of it?)  How can a school that can afford proper classrooms think for a second that having a’ battery chicken’ approach to education is ideal?

I must be crazy, because they swear it is working:

THE blackboard has already gone from most NSW classrooms. Now, the head of a big school system is determined that the classroom itself joins it in the scrapbook of history.  ”It’s dead,” said Greg Whitby, the executive director of 78 schools in the Catholic diocese of Parramatta, which 42,000 students attend.  He is not alone.

The Sydney diocese has embarked on the same path for primary schools. Forty of the 112 primary schools already use large-form learning areas instead of classrooms and the diocese is keen to expand their use.  

Mr Whitby hopes to close the last classroom within five years, part of a transition to ”agile learning areas”, open-plan rooms where much larger groups – sometimes even the whole school – learn under one roof.

”Everyone thinks we’ve got a barn with 200 ferals running around and teachers screaming,” Mr Whitby said. But what the Herald saw – and heard – last week at St Monica’s Primary at North Parramatta was a mega classroom in which 197 students worked in different-sized groups at a range of tasks at the same time, seemingly without disturbing each other.

In one moment kindergarten children were learning to read and follow a recipe in the kitchen; a dozen children were working on laptops; 30 were watching video trailers they had produced; others were dressing for a play and many were at round tables on a variety of tasks.

Noisy? Certainly it is noisier than a traditional classroom but the children did not appear to be distracted. Mr Whitby and the teachers say discipline has improved since the school changed shape, assisted by funds from the Building the Education Revolution scheme.

The assistant principal, Mary-Jo Mason, said there were fewer behaviour problems: ”You really don’t have children off task.”

Mr Whitby attended a very different St Monica’s in the 1950s. ”It was in the mechanistic age when it was all about control and order with the assumption that the teacher knew everything,” he said. Teachers not only controlled students, they were also kept in strict control.

”We’ve micro-managed teachers’ work for too long. As soon as you take that control off, the creativity comes and they’re really focused on how they can do the job better,” Mr Whitby said.

Teacher-student ratios are unchanged and Ms Mason said better use could be made of auxiliary staff such as librarians and learning support workers. She believed students received more individual attention.

The transition to increasingly big learning areas covers the system from kindergarten to year 12 and is well advanced, despite resistance from parents, some of whom have voted with their feet.

”Parents have got to get used to the idea, because they all had their own teacher, 30 kids and a blackboard out the front,” said one father, Jason Jones.

Peta Capello attended a parents’ forum which ventilated frustration with the new order. ”In the real world when you go to work, are you in a small, closed room with rows of desks?” she asked. ”It can get noisy and you can have an annoying person near you and you have to learn to deal with it. That’s the real world.”

Classrooms with 25 kids get noisy.  You add another 170 odd students and you’re asking for trouble.  How does this meet the needs of easily distracted, anxious and special needs students?  Is there any teacher out there that would volunteer to teach in this sort of arrangement?  I credit the diocese for trying something new, and I hope it continues to work for them, but I wonder why they needed to reach for such an extreme change.

Balance and common sense is missing from education group think.  When the novelty of this program fades and the 200 kids start acting like … kids, the schools that take this idea up will be left wondering what to do next.

My tip:  Make sure your idea is sensible, well planned, balanced and puts the interests of the students first.

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3 Responses to “Classroom Free Schools”

  1. Michael Cowley Says:

    I like your construction here. And good to see comments attempting to bring a balance. One important thing occurring in the agile space, or it will as the months and years go by is the de-privatising of the professional practice and the improved skills of the teacher via the collaborative process. I am still able to recall a teacher on my final pract, I’d walk passed his room going to get the photocopied material for my supervising teacher, he’d be sleeping in class behind the large newspaper while the class spent 40 minutes silent reading (and sleeping) after every lunch … next would be the stand up – no sit down – no not quiet enough – try again … ho hum!

    • Michael G. Says:

      Thanks for stopping by Michael. How is the experiment working? What is coming up in teachers feedback? How do you keep the noise level down?

  2. Michael Cowley Says:

    Hey M.G. Good questions. The simplest way ahead, to me, is to support the teachers with group work training in say ‘Kagan’ – as it is an easily communicable package – teachers can ‘corrupt’ this structure together suiting their needs overtime) add some project-based learning strategies and ongoing reminders with pragmatic ideas for the teachers to help keep their eyes on the students learning needs, (examples of which are repeated some ten weeks after initial memo at http://in-tent.blogspot.com). Combine this with collaborative / strategic placement of school-based team leaders (co-ordinators where possible).
    The noise levels: well I have ideas, however, at the moment it has been one on one suggestions where the teachers have asked for ideas – only two so far. At our school we only have two to four classes per stage. Throughout the campus we share eight agile spaces I have no experience of one large area. Another noise reducer is for furniture to be conducive to the needs of the learning conversations.

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