Friday, February 16, 2018

Forging a Learning Environment in the Classroom

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see a presentation on the innovative workspace and culture of a company with a location in Des Moines. Pillar Technology utilizes a model that emphasizes collaboration and constant learning in an open work environment where employees are accountable to each other for their tasks. The Forge philosophy seems to create a productive work environment where employees feel valued and, as a result, perform very well in their jobs.

Beam Telepresence
Robot
Greg Orton, a Software Craftsman for Pillar Technology, led a presentation discussing the culture and work environment at The Forge. Greg emphasized the use of pair programming where employees collaborate on projects rather than working in isolation. This practice helps reduce mistakes, allows several voices to discuss solutions, and creates opportunities to learn from each other. After showing us pictures of their workspace and discussing some of the practices that contribute to the work environment, Greg utilized a Beam telepresence robot to give us a virtual tour of The Forge. It was amazing to see not only the workspace itself, but also the possibilities of a telepresence robot.

The video below includes a discussion of the philosophy behind The Forge and the work culture it creates, not just in Des Moines, but in all of Pillar Technology's locations. See OfficeLovin's "A Tour of The Forge by Pillar Technology in Des Moines" to see images of the innovative workspace in Des Moines.

The purpose of Greg's presentation was for educators to see a new type of workspace that our students may spend their careers in and for us to consider how we can apply some of these same ideas to our schools today. This session left me with many ideas and led me to think about how we can integrate some of these same concepts into our schools.

I have toured schools such as Iowa BIG and Waukee APEX that utilize some of the same ideas as Pillar Technology and I've read about High Tech High's innovative educational practices, but hearing about The Forge got me thinking about how these practices could be applied to existing schools and classrooms.

A lot has been made in recent years of classroom design and how teachers or schools can use new types of furniture to create a more flexible learning environment. I think many of these products could be valuable in classrooms and I would like to see some of these furnishings in schools, but the reality is that most schools and teachers are not going to rush out and buy new furniture for classrooms, nor do I think this is necessary. After listening to Greg's presentation and talking to other educators after the session, I began thinking about how The Forge is really more about culture than workspace. Workspace definitely contributes to the culture, but as we seek to establish this culture in our classrooms, mindset is just as important as the physical space.

There are many examples of educators and schools that have established great learning environments without expensive remodels or furnishings. I think one of the biggest things educators can do to establish this type of culture is emphasize the 4 C's in their lesson design. By focusing on critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity we can create a classroom culture that places importance on learning and makes students feel like a valued part of the educational process. This environment emphasizes the importance of continual learning, allows students to explore topics that interest them (within the curriculum), promotes collaboration, and allows for creative expression of learning.

"4Cs 21st Century Skill" by rujroad kaewurai Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0). Accessed 16 February 2018. https://www.flickr.com/photos/rujroadk/24741951640

There are many small steps every teacher can take to begin establishing this type of culture in their classroom. Something as simple as getting desks out of straight rows and into groupings can help promote increased collaboration. As a culture of collaboration develops, students will feel accountability to their classmates and their learning rather than simply compliance (or in some cases, a lack of compliance) to the teacher. The trust that develops will help students feel empowered to share their own ideas and creative expressions. Students will feel like they have more control over their learning and, as a result, will begin to seek out additional learning both within and outside the required curriculum.

Many of the thoughts I expressed above naturally integrate with the inquiry arc. By creating an environment of inquiry, we allow students to experience deeper learning. Inquiry-based learning emphasizes facts in context and as evidence rather than what students often perceive as a list of disjointed things to memorize with no larger purpose or application. When students have the opportunity to discover content rather than a teacher providing them with essential concepts, they feel empowered and place greater value on learning.

Paska, L. (2016, November). SBS in Social Studies. Presented at Teaching the Social and Behavioral Sciences:
Past Present and Future. Available http://nas.edu/SBS-in-K-12-Education-Seminar.

As good as all of this sounds, it can be difficult to implement. Many of us have an established paradigm that school is led by teachers who impart their students with knowledge. It is important to recognize that inquiry-based learning does not devalue the knowledge and experience of teachers, but it does require a different mindset. The gradual release of responsibility model is a useful strategy as teachers work to instill the skills needed for lifelong learning. Teachers will spend less time on whole-class instruction and lectures that give students information. Instead, educators need to spend time working with small groups and individual students to help them discover content and apply the skills necessary for learning. Educators now become a guide who coaches students through the learning process.

Gradual Release of Responsibility (Pearson and Gallagher, 1993)

I believe the culture of a classroom has a bigger impact on student learning than any other variable. I think by creating a culture where students value learning, work collaboratively, and are allowed to express their own ideas, we can not only better achieve our curricular learning goals, but also prepare students for an unknown future.

What steps have you taken to promote a classroom culture where students feel valued, accountable, and emphasize learning?



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