The Ideal Classroom

Do you remember your favorite class? If so, what made it your favorite class? When thinking about mine, several different classes come to mind, and between them they have a myriad of wonderful characteristics that helped me learn. I like a more informal setting, one where class feels like an extension of home. I also do my best work independently and as such I enjoy having a lot of discretion when it comes to what subject or assignment to devote the most time to. As is true of most students, I hate “busy work” and homework that I can easily complete but that saps away at the time I could better spend on topics that I need improvement on. I can occasionally learn well from lectures, but often find myself “zoning out” and disengaging from the course material.

As such, dynamic small-group projects are far more helpful, because I get to “discover” the solutions instead of having them tossed at me from the “pulpit”. As a result, I dislike large lectures because there are too many places for my attention to wander and no accountability for when it does, because usually I will then just learn the material covered by myself. This means I wasted the hour of lecture. For me, rigid learning where knowledge is treated like religion, professors like messiahs and textbooks like the bible just doesn’t work. What does work for me is being given advice while working towards a larger goal and “learning by doing”.

This all sounds well and good in theory, and I cannot imagine a student who would say “let’s do another hour of lecture instead of a lab”, but unfortunately in the real world things turn out differently. In college, introductory classes can have hundreds of students to one lecturer, and therefore students don’t have a choice but to sit quietly and take notes as truths are spouted from a slide-show.

In high school, teachers have several different classes to teach and up to seven classes a day. This limits prep time and results in lots of “pre-made” lectures often re-used from previous years. Lectures become the “easy way out” for educators who find themselves with many different situational problems. That’s why they’re so common: convenience. However, based on some measures, this format can work very well: in many countries in Asia, kids start at around 8 am, and teachers file in into the classroom, one after another, and deliver their lectures. School days can last up to 12 hours, with only one break for lunch.

If that sounds horrible, I’m sure almost every American agrees. Nevertheless, the US finds itself 20 places or more below many of those Asian countries in the international education rankings.

It seems this rote pulpit approach actually works, at least for the outcomes measured by standardized tests. But is that all we want from our education? I would argue not.

The American education system, despite our relatively low rank for high schools, ranks #1 in the world for college education. Most of the top 50 Universities worldwide are found right here in the U.S.A.

Why the sudden jump? The explanation often given is rather vague: Creativity. The schools in those top-performing Asian countries (the top seven are all from Asia) are great at pounding tons of information into the heads of their kids, but they do not teach them how to teach themselves. In the U.S.A, a far more dynamic education experience — enhanced by athletics, music and many other extracurriculars — has children far better prepared for the independence and time management required in post-secondary education. Only two Chinese Universities rank in the world top-50, presumably because this lack of creative thinking doesn’t translate well to college education and research.

It seems that the comparatively flexible approach in the U.S. does translate very well to college and creates a vibrant and fluid student body capable of great things. The primary shortcomings in the U.S., however, still seem to be a lack of individualization.

Students are creative in different ways. Some are great with their hands, while others see patterns of numbers seemingly no one else can. Some can memorize entire sonatas or write a perfect dynamic essay. High school in the United States doesn’t take this into account as much as it could, although in my view, the approaches are still better than those used in many countries that rank higher in high school achievement.

In conclusion, the ideal classroom is unique. It has no single definition, but changes from person to person. The goal of education should be to expose students to several different forms of classroom so that they may discover theirs. For me, it has been the “Flipped Classroom” model.

This allows me to learn the material at my own pace, and then go to the teacher with any questions on the assignments that are done in class. However, several friends of mine prefer more lab-based work, or small group assignments (which I also enjoy) and we have been fortunate to have been exposed to both, so we can find our own comfort zone that we can learn in. Perhaps a good way to find out how kids learn best would be to create a survey to be filled out at the beginning of class each year on what types of instruction they would benefit most on, and primarily teach that way while taking time to expose them to new forms of learning as well. Food for thought: How did you learn best, and would you have preferred to learn a different way than you were told to? How so?

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