Thursday, April 13, 2006

Flat Classrooms

I've been following David Warlick's exploration of the concept of Flat Classrooms.

Yesterday's post responded to a comment by David Davies that asked.. "to what extent do you think students in the not-so-flat classroom are not curious, not self-directed, uncommunicative, etc?" David responded by saying that "there is nothing new here, that you haven't already heard..." but I'm not so sure...

I agree that there may be nothing new in the sense that we have talked about these issues before and that students have always been learners. BUT I don't think we have talked much about systemic solutions that address some of these issues by looking at our underlying values and assumptions. Educational provision has rarely been built on conversations between "student and teacher, learner and curriculum, classroom and the world" that David is asking for in the flat classroom.

And I don't think we are seeing much of the kind of curiosity, self-direction and communication that we as a nation (Australia) now require of students - particularly among the more traditionally "academically educated" students. Government, business, community and higher education - who are looking at the economic and social realities of living and woking in today's globalised technology rich world - are telling us that students:
  • are good at following "recipes learned at school" that provide solutions to closed problems,
  • are curious to learn more within known boundaries and
  • can communicate what they know.


  • they are not good at open-ended problems
  • they ask few questions
  • they don't know what they don't know - and are over confident about what they think they do know
  • they don't collaborate very well
  • they are not innovative - particularly outside disciplinary boundaries

I also think there is much more to explore using this "flatness" metaphor... We need to question how much students need to climb disciplinary ladders of knowledge and skills based on assumptions about developmental stages and academic hierarchies.

Students are often told that they have to "master the basics" before doing more interesting and contemporary things within a discipline and across disciplines. Unfortunately that process often takes 12 or more years and many (most?) don't stay in education long enough to be inspired by the genuine communities of practice/inquiry that dealing with today's knowledge and issues at the leading edge. We need some "flatness" here as well.

Of course some students can see this for themselves. They are some of the really self-directed learners who learn beyond the classroom walls. Here is how one science student described his learning to me:

"As far as my reading goes it's generally the Internet or magazines (national geographic and new scientist) or books like brief history of time and universe in a nutshell (illustrated edition - much easier to read than the original) I have NEVER had a good science teacher but that probably has more to do with me than them!

I would be one of those @#$#@ students - like in grade seven we had to name one of the 'three' states of matter and she mistakenly picked me and when I said plasma she rolled her eyes and sighed.

That's how I feel every time I'm forced to learn something wrong, even in year 11 & 12 (last year) they teach us the 'model atom' and you just think “wrong” - friction “wrong” - and do stuff with your friends [till it comes to exam time]. The best advice I got was play dumb – don’t give the right answer - give the answer according to what you've been 'taught'.

That's why I could not teach physics because I'd want to explain the quantum flux to the kindergarten kids. Instead I'm [leaving the state] so I can get into the cutting edge stuff…"

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