By Ira Socal

A version of this article was originally published at SpeEdChange.

If your school, and your school day, is not about students collaborating, connecting, and building knowledge and understandings together, why would anyone come?

Serious question.

If students want to learn in isolation; if they want to sit at a desk and work on their own stuff, occasionally checking in with an “expert,” they have no reason to come to school. They can do a lot better at home, or at their local coffee shop or even the public library, where both the coffee and the WiFi connection will be better.Actually, this isn’t new for most students. For years we’ve talked about (or we may have even been) kids who’ve only come to school because of team sports, or music groups, or theatre, or even hanging out at lunch. But the technologies of our time have made the situation almost universal. If school isn’t about doing things together, just about everyone has better places to spend their day.

But today, far more classrooms, far more school schedules, far more assessment systems, and far, far more assignments, mimic the office in the picture above. It is 1960 and everyone is reduced to doing duplicative tasks because individual work cells and career competition prevent any reasonable sharing or building of community cognition.

The world of work has moved on, but the educational structure, despite the efforts of many individual teachers and administrators, crawls along, hoping the big Nixon-Kennedy TV debate will help them decide on who should be the next president.

Companies of today are “wall-less”.

It really doesn’t matter what a company makes or does any more. Could be the world’s biggest information provider, or a mortgage bank, or a manufacturer, the workplaces are now open, transparent, and places of continuous collaboration. They are also “wall-less” by nature, with employees and consultants communicating from wherever on the planet they might be at the moment in question. And, naturally, collaborating with customers and clients synchronously and asynchronously across 24+ time zones in many, many different languages and dialects.

Somehow though, a vast assortment of educators, from that crusty old mathematics teacher proud that she has been “teaching the same way for thirty years,” to Bill Gates favorite boy Salman Khan, believe that kids sitting alone, working by themselves, with canned, inflexible data in front of them, is the best preparation for life in the present and future.

Somehow, these educators think the information of the world still moves via paper and pencil, that there are “correct answers” to everything, and that there is a structured cultural norm of learning behavior, best exemplified by the silent child bent over a wooden desk with a thick physical book, which must be duplicated if a student is to succeed in their learning spaces.

No wonder nobody wants to come.

4 things your students need.

So here is what your classroom, and your school, needs to offer kids:

  1.  A learning environment in which students make most decisions. Where will I work? What devices will I use? How will I use my time? How will I get help? How will I work with others? How will I be comfortable? This doesn’t mean a situation without guidance or mentoring, but it does mean that if your students are not continually moving your students toward self-determination and control, the school and the teachers are failing. (Key: No higher grade classroom should ever look more structured than the kindergarten rooms in your school, district, division, LEA…)
  2.  A time environment in which students learn and work along a schedule which makes sense to them. Every time a bell rings, or classes “change” according to your pre-set ideas, you are stopping students from learning, pursuing, accomplishing. “Sure you are interested in this bit of history, but its time to memorize equations now…” – could you possibly do more harm to the learning process? You have to create schools based in Project-Based Learning where students can work toward their goals in a “natural” human learning environment. (Key: Your school should look more like a studio than a factory…)
  3. A technological environment which supports collaboration across every barrier. Sorry, if you have purchased a single device for all of your students – you’ve made a major mistake. If you don’t have open internet access in every room (OK, you can filter for true pornography if you must) – you are denying your students basic tools. If you prohibit student-owned devices or block social networking, you are failing your students in the most basic ways. Students need to learn how to function in this world, not the one your grandma grew up in. Every place they go, people will be using a flood of differing devices. Every place they work people will be Skyping, Twittering, Chatting, Texting, working together in Google Docs, translating, searching for information and data, and building social networks. If they are not learning the best ways to do all this, your school is a failure, because your students will lack essential knowledge and social skills. (Key: If you can walk into a classroom and see a bunch of kids doing the same thing in the same way on the same device, you still have a 19th Century school.)
  4. A social environment where adults do not rank students according to their oppressive standards. Honor Rolls, adult-determined awards, published class ranks, treating one sport as more important than another, these acts all stratify the social environment, create bullying, and prevent students from recognizing talents among their peers – which is an essential skill. You and your fellow educators and your community must back off and let kids build their own social networks without your inherited prejudices. Every time you post an honor roll or 5,000 people attend a Friday night “American Football” game while 50 show up for a Wednesday night “Soccer” game, you are sending destructive messages. (Key: If students are not all known for what they are good at, there is a problem.)

So, take a look around at the learning environment your students enter. Is there any reason for them to be there? Tell us about what your learning environment looks like in the comments section below!

Photo Adapted from  mark sebastian.

About Ira
Linking conceptual and historical research with real, on-the-ground, investigation and trial of best practices, allows me to create a unique way of looking at our educational systems, both formal and informal. I believe in engagement, in reaching out globally, in participating in all possible conversations. I believe that engagement strengthens my ability to assist both pre-service and in-service teachers in reaching their goals, so that they can enable all of their students. Find me on Twitter @irasocol and my blog SpeEdChange.