It's not just about the furniture

Posted by jbluestein - 06 August, 2013

middle school computer labIn Todd Rose's compelling TED talk on the Myth of Average (see below), he tells us that "desks are the cockpits of our economy." This is a provocative statement which sums up the analogy he makes between fighter jet cockpits and desks in schools.

Rose explains that the Air Force, after years of poor performance, finally came to the realization that a one-size-fits-all cockpit simply did not work.

Faced with such a wide range of body types, engineers had always designed cockpits to the average size profile. What they learned through extensive research was that this average pilot did not exist, so the cockpits were really one-size-fits-none.  From that time forward they engineered cockpits to the outer edges of the range and added the ability to adjust where needed, thereby giving each individual pilot an opportunity to find the comfort and access needed for success. Rose has adeptly made the connection between cockpits and student desks.

photo(122)If we understand that every student is different, with different strengths and weaknesses, different styles of learning, different rates of maturation and development, then why do we think that a one-size-fits-all education works?  If we design our textbooks, curriculum, learning spaces, even our desks, to the average student, do we end up really designing for nobody?

As the new Director of Middle School Teaching and Learning, I am consumed with exploring questions such as these and opening up the conversation with our talented faculty, administration, board, students, and parent community.  In my four plus years at Randolph, I have seen a shift towards the understanding that education needs to be as customizable as possible and that as a successful independent school we need to provide diverse opportunities designed to prepare students for future challenges that no longer lie within a predictable range.

This shift has been driven by our pledge to know, challenge, and love every one of our students and has been furthered by a commitment to faculty professional development and facility upgrades.  While there is still much work to be done, I am excited by the opportunities we have had over this summer to make some purposeful transformations to learning space and additions to faculty in the Middle School.

photo(120)Two learning spaces in the 7/8 building have undergone change to allow for greater flexibility. In the computer lab, which remains equipped with 20 desktop computers, the individual student desks have been removed and replaced by a series of tables that can be arranged in a variety of formations suitable for a wide range of activity. Everything from small group work to boardroom presentations can be easily accommodated, thereby creating a space for both student and teacher collaboration that lends itself well to project work requiring the use of computers.

110The Middle School library has also received a bit of a makeover.  A new space was created where the old circulation counter used to sit.  This space is more of an informal setting complete with comfortable couches that can be used for group discussions and socializing.  The main portion of the library has undergone the first phase of a transformation that will continue to create more flexible learning space and permit access to a greater number of learning groups at one time. Further change toward this end is expected throughout the year.

Under the supervision of our new Middle School Library Associate, Kelly Kessler, students and teachers alike will find the library to be a welcoming space to conduct classes, complete research projects, study in small groups, and, of course, find a good book to read.  While you may still see desks in many classrooms, these more flexible spaces will certainly provide teachers with a greater opportunity to move learning activities outside the four walls of their classrooms.

The effective use of these spaces will be bolstered by greater faculty support provided by Ms. Kessler; Jason Holman, our new Middle School Technology Integration Specialist; and myself. The three of us will work as a team to plan and conduct activities in partnership with teachers of all subjects throughout the Middle School.  Our goal will be to understand the objectives of each course, suggest the use of technology and research tools, and aid in the execution of the plan.

photo(123)With more of us to join in on the planning conversation, teacher collaboration will develop, and with more of us present to guide student work, more individualized attention can be provided.  I look forward to leading this important effort as the Director of Middle School Teaching and Learning and hope that my work in this new role will pave the way for a more engaging and varied learning experience, filled with relevant, multidisciplinary activities that foster the six Cs in our students.

Learning at Randolph can appear in many different ways.  Gone are the days when a quiet room of students seated in rows of desks is the ideal learning environment. While that type of environment can be appropriate at times, what we have learned from Todd Rose, other thought leaders in education, and from our own experiences, is that an adaptive, flexible learning environment with multiple spaces and configurations is paramount to the development of student creativity and achievement.

By moving out of a one-size-fits-all mindset in the Middle School, we will be providing the opportunity to succeed to all students.  After all, if desks are the cockpit of our economy, then it is imperative for our future that we be sure to make those desks adjustable.

Topics: Academics, curriculum, interdisciplinary, library, Middle School, strategic plan, teachers, technology

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