Randy Speck

Superintendent , Madison District Public Schools

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What does the "perfect" classroom look like for students and how would you measure success?

We only have one opportunity to educate our children. Education is one of the most complex professions but the definition of success has a variety of opinions. So, with as many variables as you can think of (at risk students, diversity, intrinsic motivation), what is the design for the perfect classroom?

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    Jan 7 2012: As I saw you're question, the first thing that came to my mind was: the perfect classroom isn't a room at all.

    Maybe it's an occasional meeting point, on location and virtual alike. A place to evaluate projects, to compare results, to interact.
    There's world out there they need to conquer. Practice, theorize, question, find your answers, where the teacher is your coach.
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      Jan 12 2012: Hi Frans
      I want to make an analogy.
      You are looking out the window of your paradigm, and seeing some of the goals that motivate your wish to escape. And to mix metaphors, you are throwing the baby out the window with the dirty water.

      Societies needs must be met as well, and that must be done through a concentration of capital resources where the proper environments for many kinds of learning must be built using real money and real facilities. At some future date the virtual reality will be able to provide most of that, but that will be the paradigm that follows the next paradigm.
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    Jan 13 2012: Randy, As you and I have discussed inovations in education in other conversations, allow me to range outside of the box for a moment. It is not so much about making change as it is creating the conditions under which change is possible and the incentive to want to make changes. The perfect classroom is one which can evolve with needs and technology changes. Perhaps a root of the problem in education is that book publishers and test writers are dictating our agenda. In your classroom the instructor must have the opportunity to design the curriculum and use inovatative methods of presentation. I would love to see application of the subject matter be the defining evaluation/success. The current system is derived from the Bismark system of Germany in the 18th century. Perhaps it is time to make a change to meet 21st century intrensic needs. Glad to see you have a new conversation. Best of luck. Bob
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    Jan 12 2012: Let me propose some 'real world roots, from which we can attempt to grow a new paradigm:

    1. Classrooms must be real, and focused on providing the environment most suited to what is to be learned. Will the students need microscopes or telescopes or paint or microphones, for example.
    2. Teachers are critical resources which must not be abused or overworked.
    3. Societies goals must be met. (What are they? That is a different discussion.)
    4. Students' goals must be met. (What are they? That is a different discussion.)
    5. Class times must be flexible and relate to the course content. Do the students need 2 hours to present a play or debate, do they need 20 minutes to prepare for a field trip to the zoo, do two courses need to combine twice a week to focus English (language) writing skills on the preparation of their history paper, for example.
    6. Class operation must be flexible. For one endeavor, the students work alone. In another they work in a group of 4 to prepare a presentation for the class. For another they work in pairs or triplets or whatever is needed to function rationally given the task to be studied.
    7. What is to be learned is of two types: What is required by the course itself, (spelling, writing, calculation, design, endurance) and what is of interest to the student within the arena of the course.
    8. Networking will be seen as a natural and obvious function of the classroom, but the circumstances in which it be allowed, and when not allowed will be determined by the teacher. At times 'disconnect' will be required by the teacher to know what the students can do on their own, without access to the net. The classroom can therefor be 'secured' from all contact with the 'networld' or to each other, by the teacher's simple requirement that it do so. (I have seen students use an unbelievable array of devices and methods to cheat on exams.)
    9. The students' information relevant to his education will be maintained on a secured, off site 'cloud.'
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    Jan 11 2012: I think that Connie Weber's work is ground-breaking, and she's right there in Ann Arbor. She started the site called Fireside Learning: Conversations about Education. All that she's doing in her classroom is certainly worth a look-see.
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      Jan 11 2012: Claudette,

      Thank you for that information...I will definitely look into it.

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      Jan 12 2012: Both the Scottish Executive (2005) Getting it Right for Every Child, and Connie Weber's Fireside Learning: Conversations about Education, are wonderful free-range conversations among educators and parents about how to improve education. They are good for understanding current problems and how to approach solutions or what solutions have been tried and how well they have worked, along with what ever else the members - in 'Fireside Learning' in any case - want to talk about, such as 'Who was reading in 2011? Favourites, lemons, important texts?'
      These forums are all well and good. They are efforts from within the current educational system to respond to the chaos that is overwhelming it. Perhaps great ideas will be espoused there.
      But both forums are working in close quarters with the currant educational systems within their respective communities and have no way to convert their ideas into a real change in the wider educational environment outside their own memberships. The brilliant ideas are hidden in the depths of their websites, and have small chance to be read by those outside the membership who might be interested in their ideas.
      TED is a much better forum for the spreading of brilliance in all areas.
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    Jan 10 2012: hello Mr. Speck
    Let's pretend for a moment that you are seriously trying to improve a real school which exists in the real world, rather than a hypothetical school somewhere on the Moon in the 24th century, ok?
    What are the forces which motivate the creation of a school:
    The society needs functioning citizens who will promote the future success and happiness within the society. People who are not able to work at the level required by the society should be kept out of the workforce until they reach a point where their abilities can be used or trained to acceptable levels at reasonable costs by the institutions for whom the citizens work, both public and private. People who want to work and have the requisite skill set should be allowed to leave school to work, and return to school without criticism when they wish to acquire a new skill set, or improve their current skill set. This presupposes that skill sets are identified and the acceptable criteria have been agreed upon by the relevant groups. Grading within the school would be based on skill sets rather than age or grade level. Classes range in size from 1 to an unknown maximum based on networking and CAE. (Computer Aided Education) Where a human teacher is used, class size maxes out at 16 where groups of 4 students work together in compatible groups in which social skills, cooperation, self motivation, group motivation and social responsibility, along with the course skill set, are the functioning environment. Students maintain an ongoing achievement graphic where their levels of accomplishment is known throughout their schooling. (See Microsoft Excel Chart "Web Graph")
    The student, with the help and advice from teachers, parents and counselors, may select from a wide range of courses and electives which balance the student's talents and desires with the requirements of the society in general. Courses reflect both the school's awareness of multiple intelligences and society's needs and goals.
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      Jan 11 2012: Jon,

      Thanks for the post...well, I am definitely asking this question in terms of a real school with real teachers and students. One that is diverse and truly representative of our society. WIth that said, I really like the idea you propose, but I'm an organizational thinker. Would it really work to have that much fluidity within the system. There definitely has to be more flexibility, but is a "make up your own rules" they way to go?
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        Jan 12 2012: I am against 'make up your own rules.' I am a realistic pragmatist with 30 years of teaching experience in middle, junior high, and adult education in a large American school district. I am now retired and teaching in China. I taught in Chinese government, public, and private schools for more than 10 years. I would be a conservative if it were possible to point at a system, including Montessori which was doing the job that has to be done to meet the needs of both society and the students. But on the whole range of societal needs and student needs there is not one.
        It is easier to meet the needs in general for students at the younger age of the spectrum, and for specific needs such as learning a language - especially when aimed at a specific target such as 'Business English,' or a skill such as 'Extracting Specific, Moderated Information from Large Networked Databases.'
        But the future shock that was predicted by Mr. Toffler has arrived. The general public screams and complains, blaming every responsible person or group that could possibly bear on or alleviate their shock and panic. Well worn methods of taking advantage of this chaos are applied by the usual cast of politicians and 'experts from afar.' With predictably miserable results. The torrent of blame and finger pointing continues, with no end in sight.
        If we as a society, and we as educators, and we as students, can not create a paradigm of the educational process which will actually meet the needs of both society and the people, while maintaining individual liberty and responsibility over and about personal goals and talents, then the chaos will continue to reign.
        There are several goals which must be met. For example, the ability to find the information one needs about the topic at hand, whatever the topic is, is an absolute necessity. The amount of new information that will be created next year will equal the total amount of human knowledge available in the year 1900. Most of that information is irrelevant.
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    Jan 8 2012: There would be one student and many teachers. All resources would be top-notch and provided free of all costs.

    There is a lot of reaction against anything that resembles the much maligned "industrial model" classroom, which I suppose is to be expected, even though, I believe, it is really only trading one imperfect concept for another (20th century schooling did not fail everyone, despite the sudden recent belief that it did).

    Many people regurgitate popular isms, like "lifelong learning". I think it is important to separate the two and understand clearly the difference between 'life-long learning' and 'education'. Semantics, I guess.

    The two are very different things and until we can decide which needs to be followed up, very little will happen to make good change in the schooling system.
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      Jan 11 2012: Scott,

      Great point regarding the difference between education and the phrase life long learning. My two cents are that the life long learner deal is just a nice phrase. We, as a society need to be educated...educated in core academics, educated in the fine arts, educated in vocational trades....Education will happen our entire life...we need to learn from it.
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        Jan 12 2012: You're correct. The greatest problem with schooling systems is the rampant bureaucracy - you know, those *dirty word* politicians that think a single percentage statistic represents student achievement, knowledge and thinking ability as well as teacher performance, resource quality and so much more.

        Also, the way we are tending towards making schools a 'captive audience' for business to pedal their (digital, is the latest trend) wares is also not good.

        In terms of preparing students for the future, it's time to detach schools from prerequisites for specific industries and professions - that should be their job to deliver and maintain standards.

        Schools - primary and secondary - should be focusing on teaching kids how to think independently and give them the space to get creative.
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    Jan 8 2012: An Mr. Kellner points out, the perfect classroom isn't a room at all. You also state that we only have one opportunity to educate our children. /If/ that one opportunity is life itself, I agree. You seem to suggest that children only learn from public education, but I posit that children learn from their entire environment, starting at home, and including everything they do and everywhere they go. Learning should be a lifelong process!

    That nitpicking aside, I have different ideas about what would make the perfect classroom.

    On one hand, it should not be too comfortable. Part of learning should be about getting people to think for themselves, and what better way to do so than to provide challenges that spur the desire to learn? If, for example, food is out of reach, then students must learn to either cooperate to get the food or utilize a tool to get the food. By contrast, if the food is simply handed to them any time they desire it, from whence will come the motivation to learn? However, arbitrary challenges cannot become rote; real challenges should be integrated and varied.

    Another aspect to consider is that different people learn in various ways. Some people can absorb knowledge readily through text, while others are more inclined to a hands-on approach. In light of this difference, a classroom should be equipped with more than just books, and the curricula should reflect this diversity.

    Last, though not finally, the measure by which a student is shown to be learning should not be held as a universal standard. At least not too stridently. Certainly do policymakers need to see tangible results in order to continue funding, and this is a known problem, perhaps even a necessary evil. What /can/ be done, however, is provide positive encouragement to all students, whether they are the ones who ace the tests, the ones who demonstrate creative solutions, or the ones who apply critical reasoning. Relying too heavily on results-based analysis can be detrimental.
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    Jan 7 2012: i think good classroom not too have a lot of boundaries to students make their argument. let students make their opinion whether it was right or wrong answered.Almost teacher always teach their student must have right answered and they did not allowed students make wrong answered. Its good if teacher can be like friend to their students so it will be easier changing perspective between teacher and student because there is no gap. I think class discussion helpfull rather than just teaching one subjet using traditional method as we know one ways method teacher give lesson to student and the students just sitting in the class and make resume but nowdays i think we need two ways method for teaching students for example teacher give students lesson and let their student make argument agree or disagree about the case or give their feedback so i think classroom would be more interesting.
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      Jan 12 2012: Hi Paska
      You put forward a clear view from the student's perspective. I see two main points in your note: first, let the student make mistakes without making the student feel bad about it, and I agree. Second, make the lesson more interesting. I agree to that as well.
      Keep reading TED conversations and contributing to them!