What did your classroom look like throughout your K-12 education experience? My classrooms spanned the gamut: conference-style tables with chairs, individual desks with and without attached chairs, independent learning stations, lecture style seating, etc. You name the classroom type, and I probably spent at least a semester trying to learn in it.
On Monday night I attended the Slate.com Design A Better Classroom event along with some of our volunteer tutors. Hundreds of other interested parties and I came to two major agreements. First, a beautiful space with all the perks is likely to inspire students and make it easier for teachers to be innovative in their approach; second, a beautiful space with all the perks is FAR less important than a good teacher. If every student had an iPad, they could download textbooks and play with graphing software, but they are not likely to learn more without a teacher who uses exciting and innovative teaching methods.
As the experts listed the benefits of a high-tech school with cutting-edge architecture, I smiled to myself as I thought of the ways in which I see our tutors accomplish these objectives every day without the fancy space or iPads.
Students need to move. Every week our hallways at FLOC are full of kids playing hopscotch, basketball, “hot lava”, bowling, soccer, and many other active games they’ve made up. The catch is that all of these games revolve around math facts, vocabulary, parts of speech, phonics, word problems, etc. Our students know that learning doesn’t have to happen at a desk or in one defined space.
Students need personalized instruction. Take a look at a class of 4th graders in D.C. Public Schools, and you are likely to see great diversity in their learning styles and content knowledge. Just because they are all in 4th grade does not mean that a one-size-fits-all approach will be the most effective. At FLOC, our students work on exactly what they need to work on. There is no wasted time in their instruction, and no need for complicated schedules and tracking.
Students need exposure to technology in meaningful ways. Students and tutors get on computers to play math and vocabulary flash games, read newspaper articles, do independent research, and type their written work. We have no smartboards used as bulletin boards or computers with a sole word processing application. We also know that a pencil-and-paper spelling test is just as good as one done on the computer.
Our schools can’t differentiate instruction in this way without making huge changes to staffing structure, schedule, curriculum, and use of space. We need innovation in school design and better use of technology in the classroom as much as we need better teachers.
So how does FLOC do what schools struggle to do? Answer: Our one-on-one tutoring model. Our volunteers accomplish what master teachers struggle to do simply by virtue of their flexibility. There really is no substitute for one incredibly dedicated instructor (master teacher or enthusiastic volunteer) completely focused on the needs of one kid. In fact, last year our tutors freely donated nearly 12,000 hours of their time, worth nearly $250,000.
FLOC would love to get iPads for every student, but they aren’t necessary. We might do great things with lots of technology, but we can do great things with a whiteboard and a dry erase marker as well. Our space may be traditional, but our teaching methods are anything but – and that is what makes all the difference.