Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Chair-less classrooms?

Here's a news story about a chair-less classroom.

I'm all for teachers and schools who make play and physical activity a priority. I've seen classrooms use core stability balls in really cool ways. But let's examine this story a little closer.

Did you notice the trifolds?

I'm less impressed with the "core stability balls" and more concerned about the trifolds on the desks. Don't get wrong, I think the core stability balls are kind of cool. I enjoyed watching the kids exercise and play with the balls.

However, if I had to choose between a chair-less classroom with tri-folds on every desk and a trifold-free classroom with chairs, I'd keep the chairs.

So what's wrong with the trifolds?

Alfie Kohn explains that when we say to children, "I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbour can do", this turns out to be code for "I want to see what you can do artificially deprived of the skills and help of the people and resources around you. Rather than seeing how much more you can accomplish in a well functioning team that's more authentic like real life."

Of course, we shouldn't have to choose between trifolds and chairs.

I think my point here is that we need to be careful about how we justify play for our elementary children. I have three points:
1. We shouldn't have to justify play for young children. Jean Piaget told us a long time ago that "Play is a child's work". We borrowed the term kindergarten from Germany where it literally translates to "children's garden" which is suppose to focus on playing, singing, practical activities and social interactions. There is something very wrong with our elementary schools when we have to include a defensive list of play's practical benefits. If we have to track academic progress in order to justify play, we are doing it wrong.
2. Developmentally inappropriate activities separated by brief moments of play are still developmentally inappropriate activities. Should grade one students have spelling tests? Should grade one students be isolated from their peers by trifolds? Is it progress if we can get young children to do developmentally inappropriate activities by providing them with brief moments of activity?
3. Sometimes ADHD is a symptom of a developmentally inappropriate classroom. Misbehaviour in the classroom is rarely ever the problem -- it's usually a symptom of a much larger problem. Show me a class with chronic misbehaviour and I'll likely be able to show you a boring curriculum.
Sometimes we are really good at improving school by changing nothing. Sometimes it is easier to focus our attention on whether children should be allowed to chew gum, wear hats or sit on balls, but then never talk about how children learn. Superficial change is comforting because it gives the impression that we are improving while distracting us from having to make any real progress.

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