Eleven years ago this week, I started teaching at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland. I remember having many sleepless nights thinking through every detail of the first days of classes. I wanted to make the right impressions and set the right tone for the school year.
One detail that gave me particular stress was the organization of my classroom. I wanted my classroom to inspire students, to exude collaboration, to be comfortable, and to challenge student thinking. Lofty goals for classroom design, for sure, but important details for teachers to think through.
Classroom design today is more complicated than it was when I started teaching, in large part because today we define “classroom” not just as the physical space, but also as a virtual space in which students engage with their peers and teachers. And yet, many teachers do not spend as much time or effort on the organization of that virtual space. And, administrators too often don’t consider that space with the same focus that they give to the physical environment.
In classroom design (physical and virtual), there is an inherent tension between school organization and teacher individuality. That tension is ok to have. Teachers should have the ability to be creative and inventive. And, schools should have the ability to set what the baseline of a classroom looks like — it is their “brand” in this day and age as much as a building on their campus. Figuring out the right balance for a given school will be a challenge and have to be the result of open dialogue. However, if both groups keep student learning as the focus and goal, consensus should be reachable.
In order to set guidelines and expectations for the virtual classroom, there will need to be extensive conversation and agreement between school administrators and teachers. Both groups will do well to remember that the goal of the virtual learning space is to enhance student learning. Teachers will need to remember that student learning will be enhanced when there is a consistent experience across a school (or, at least, a division), as students will not have to learn a “system” of a particular teacher, but instead can focus on learning. And, administrators will need to remember that teacher creativity can spark inspiration in different students in different ways.
When setting guidelines, we have found there to be a few non-negotiables:
- Most importantly, the Learning Management System (LMS) must be consistent across the school;
- Courses should have a similar organization across a school or division — that organization can be by “units” or “themes” or “weeks” or “months” but it shouldn’t be different between departments or teachers;
- As much of the learning as possible should be done in (or embedded into) the LMS — students should not be sent to many different sites in order to complete the learning;
- For each unit, teachers must have their “unit plan” and “learning objectives” posted, as students need to know the purpose of the unit (objectives) and the pathway for getting there (unit plan);
- There should also be general consensus on how grades are posted (and how quickly) and the layouts used by teachers (if an option);
- And, the school should have a consistent “skin” across the school (or at least the division) — colors, backgrounds, etc. are part of the school’s brand.
One advantage to including unit plans, learning objectives, and assignments online in a standard format is that curriculum mapping can be a thing of the past — as all components of a standard curriculum map would already be up online.