Monday, November 1, 2010

Do You See What I See?

"I'd prefer to be in a more structured room." was a recent substitute teacher's note after being in my classroom.  In the past I would have been insulted by this, but now it doesn't bother.  I understand why she said that.  STRUCTURE.  This word is one of the most misused / misunderstood term in education. 

This photograph may be reminiscent to some, like my parents or grandparents.  Their classrooms, as they told me, were very similar to this.  They sat in their seats.  Neat little rows.  All eyes dutifully on the board  teacher standing at the front of the classroom pointing to where the students should be following along. Pencils poised in fingers. Silence.  Is this the image that is conjured up when some think or utter structure?

Then there are these photographs.  Children recording observations in notebooks.  Children playing games together while learning measurement concepts.  Children using materials to simulate historical experiences.  Children working at tables, on the floor, outside.  Children.  Wait!  Where is their teacher?  How are they able to stay on task?  Why are they engaged in their tasks?  Is this the image that is conjured up when some think or utter structure?

Then what's really the problem with the word structure?  Let's take a moment & look at what the word structure actually means.  Whenever I hear or think of the word, I imagine a building.  A very tall building that would collapse if it weren't for the foundation it's built upon.  When Googling the word, you'll see it be defined as intangible notions, nature, stability of patterns, relationships of entities, an essential foundation, what a system is made of.  Using these definitions, are either classrooms structured?

The 1950's classroom is structured.  It is evident that the children are aware of the classroom expectations: silently attending to the teacher at the board.  They know the routine when she stands at the board & points to words.  They know they are required to attend.  That 1950's image is based upon adults controlling children.  Bending them to their will.  And although it's not shown here, I know from my family stories that if they did not comply, or follow teacher orders, they would get paddled - at school.  This foundation of the 1950's classrooms was fear. Now let's think about that building again.  Would the learning atmosphere collapse without the children's awareness of what is expected of them?

The 2000's classroom is structured.  These children are aware of the classroom expectations.  They know how to use the materials provided for their learning experiences.  They know how to speak to each other when they need clarification or want to share something.  They know boundaries and how to share space with others. Children are controlling their learning.  Silent it is not.  The adults are off to the side encouraging and enriching.  The foundation of the 2000's classrooms is routines that provide engaging autonomy.  Would the learning collapse without well-established routines and carefully taught expectations?  Without these things, bedlam would occur.  Blocks would get thrown, children would wander onto the swings while learning outside.  

Was the substitute correct in saying that my classroom was not structured?  If her image of structure is stuck in the 50's, then yes.   If she is basing her notion of structure on the 2000's then I suggest she peek again to see what I see.