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Creating 'Real Hybrid Classrooms'


William Tolley

John Dewey, if he somehow came back to life momentarily, would proudly note that much of the contemporary debate on learning revolves around what constitutes  "genuinely and equally educative experience." In our modern context, this discussion pointedly revolves around the holy trinity of technology integration, innovation, and differentiation—and how they reinforce one another to create the modern experiential learning experience.

It has become clear, however, that not all learning environments are equal to the task of supporting such experiential learning. It's hard to seriously advocate for innovation and differentiation when faced with 30 to 40 teenagers arranged neatly in rows before you, awaiting the bell that sends them salivating off to their next "genuine" experience. Tack onto this the accountability measures of the past decade's standardized testing craze and the environments many of us work in begrudgingly day after day come to resemble human factory farms—not a stage for innovation.  

Nevertheless, while some schools and districts praise the examples set by international school networks like Vittra in Sweden, which clearly evoke millennial workspaces like Google's offices in Madrid, thought often remains divorced from action and the powers that be may not be ready to allocate the funds for that sexy redesign.

Assuming our colleagues are card-carrying members of the redesign choir can also be dangerous—I work with teachers (of varied backgrounds and experience levels) who remain adamant about the rows. Let me assure you: many of our colleagues nod their heads about the manifest need to deploy technology, to innovate, to differentiate—but balk at linking theory and action in terms of altering their practice or the design of their learning spaces. For too many of our peers this still just reads, "Give up control. Invite chaos." and that's the bottom line. 

Cause for Non-Stupid Optimism: The Real Hybrid Classroom

Designing what I call the "Real Hybrid Classroom" is the best way first step forward toward innovative environmental change. The "real hybrid" is what most teachers can manage immediately: a blend of current classroom structures with innovative design and remodeling that teachers are capable of assembling NOW with "what they got."

In practical terms, this means that convinced educators should do everything they can to beg, borrow and steal furniture, tools, technology, and accessories that will allow them to create collaborative spaces. By removing desks, acquiring tables and hanging small whiteboards, I transformed my classroom from a teacher-centric space built for direct instruction to a stationed set of workspaces and conference areas designed for creative and mobile learning. My room may not look as sexy as Google Madrid, but the design serves the same purposes—without impacting the budget.

Next step: show and tell. Get the other teachers already in the choir to join you in extolling the virtues of your redesign during faculty meetings, in emails, at all PD sessions. Invite your peers to watch how your classes function and flow, and then—above all—help them acquire the tools, skills, and confidence they need when they decide to embrace the change. (The very, very last thing your efforts need is an environment of "every teacher for himself." Support your peers and respect their hesitations and you will recruit gradually toward a tipping point—fail to support them, fail to respect their views, and watch your initiative fizzle.)

Finally, blog, tweet and photograph the heck out of what is going on in your classroom, and make sure the community sees the results! This is not a hard sell in the end; no parent, guardian or other community member looks at a neatly arranged interactive learning space and thinks, "Nah. Rows are the ticket." But they need to know what is going on in order to express interest and provide support.

I believe that the classrooms and schools of the future will look like Vittra and Google—there will be no choice—but many of us face a slow slog uphill if we wait passively for change. But if we build it...they will certainly come.


Bill Tolley, a New York Times Teacher Who Makes a Difference, is the learning and innovation coach and the head of history at the International School of Curitiba, Brazil.  He is also a member  of the CTQ Collaboratory and eager to participate in learning communities worldwide. Connect with him @wjtolley.

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