Innovation is a hot topic in education, and teachers are constantly being asked to be innovative in their classrooms. But what exactly is classroom innovation?
In her recent blog post on innovation in education, Beth Holland describes innovation as “something that is not only novel and an improvement, but also impactful and meaningful.” For her, innovation in education means, “students have the opportunity to assume new roles and responsibilities as active learners; that they participate in meaningful, authentic learning opportunities; and that they wrestle with complexity.”
Here are some innovative techniques teachers are using to change the dynamic of the classroom and more actively engage students in their learning:
Promoting Learning via Flexible Spaces
Shifting around the furniture in a classroom, coupled with a reorganization of the space is an easy way to enable more creative thinking and deeper engagement. Long Island’s Baldwin schools are successfully using this technique to bring more innovative instruction to the district.
Interested teachers submit an application outlining their instructional goals and the classroom design needed to support them. When an application is accepted, a classroom is developed to meet the needs of a specific teacher and their students. The result is that every redesigned classroom in the district looks different.
Ann Marie Lynam, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in the district, needed a multi-functional classroom with a mobile layout to address the diverse needs of her students. Her redesigned classroom has no front, everything is on wheels, and students have a number of different seating options:
- A raised, kidney-shaped table that seats six for small-group teaching
- Classroom desks arranged in groups to facilitate discussion on class assignments
- Students’ choice of either a comfortable ottoman or sofa when working in a small group.
Lynam was blown away by how the redesign impacted student interaction. The room setup encouraged conversation, and students who never spoke up were now talking animatedly with classmates. The group seating created a situation in which students could serve as a resource for one another.
Empowering Student-Led Civil Discussions
The Acceptance Project, a student-led group that promotes unity at a high school in Stroudsburg, PA, has found an innovative way for students to discuss difficult topics. The discussions are designed to allow all students to freely share and respectfully question each other’s viewpoints on divisive social issues.
Every week a class period is set aside for interested students to come together to discuss relevant topics regarding our country and the world. For each session, a list of questions on various topics is developed. The sessions are open to any high school student and are moderated by a faculty member who is the Acceptance Project advisor.
The seating arrangement of participants is key to the effectiveness of the approach. All attending students are divided into two sides. Students are then seated at a long table, facing each other. The students on one side of the table are given 60 seconds to share their views on each topic with their partner across the table. The listening student is not allowed to interrupt, and insults and foul language are forbidden. When the 60 seconds are up, the sides reverse their roles. After each side has presented their views, students are given a 90-second period to question each other and share the reasons for their viewpoints. The moderator ends the discussion with a question-and-answer period before moving on to the next topic and repeating the whole process.
Students found discussing the topics among themselves to be much more effective than a classroom discussion led by a teacher. Different students were able to express their thoughts rather than limiting discussion to the same few vocal leaders. In addition to sharing their own views, students could also listen to differing opinions, an opportunity they rarely have. The structure of the discussions taught them how to be respectful listeners and understand where another person is coming from.
Fostering Immersive Community Experiences
Immersing students in the local community to work on innovative solutions to real problems is a great way to develop new skill sets and fresh ways of thinking. A great example of this is how Students for Environmental Action (SEA), a student group at the James Madison High School in Vienna, VA, is helping to revive the brook trout. This fish, once abundant in the area and a symbol of Virginia, has been decimated by environmental stresses.
Trout Unlimited, a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving and improving fish habitat, was already leveraging students to help address this problem. Their educational project, Trout in the Classroom, had students in over 200 Virginia schools learning science by collecting fish eggs in the fall, nurturing them in aquariums, and then releasing them into streams in the spring. However, the project hit a snag. There were only a few streams where the fish could be released. The state did not allow aquarium-raised fish to commingle in streams with native brook trout, and only a few streams had been identified as good habitats.
This is where the students of SEA stepped in. Using a theory developed by their science teacher, Kirk Smith, on how to assess the best brook trout streams, the students began to identify new streams where the trout fingerlings could be released. They would visit streams, collect critical data about the stream and its habitat, and send it to state and federal officials. In 2017, SEA was given permission to release fingerlings into a creek that they had assessed. They are now waiting to see if their release of fingerlings was successful.
Changing Roles in the Classroom
In all of these examples, students are taking ownership of their own learning and are making the learning process a personal experience. The teacher has taken on the role of leader and facilitator, strengthening the relationship between the teacher and students, as well as among students. Classroom management has now become a whole-group endeavor and not just the teacher’s job. This seems to be the key to classroom innovations.
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