This little thought experiment of a post started with reading The World Without Usby Alan Weisman. That book asks and answers the question, "What would happen if the human species were suddenly to disappear from the Earth.
I suppose the book falls into the section of the bookstore with popular science, though Weisman uses the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, art conservators, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, paleontologists and even religious leaders including the Dalai Lama.
In his story, it doesn't take long after humans disappear - floods in New York's subways start eroding the city's foundations - and cities turn from asphalt jungles into real ones.It's a story of entropy - things falling apart.
The book also set me thinking about what would happen if we, the teachers, disappeared from our classrooms. Chaos, a wild jungle, the end of learning might be common answers. It seems at first, like Weisman's premise, silly, impossible. But serious thinkers have taken the idea in other directions - like entropy and information systems or life.
I like this side idea of ectropy. It is a measure of the tendency of a dynamical system to do useful work and grow more organized. In simple terms, it's the opposite of entropy. It's a positive view.
The book, like many books and authors these days, has a slick website.The part that caught my eye was an animation called "Your House Without You" that lets you watch a home crumble as the years roll past. It's the world taken down to size, which is where my mind went - from schools to my own classrooms past and present.
According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, in a closed system, like most schools, ectropy will decrease and we won't see more organization or useful work. How true might it be that the more our classroom is closed, the less useful work we will see?
Define "closed" and useful." Closed to the Internet, to the other classrooms around it, to the surrounding community, to new ideas... Useful work? Is that real world problems and solutions or authentic tasks and assessments?
There's a very good chance that in that imagined classroom without teachers, things would not all go in the direction we might first have guessed. Might there actually be some improvement?
Back to Weisman's book... his world without us also has billions more birds, but is also one where the cockroaches, in cities that are now unheated, are dying off.
Does learning stop when we leave the classroom?
I did some Google browsing on phrases like "classrooms without teachers", "reading and writing without teachers" and came across a few sites with this idea. Not as many as I thought I would find. Remember that tired line about the "guide on the side, not the sage on the stage" was used to address getting teachers out of the lecture mode? It seems to have fallen away finally, but there are still lots of people doing workshops around that idea. My surfing down the endless rows of Internet stacks did turn up an old friend.
It's Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers. That's a book I bought in my second year of teaching (grades 8 & 9 in a junior high school - remember those?). It was new, it was the mid 1970's and it seemed like an very hip encounter group approach to writing. I thought it might also be a secret way to ease my pain (mental and physical) from carrying home folders full of essays.
There was much freewriting in this "teacherless" writing class. We were unlocking the writer within, throwing away traditional ideas of good and bad writing, reacting to each other's writing like a good 70's encounter group.
"Never stop ... to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. You will use up more paper, but chew up fewer pencils."
I was never able to create that teacherless classroom, especially in the years I taught middle school, though I was able to step back and let things happen on their own more often.
How often do those of you who teach just "get out of the way" and let the students learn on their own? (Realizing that you legally can't leave and even when you are out of the way, you are probably facilitating.)
Anyone want to share experiences about trying this?
Well, it's something I've aspired to. I've always been fond of Donald Murray's adage about trying to underteach so his students can overlearn.
The last two years I've been teaching a senior (high school) elective which has no set curriculum. It's called "Senior Seminar" and it has two main structural threads. The first part of it is that we show up and talk. For the first few days, I share with them some texts that interest me, and then we set up a schedule so that each of them can come in and share something that interests them. The class starts, they read (or present) the material they've chosen, we all write for a few minutes to collect our first thoughts (Peter Elbow lives!) and then we talk. Sometimes I come up with a followup assignment that involves further reading or writing.
About midway through the semester we switch into project mode, and I ask them to design and complete a project which can be either writing based, reading based, research based, or service based. Examples: Three of my senior boys just completed a really terrific music video that they created based on a song one of them wrote for (within the context of) this class. One girl read Pride and Prejudice and The French Lieutenant's Woman, kept reading logs, and wrote a couple of essays at the end about the books. During this second phase, fully half our class time is just given over to work the projects. Many times the kids just show up and then go off the to computer lab or the library or to do filming or whatever.
It's about as close to a pure learning-based classroom as I've been able to approximate in the context of a regular school setting. I set up the structures;the kids provide most of the content and create their own learning programs. And it works really well for most of the kids, who seem to rise to the challenge. It does create a problem for the minority who for whatever reasons have elevated procrastination and task-avoidance to be a way of life. But it's a class I really enjoy working with.