The Classroom Without Us


This little thought experiment of a post started with reading The World Without Us by 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.[1] 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?

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