Sunday, August 29, 2010

Is Teaching a “Class” a Big Mistake?

Guest Post by Peter Kent. Edited by The Innovative Educator.


Earlier this year I awarded a National Australian Award that allowed me to work with a school in Napier, New Zealand where this photograph was taken. For 5 weeks I walked on this path everyday, I never understood why this path had a curve in it, there seemed to be no reason for it. However everyone who walked or rode on the path went along as if it was just another bump in the road with few even giving a second thought to what they were doing.

Some things in life that we do that make no sense and could be delaying (or stopping) the achievement of our goals. This post addresses some one of the things we commonly do in schools that may seem like just another bump in the road, but may indeed be counter-productive and not be in the best interest of 21st century students.

Currently in my part of the world down under we are rolling out a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) to all schools. As part of the roll-out we had to consider how individuals would be grouped within the environment. All the user accounts (teachers, students and soon parents) are automatically created from the data in our school management system. The default and easiest solution for organising these individuals would have been to also extract the class data from our school management system as well. Another words, every class that existed within our schools would have had an equivalent ‘online class or collaborative space’ created and automatically populated with the appropriate teacher and students.


We believe it does not. Instead we turned off this automatic provisioning and gave each school the responsibility to create structures that suited their own context determined after discussion amongst the staff and students as to what would work best to meet learning goals.


So far in a about 1/2 of our approximately 100 schools it appears there has been no discussion and little thought at the school level. This could be in large part because traditional administrators have no context for this type of discussion. In most cases the school administration just delegated the responsibility to an IT coordinator who has unthinkingly reproduced the existing school class structure in the new online environment. When comparing the emerging results from these schools to ones that have been innovative in their approach in finding new ways to group students, it is easy to see the problems and limitations of a ‘traditional school structure’ – both in the online and ‘real environment.

Four Considerations for Virtual Learning Environments
  1. Learning is social
    Students need to learn from each other. There are many instances that show the great advantages of having students receiving comments and feedback on their work by their peers, rather than just by their teacher. A problem with class sizes of 25 – 30 is the peer group is often too small to be functional. Not everyone is ready to give feedback when a learner needs it. Larger group sizes are needed for peer review to work. From our experience groups of around 50 – 60 students should be considered as a minimum, groups of 90 – 120 or more is even better.
  1. Differentiation vs Personalisation
    Consider two students, one is an “A” student at Maths and a “C” student at English, the other an “A”student in English and “C” student in Maths. While almost all teachers would differentiate their programs to cater for this, it still make no sense to me why both of these both students should spend the same amount of instructional time of Maths and English. While we differentiate, we still have Maths Blocks, and Literacy Blocks.
    Virtual Learning Environments provide a platform that makes it easy to break away from this model, potentially having 3 - 5 maths groups, 3 – 5 literacy groups, and say 3 – 5 other groups in (LOTE, ART, MUSIC) all occurring at the same time….. Well, if there is a teacher who can manage, and provide sufficient ‘expert instruction’ in this context. The reality is few teachers could do this, however put 3 – 5 teachers in the ‘group,’ and it starts becoming practical and possible. Schools would be able to move from ‘curriculum differentiation’ to ‘curriculum personalisation’, which up until now has been an elusive dream in the vast majority of contexts.

  2. Teachers have expertise gaps
    There has been a lot of discussion of PLNs on this blog. PLNs work well when there is a collection of peers to reflect with, and a range of experts who can provide us with targeted guidance over a broad spectrum of topics. A sufficiently sized group of students provides the peers. However the nature student peer groups vs adult peer groups, is that student peer groups will not usually contain the range of experts needed to cover the relevant curriculum areas. You cannot expect students to use a constructivist approach to develop an understanding of calculus, or complex grammar in foreign languages. Teachers and other specialists are often needed to fill the role of ‘expert’ in many areas. The arrangement of 1 teacher / 1 group of students will deny the student PLNs of ‘experts’ in many areas, making their learning inefficient. Remember, VLE are virtual and we’re no longer limited by the artificial constraints of brick and mortar or the physical abilities of teacher-student, student-student, teacher-teacher interaction.. A grouping along the lines of at least 75 students / 3 teachers is much more effective. Teachers might also want to consider inviting experts from their PLNs to chime in as appropriate.
  1. Do students owe loyalty to schools, or should it be the other way around?
    Traditionally, when a student enrolls in a school they must be loyal to that school. That is they must participate in that school’s maths classes, play sport / music only for that school, etc. However shouldn’t schools be loyal to their students? Shouldn’t schools arrange for the most appropriate maths class or music instruction for their students, regardless what school it is delivered in? Can schools get past bureaucratic administrative constructs and allow grouping of students and teachers to happen across schools? This would enable schools to provide more opportunities for students and enable teacher expertise to be utilize effectively. Class materials and resources can be shared and students and teachers alike would be able to build meaningful passion/talent/interest-based learning networks rather than happenstance place-based ones. If we choose to walk through them, VLEs open new worlds and doors just waiting for us if we just take the key in hand and unlock the opportunities that await.
What else?
These are some of the numerous considerations. Scheduling (the largest hand-brake in schools) would be unnecessary and the teacher student ratio during ‘explicit teaching moments’ would fall, ironically gaining all the advantages of the traditional smaller class size initiatives.

5 constructs that would need to change for this to become a reality
  1. Visionary educational leaders
    When deep thinking and strategic school leaders want something to happen it will. Without these people nothing will ever happen.
  2. Burden sharing
    For schooling structures to fully evolve there will have to be some ‘burden sharing’ between the ‘physical elements’ of a school, and the ‘virtual online’ elements of a school.
  3. Physical structure
    If physically the school is divided into small box like rooms, then that will be a problem, and the majority of these grouping would need to take place ‘online’ in the first instance.
  4. Removing the structure of ‘classes’ and a ‘schedule’
    This will require more intense and organisation of student learning in the virtual aspects of the school. If the school does not have a coordinated approach to their ‘online school’ then it will be unlikely to work either.
  5. Schools will need a coordinated learning management system (LMS).
    It is fine for one or two classes to set up blogs on blogger, or document sharing via Google Docs. But trying to get the whole school to work together using anything other than a well-organised LMS will likely prove difficult. This doesn’t mean that students would need to stop using Google Docs, etc, just that there needs to be something that will tie all the various groupings together, and keep track of student learning over life of their schooling.
Is this happening yet in my patch of the world?
Not yet, but we started the journey last March. Some schools are explicitly looking at grouping large numbers of students with multiple teachers in the ‘virtual aspects’ of their schools. Most of our schools are ‘collections of small boxes’, but like many places we are designing new schools that are more open and flexible.

And quite frankly I cannot wait to see how things evolve.

Update: On August 24, 2010: Our VLE surpassed Google as the most hit web site from within Public Schools in the Australian Capital Territory, clearly something is going right with students learning and being engaged within in a VLE

Peter Kent works within a Public Ed Department in Australia. He is currently leading and coordinating the strategic delivery of professional development to support the use of tech in schools in all its different forms and flavours


  1. Peter, thanks for sharing. The use of Virtual Learning Environments has so much potential. However, as implied in your article, careful planning and a coordinated learning management system is key to its success.

  2. Thanks for your comment Jacob.

    All technology has the potential to fundamentally change the teaching and learning process, though mostly this is at the level of the class of individual student.

    Virtual Learning Environments are different, they can redefine teaching and learning at the whole school or district level, as well as the class and student level. This is one area of ICT integration where Principals and District Superintendents cannot rely on highly innovative and successful classroom teachers, as these individuals do not have a birds eye view of a school or district, and so are unlikely going to see the problems or opportunities.


    Peter @Kent3ed

  3. There are so much to learn from VLEs which is more exciting, frankly, than traditional classroom discussions! Providing a healthy environment for sharing knowledge is a good way to increase retention and exploration of related concepts otherwise not taken up in formal classes. I think we need VLE more features in learning management system to complement formal class sessions.

  4. I appreciate this out-of-the-box thought exercise in re-imagining learning spaces as we move forward. There are many solid points presented here. The "four considerations" are interesting to me, and something I will hold onto for future thought. These are nearly all things that constantly swirl in my head as it is... but this is a nice way to addressing them.

    The first- Absolutely. Learning is, of course best facilitated when social. What I like here is that you give credit to the idea that there is a "tipping point" in regard to network size. With all other variables of engagement and facilitation being equal, once that network's numbers reach a certain size, the sharing and collaborative aspects we are looking for become multiplied many times. There are just so many variables involved in this, but I have certainly seen both sides of the effect you describe here.

    Second- on differentiation vs. personalization. Absolutely. One of the major things holding us back is the accountability of blocks of time. We know learning doesn't follow this rigid system. We also rarely have moved beyond this very basic of accountability measures. I believe value would come from a change here.

    Three- this one ties to number one in my eyes. Yes, teachers are not automatons with identical skills. The curriculum, the time schedule, the... well, ALL of the "boxes" can be set up identically for students in different classes of the same subject... and the outcomes are radically different because of the lead learner in each of those settings. The personality, philosophy, schema, etc. of the teacher cannot be overlooked. Your suggestion of creating constructs where multiple experts are available to all of our students is just... smart.

    The fourth- may just be the toughest in many places. School owing loyalty to their students is just a great thing to ponder in and of itself. Currently, I teach only one course (Ac. Tech Specialist) during the school year. It happens to be the only course we've offered in the past decade that allows enrollment from any of the three high schools in our district. The course is in Marine Biology, meets on Monday nights throughout the year, plus one week aboard sailboats in the Bahamas in April, and is largely augmented by online spaces of many kinds.

    That course is simply too demanding and too costly to warrant a "section" at each of the high schools. Doing it this way worked well back in 1999 and continues to do so. It is still the one course that pushes back against our data and enrollment systems and must be facilitated in another way. Funny but sad in a way. Un-innovative data systems today do more to perpetuate the same old system that perhaps anything else we do/have. It is frustrating, and you are straight-up correct on this point from where I sit.

    Thanks for laying it out this way. I'll use this again.