Take a look at the featured image of this post. This bizarre juxtaposition of two teachers teaching a combined 50+ kids from two opposite ends of a room is 100% real. It was also my (Zach’s) first student teaching experience. Bear with me as I describe what was going on in that classroom in detail, if the image doesn’t tell the whole story already.

Two teachers stand at opposite sides of a long rectangular classroom, which is actually two normal sized classrooms built with an accordion divider in the middle, now left permanently open. The technology set-up is comprised of two separate document cameras and two separate projectors, which are not connected in any way to each other.

The teacher on the left has prepared a lecture and writes down notes on her document camera for the students to copy. All the way on the opposite side of the room, what does the other teacher do? She copies the notes that the other teacher is writing onto her notebook as she writes them, projecting her notes of the first teacher’s notes on her projector, and chimes in once in a while with a question or an anecdote. Each time she says something the students who are paying attention to the opposite side of the room turn their entire bodies to face her side of the room, and then they turn back again, which creates a laughable “tennis match effect” of turning necks and squeaking chairs.

I suppose students were meant to face the teacher who is standing on their side of the room, but look closer and you’ll find that the students in the middle were unsure whether to face the teacher to their right or to their left. One of the teachers talks more and has a more commanding voice, so some of the students that really ought to be facing the teacher closest to them have figured out that they will hear more if they face the teacher all the way across the accordion divider in the other classroom. This “split attention” middle school Language Arts classroom goes on like this until the period is over, and the same thing is repeated for the next batch. The saddest part is to watch the few students who arrived with any hope that they might learn something interesting in Language Arts leave feeling stressed and defeated. The next day, to share the workload it seems, the teachers switch responsibilities of who leads the lecture and who does the color commentary.

Even though I was new to teaching, it didn’t take me long to arrive at the conclusion that this was a terrible way to organize a classroom. I may not have had the classroom experience or the cognitive science to back it up, but anyone off the street can see that this learning environment isn’t consistent with how humans attend to things, or the limitations of working memory.

At the time I had an early homework assignment in which I was meant to interview the school principal, so I thought I would use the opportunity to ask him why he allowed such a disastrous experiment to continue. To my surprise, this split-attention classroom was this principal’s pride and joy. He went on and on during the interview about how this model was responsible for the huge gains in student achievement that the school had recently experienced and how he was actually in the process of scaling up the model to the rest of the subjects at that school!

Needless to say, I quickly (but not without difficulty) got out of having to be a part of those shenanigans any further. There are so many things to take away from this experience that it’s hard to consolidate them into a comprehensive list, but I’ll try:

  1. Student teachers should never be assigned to be trained under an untested experimental learning or instructional model. This should be obvious.
  2. Experimentation with learning or instructional models should be based on some sort of theoretical framework; As far as I could tell this principal could not explain how this model was based in cognitive theories or principles of learning.
  3. Adopting a model should not be done simply because it reduces teacher workload; As far as I could tell, the two teachers’ only argument for its effectiveness was that it reduced teacher prep and planning work by half.
  4. Educators, including this principal, should know that correlation does not imply causation; There may have been a significant rise in student achievement, but it is professional malpractice to pontificate in public that this one change was responsible for it.

    Source: https://xkcd.com/552/
  5. Just because something is new or original does not mean that it is creative; Creative things, by most definitions of creativity, also have to have value.
  6. Using technology effectively is a key responsibility of educators today; I shutter when I think that it never occurred to anyone that the two projectors could have been connected so that only one teacher had to write for both sides of the room.

To end the story of my failed student teaching assignment, I luckily was able to be placed in a different school with a different middle school Language Arts teacher, who, despite her highly typical arrangement of one class, one teacher, one projector, was highly effective at activating prior knowledge, eliciting student thinking through careful questioning, clearly modeling skills and telling engaging stories, varying practice activities and spacing them out over time, and building relationships with her students.

Thank goodness for that!

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg




4 thoughts on “The Worst Learning Environment I’ve Ever Seen and the Principal LOVED it!

  1. I too taught in an open classroom, but in younger grades (Kindergarten and 1st grade) and it was a very loud and overstimulating environment. Open classrooms aren’t really a new concept but it seems to be making a comeback in the name of “innovation” so it’s good to hear some counterpoints about it. We did a lot of team teaching but I wouldn’t have characterized this experience as being “easy on the teacher”. We spent more time planning than any experience I ever had, and I felt like it was really difficult to really know a student well since we were always tag-teaming the students.


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