The Need for Speed (and Space)

By Ron Nash

Teachers of history at the secondary level have a daunting task. Every new school year brings more to “cover” as a matter of course. Another year, another chapter. When the average citizen meets a friend in the supermarket, she says, “How are you?” When one history teacher meets another during the school year, he inquires, “Where are you?” The questioner wants to know how far along in the curriculum his friend is. 


As soon as students sit down in a history classroom, the race is on. If he finds his friend is ahead of him by two chapters, he may smile, even as he tries to determine how he can catch up. When I started teaching back in the day (1972), I felt the need for speed—and we did not have standardized testing.

This meant I also felt the need to talk more; I managed time, not energy. In fact, there was little energy among my students, despite my cogent and lectures. I was the chief information officer, giving my students the benefit of my four years of college and some well-crafted worksheets. My students no doubt kept both their notes and their worksheets, the latter of which still bear feedback like “Well done!” or “Good job!” Perhaps not. Information flowed from the front of the room to students who had long ago learned how to smile...and go to a better place in their minds.

I taught in the way I had been taught in my high school days; it was what we would call today a monologic classroom, and it was perfect for the industrial age. Bells in the schoolhouses and the workplaces of that day told everyone they were on time or late; a buzzer in the machine shop in which I worked for a summer in 1970 sent us to break and brought us back, then sent us home. It was all familiar stuff; my school environment prepared me for that job running a drill press.

A New Day and Age

Not to put too fine a point on it, things have changed. Employers want employees who can think, find problems, work toward solutions, communicate with colleagues and customers, collaborate in teams, and work individually when necessary. There are no bells or buzzers in Silicon Valley or in the healthcare facilities taking in an increasing number of baby boomers. During my first years as a teacher, I wanted my students to “do the work” in the same way a factory supervisor wanted his people on the line to “do the work.” I had them complete countless worksheets and map exercises. And I wanted them to do lots of reading—every night, and answer questions at home for homework—every night. I had quizzes and tests to give, grade, and record. I did all this because that is what had been done for—and to—me as a student. My role as a student was passive, just as the role of my students was passive. They were not really engaged in their own learning.

In Making Thinking Visible (2011), Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison make the case for eight “thinking moves” that help students understand, rather than just “doing the work” as classroom practice has enshrined going back centuries.

  • Observing closely and describing what’s there
  • Building explanations and interpretations
  • Reasoning with evidence
  • Making connections
  • Considering different viewpoints and perspectives
  • Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
  • Wondering and asking questions
  • Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things (pp. 11-13)

Traditional, monologic classrooms operate on the surface. Imagine trying to learn about the world’s vast, deep oceans while spending all one’s time on a jet ski. The explaining of the material is often done by teachers and by textbooks that may ask lower-order questions at the end of a section, designed to have students simply searching through two or three pages for the “right” answers. There may be no time for the forming of conclusions on the part of students; the curriculum for any given subject may be so loaded down with information that there is no time for students to observe closely and describe what they see, hear, or read.

Show and Tell

I often say students have some explaining to do. By this I mean students need to speak to each other in content-related dialogue (which means the exchange of ideas). One student talking to the teacher while the other 27 classmates tune out until it is their turn is not effective if what we want is for students to become effective communicators and critical thinkers. “In each academic conversation,” affirm Zwiers and Crawford (2011), “a student must engage various habits of mind, quickly and in real time, often in response to what a partner says” (p. 15). The only way students can improve their speaking and listening skills is to spend more time in the classroom speaking and listening. There are no shortcuts here; learning to communicate and collaborate effectively requires a great deal of practice and adjustment.

If there is a need for speed here, it is the need not to cover more material more quickly, but to prepare students for life and workplaces (iGen’ers may have several jobs over their lifetime) that require these skills. In an economy with more service jobs than ever, listening and empathy are valued by employers because they are increasingly valued by clients and customers. All this requires us to disturb and dismantle the status quo; kids from kindergarten to graduation need to be involved in their own learning. In my early classrooms, I was the only active one in the room. Frankly, that wasn’t good enough for the 1970s, and it is even less so today.

The move to reimagine classroom cultures and physical environments (which I’ll address later) needs to proceed at an ever-increasing pace. It calls for a role reversal; teachers who listen more and talk less, with students who have oodles of opportunities to speak, listen, observe, explain, describe, reason with evidence, grapple with and respect other viewpoints and perspectives, and make connections while making friends—and making progress.

Go Reconfigure

The most striking feature of my first classroom was a wooden teacher’s desk apparently commissioned about the same time as the ships of the Great White Fleet sent on a world tour by President Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning of the last century. It was a massive piece of oak I did not try to move; I wasn’t sure we had a fork lift in the building. But it was home to me, and I spent many happy hours behind that edifice before and after class.

The problem, something I did not understand at the time, was that I spent too much time behind the desk during class while students toiled on worksheets or map exercises on their own. I used their time to do things best done on my time. When I ignored them while doing paperwork, I sent the message that what I was doing was more important than what I had asked them to do. It wasn’t the message I intended to send, but I’m certain now it was the one they received.

Barriers to Learning

Over the past 24 years, I have observed and coached in hundreds of classrooms. I’ve had occasion to see and sit behind teacher’s desks of every sort, big and small, wood and metal, new and old. I have concluded that such desks are repositories for stuff and keepers of things, some of which could safely be discarded. In one classroom, I was invited by the teacher to sit at her desk, which meant moving stacks of books and papers from the chair and clearing a line of sight through the piles of papers on the desk, along with a space to set my laptop.

In the industrial age in which I grew up and in which I started my teaching career, most classrooms—by design—were centered on compliance and control. Straight rows of students facing the teacher and the screen were commonplace, even in elementary classrooms. The teacher’s desk was somewhere in the front of the room, where, as was the case with me, teaches could “keep an eye on things” while students did seatwork.

But the industrial age is long past; teacher-centered classrooms are giving way to more student-centered learning environments, and this means reimagining not only classroom cultures, but classroom configurations as well. Students today need to be able to communicate and collaborate with classmates. They work on projects in ways that give them choice as to whether to take to their seats or take to their feet in pursuit of information and relevant conversations with teammates. Straight rows of welded desks keep teachers from moving easily around the classroom, as Fred Jones (2007) affirms. A teacher’s desk, according to Jones, “costs you eight feet of proximity with every student in the classroom” (p. 39). All this means teacher should spend some time in August pondering how best to reconfigure the classroom for maximum flexibility for teachers and students alike when it comes to movement.

Arrange to Your Advantage

As Fred Jones reminds us, classrooms ought to be set up for instruction, not cleaning. Custodians loved my classroom setup; the traditional 6 X 6 configuration allowed them to use mops the exact width of the space between the rows. It was to their advantage to have the desks in straight rows. As Jones says, “Anything that you do not arrange to your advantage, somebody else will arrange to their advantage, and it won’t be to your advantage” (p. 38). In classrooms where student-to-student communication is par for the course, and where collaboration requires frequent movement, what’s important is what is to their advantage as students as they take charge of their own learning.

If we want students to share in their seats or in standing pairs, accommodations must be made, and that means moving the furniture to provide for those interactions. Student desks can be moved into quads with two desks facing two desks, which means students automatically have shoulder and face partners. If these quads are placed around the perimeter of the classroom, it opens up the middle for standing pair shares. Quads clustered in the middle of the room allow for movement on the perimeter, particularly if teachers want to employ walkabouts, where students go from wall chart to wall chart in groups. I know teachers who regularly rearrange the furniture depending on what the lessons call for in terms of student interaction.

One Virginia elementary teacher sent me pictures of her classroom. I saw HOKKI stools, rocking chairs, beanbags, rugs, short tables, tall tables, and much else in the way of furniture. What I did not see in any of the pictures was a teacher’s desk. She later told me she simply got rid of it because it took up too much space in her classroom, no matter where she put it. Standing in front of it one day, she realized it was a place to store stuff, but was of little practical value. This is a teacher who did not sit behind it anyway; she is constantly in motion and in discussions with students during the school day. A more flexible room arrangement gives the iGen’ers she serves more choice when it comes to where they sit or stand, or whether they sit or stand, while working with colleagues.

Teachers and administrators can work together to reconfigure classrooms for today’s learners. Teachers can collaborate with other teachers to reimagine teaching and learning, and that may mean taking a close look at that teacher’s desk and some other furniture that may be superfluous in the increasingly interactive classrooms of the 21st century. 

Ron Nash is a best-selling author, speaker and former social studies teacher. Ron’s new book, The Power of We, published by Learning Sciences International, explores this concept of collaborative learning and offers educators strategies and tools to forge their own paths in helping students learning through true reflection of the classroom experiences.
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Issue 20.1 | Spring 2018

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