Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Third Teacher: Change up your classroom environment

It is good to stay current with the lingo.  The literature now refers the classroom environment as the “third teacher”.  Many teachers are examining how their classroom environment might invite different kinds of learning.

It has been said that today’s physical classroom doesn’t look that much different from one in the 1880s.  Sure, the blackboard has been replaced by a whiteboard, the overhead is now a document camera, and there aren’t too many wooden desks floating around.  But, basically many classrooms looks the same as they always have.  But society doesn’t; and we have been thinking that maybe, in some significant ways, learning shouldn’t either.

Many business organizations are also changing the work environment in favour of an environment that they hope will inspire more collaboration, more creativity, more interaction between employees, more access to technology.  If we want our students to have voice and choice, collaborate, use technology in meaningful ways, expand their thinking, work respectfully with many different students, work both independently and in groups, and move about, does our classroom environment promote that?

Once again, this is a good time of year to explore different ways you might wish to reorganize your classroom space and see what happens.  After all, no one will die (except perhaps from the heat if your school is not air-conditioned!!).  Here are some ideas to try out:

  • Do you need your teacher desk and/or space? Could it be pushed into a corner if you need it?  Do you need it in a prominent position for classroom control?  What would happen if you didn’t have it at all?
  • We often ask kids to collaborate at a table with chart paper. A teacher at our school has put up laminated chart paper on the walls.  She’s noticed that the kids move and talk as they work; they can all see the paper; she can see everyone’s paper easily.  What happens if you get your kids standing up to collaborate?  Could you let some groups work at the whiteboard in your room while others used chart paper?  Do you notice any differences?  See the last post about collaborative groupings for more information.
  • Do your kids need to move? Your first reaction to letting kids sit on an exercise ball may be panic, but try it out.  The novelty wears off and then those kids who need them tend to use them.  What about making some desks higher so that students can stand while they work?  If you are in Ontario, the very large and cumbersome SEA tables work well for that.
  • There are lots of interesting ways to configure your desks for group work. Wander around your own school one day and see some of the interesting configurations that people have adopted.  Or google it!  Try U shapes, or pinwheels, or staggering the desks.
  • How easy is it for your students to move their chairs into a circle for knowledge building circles? Does the desk configuration aid in that or make it difficult?
  • How do you group your students? What would happen if every day or every few days, they were randomly grouped in a different way?
  • Do students have a choice of places to work that support both group work and independent work? Do you have both groups of tables and some single desks?

If nothing else, changing things up will keep your students engaged during the month of June, and you will be energized, too, with the possibilities for September.

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Filed under classroom environment, collaboration, Uncategorized

Student groupings for collaborative work

The latest buzz is collaboration.  If we can get our students to collaborate then both engagement and learning increases.  This is based on a belief that learning is a social construct.  I certainly enjoy learning more when I can talk to others about my learning and hear varying opinions  Group work should not just be about dividing up the work into parts.  It is important in collaboration that the learning of students about the task is enhanced because they work together.  Often teachers complain that collabora tion doesn’t work; they put the kids in group and they made the anchor chart about collaboration – and it was a disaster.  Group work, however, does not equal collaboration nor does collaboration happen just because students are in groups or because you created an anchor chart about collaboration.  Collaboration happens because your students value the task, find it challenging, and recognize that working together enhances their understanding of the task.  It is my experience that collaboration is not a problem is the task is engaging.  Think about the last time you were at a meeting where you were asked to collaborate.  I bet you did if the question engaged you.  I bet you didn’t if the task was not engaging.

Besides ensuring that your task is engaging and challenging (see post Collaboration That Works) how you group your students may influence the success of your collaboration.  As a teacher, the most convenient way to make groups or partners is asking the students to choose.  However, this almost always ends with a few students feeling awkward:

  • There is always the leftover student because of numbers and not being “chosen”. Not only do you now need to fix the problem but that student does not feel part of the process.
  • There is almost always the “most popular” student being torn in many directions. That either gives that student a lot of power or makes them feel badly for having to choose.
  • There is often the student who feels disconnected and immediately avoids all eye contact or just sits until the end. That child’s feelings of unworthiness are confirmed.
  • There is always the group that gravitates together which is just going to cause you grief in the end and they will end up getting in trouble.

I have always suggested that the teacher form the groups.  You can create groups/partners for weeks at a time to allow students to build relationships and trust.  Or, you can form random groupings by assigning numbers or letters, pulling coloured popsicle sticks, handing out playing cards.  You can also use the content to create groups by having cards that go together (words and definitions, problems and answers, halves of sentences).  There are apps that will make random groups for you.  You do need to do some up front work with students not to roll their eyes or make disparaging comments.  This is a citizenship skill.

However, I have recently come across the work of Peter Liljedahl.  In particular he looks at mathematics but I don’t know why his findings wouldn’t work in other subject areas.  He makes a case for visible random groupings of students and his research finds the following:

  • students become agreeable to work in any group they are placed in
  • there is an elimination of social barriers within the classroom
  • mobility of knowledge between students increases
  • reliance on the teacher for answers decreases
  • reliance on co-constructed intra- and inter-group answers increases
  • engagement in classroom tasks increase
  • students become more enthusiastic about mathematics class


I know that when I attend meetings and we are asked to find a partner, it is often awkward.  Sometimes I find my friends but then I already know what their opinions are; it is safe but I don’t learn a lot.  If I know no one, there are those moments of wondering if anyone will be my partner or maybe I should just go to the bathroom.  Sometimes I am already sitting with someone that I’d rather not talk to anymore but they glom on.  Probably our students have the same feelings.

Liljedahl also makes the case for Vertical Non-permanent Writing Surfaces.  He has found that students who stand in their random groups and write on a vertical whiteboard or chalkboard will be more willing to take risks, more engaged, and more likely to work together.  Here is a chart of his research findings:

I wouldn’t have thought that it made a huge difference whether students were sitting or standing but it is worth thinking about.  I do know that I wouldn’t want to be a student who sat for 5 hours every day.  We have found that students are more willing to engage with little whiteboards than with paper and pencil.  Maybe we should put some on the walls.

At the recent OAME conference I heard some high school teachers from Ottawa who have embraced both visible random groupings and vertical non-permanent surfaces. ( They have found the same effects as Liljedahl.  They used laminated chart paper for  the whiteboards on the walls.  Maybe it is worth exploring.  And, spring is a good time to explore new ideas.



Filed under classroom environment, collaboration, pedagogy, Uncategorized

Feedback, motivation and grades-some wonderings

Some teachers and I had an interesting discussion last week about how despite our best efforts at giving feedback, students weren’t so good at using it.  From that we evolved into a discussion about how kids cared about the mark, not the feedback, and how could we move towards kids seeing the intrinsic value of their work instead of the extrinsic reward of marks.

I really don’t know but I think it bears thinking about, so I did some and here are some of my wonderings, in no particular order.

When I think about the times when I receive feedback, it almost always feels evaluative  when it happens after the fact, even when it is not meant to be.  Although I listen and I make efforts to apply the feedback to the next time, it still makes me feel kind of lousy.  It doesn’t help me feel better about the incident upon which I am getting feedback.  So, although I know it is necessary and “good for me”, I will admit that I don’t like it.

When I get feedback as I am doing something, I don’t feel so bad.  I think about making pots on the wheel.  If my instructor tells me after the pot is glazed that the shape doesn’t quite work for the vase, I get it and try to remember for next time, but usually I end up disliking that vase.  But if he comes by my wheel as I am throwing the pot and tells me that a slight change will improve the form, and helps me do it, then not only am I more likely to appreciate the feedback but I can apply it right then and love the pot.

I hate starting over completely, even when I know I should.  Even when feedback is telling me I should.  I remember a time when I painted the entire basement the wrong shade of yellow.  The basement looked awful.  I went to the paint store, feeling disheartened, and the paint guru was able to help me figure out how to soften the paint colour with a glaze instead of starting all over with primer.  Her expertise helped me to make a big problem a littler problem.

John Hattie, an educational researcher, has looked at the effect size of common school practices.  The one thing that is found to be true the most often is that students are consistently very good at predicting how well they will do on a test or assignment—they don’t really need the grade to tell them.  So, I am thinking that somehow we need to get kids to change how they will do on an assignment before it is finsihed.  I think that we thought that the communication of learning goals and success criteria would help (and maybe it does to some extent), but if the student isn’t sure how to apply the success criteria to his or her work, it isn’t useful.  Again, we need to have the change occur immediately in the doing stage.

And I was thinking about the teachers I currently work with .   They have all made changes to their teaching practices in the two years I have been their principal.  They all appear to be making the changes willingly and with great enthusiasm.  They work together and talk about what is going on in their classrooms.  They support each other.  While my role has been that of coach, cheerleader and guide, I have never stated that such and such a change MUST happen by a certain date (I am not a principal who insists on particular practices such as posting learning goals).  They were not offered salary increases or rewards or even a gold star for changing your practice.  So why did they?  Why do we puzzle over things, try new ways of doing things, reflective on our practice and continually try to improve?

And finally, I was talking with a teacher today about collaboration.  She is in a board project that is focussed on getting kids to collaborate and was telling us the story of one boy, Billy, who is always distracted and off task but she liked her collaboration checklist because she could redirect him more specifically.  Good, I thought.  But then as the conversation moved on she began to tell us how thrilled she was with the Genius Projects she was trying.  Billy never needed redirecting due to off task behaviour then, because he was totally engaged and interested in what he was doing.  How important is engagement to the process of accepting feedback and the role of intrinsic motivation?

Perhaps as I muddle through this a bit more I will come up with some answers.  I’d love to hear what you think.

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Filed under assessment, Effective Feedback, growth mindset, pedagogy