Thursday, November 4, 2010

Why classrooms generally do not work.

Did you ever have the experience of sitting in a classroom, and your mind wandered? I mean, where you started to feel that you were wasting your time? Not that you didn't need the material, you did. It was just the whole thing, the lecture, the slides, pages of notes--after fifteen minutes or half an hour you just wanted to be somewhere else. Ever have that experience?

If you said no, then you must be the instructor. Fight it if you can, but everyone else knows that feeling, at least a twinge of it, at least sometimes. And why is that? Why is this so common, even when you want to learn? The teacher wasn't interesting? The slides were bland? He went too slow? She went too fast? There are thousands of reasons this could happen.

But let me make an alternate, slightly larger suggestion, as gently as I can: Classrooms do not work. Not for adults, not for anyone who actually needs to apply what's being taught. A classroom by its nature is disengaged from real life, from practice, from the hard, welcomed edginess, the risk and reward of actual experience. And once you get to adulthood, nothing else will really do. Life is not lived as an abstraction, nor do we have much patience with principles that cannot be applied now, and applied with noticeable effect. (Note to profs and instructors: your own hard-edged, risk-and-reward reality is the classroom. That is your workplace. That is why you love it and work so hard to make it relevant. My hat is off.)

Moving the classroom online doesn't really change anything. It's like moving a conversation to the phone. You gain convenience but give up immediacy. So what can make a difference? Anything?

If my thesis is anywhere near correct, and the classroom by its nature disengages us from reality, only one thing could possibly fix it: Put the learning right in the middle of actual reality, into the hustle and bustle and go and flow of life. But how? Nineteenth-century apprenticeship is no longer practical. Neither is ancient Middle Eastern discipleship. Both did put practice first, with higher-order principles drawn out of experience. Highly effective.

But what can we do today, now? Give everyone the same iPhone app? It's still going to take a whole lot of design work to figure out how to inject learning right smack into workday reality, to make sure what's taught is what's learned and it's all practical and accurate. And frankly, who has the time or the resources to figure all that out? There's work to be done. The classroom is, at least, a place we can all agree to meet and make the best of it.

But let's narrow the focus a moment and think about the many adults who spend their time online. Home or office, there's a big chunk of the population actually spending a big chunk of their day in front of a keyboard and a monitor, alternately reaching for coffee and a mouse (like you're doing now). So it seems like it should not be hard to drop learning directly into this environment and make it just as real as your work. For those people, at least. If you could make the lesson intertwine with the daily experience of work at their workstation, you'd have a really good start. Right?

And of course, this is completely possible--and in fact is already being done. It is not a difficult design problem, it just involves unwinding the lesson so that it can be learned 1) over time and 2) within the work group. Intrigued yet? If you have anything to do with online learning, you should be. Because the technologies required not only exist, they are ubiquitous. The only thing lacking is a little design. Not even a lot of design. Just a little.

And maybe some courage.

More about how this can work, plus an example, in my next post.


  1. Amazing article. I hold similar views in my blog

  2. Thanks for this view Bryan. I'm in the unique position of being both a teacher in a classroom with adolescent / adult students, and an adult student undertaking a distance course. I've done three units, and just starting my last. The unit I'm taking is a graduate course about designing adult curriculum for technology, and for distance learning. I often think that designers of online learning programs don't actually know what it's like to take an online course themselves. But the technology, and the ease of access and participation has improved a lot.

    What I need most in an online study experience is connection with other students, and sad to say, there are rarely more than a few people who participate in the discussion board threads. However, this unit, the course designers have made discussion board posts part of the assessment. Even teachers need to be induced to be active participants in their own educations.

    Sometimes adults are just as reticent as adolescents. It's risky to make generalizations about adult learners, just as it is about adolescents. Look forward to your next post, and an example.

    Dr. Jennifer Mitchell, University of Melbourne

  3. Dr Eva Bernat, University of New South WalesNovember 14, 2010 at 6:34 AM

    Hi Bryan,

    While I found your thesis interesting, it seems to be built only on the assumption that every adult attends a classroom to learn something that is applicable to 'real life'. And this is simply not the case. Many adults embark on educational endeavours later in life merely for the love of learning or for intrinsic motives such as interests in the subject-matter like art, Latin, philosophy, even astrophysics.

    And even if they are learning something applicable to real life, there are numerous factors that account for their temporary loss of interest or failing attention span in class - a boring teacher or uninteresting learning materials are the obvious ones. Other reasons, however, might include mismatches between the teacher's teaching style and the student's learning style, preoccupation of the mind with life's problems, poor health, mandatory course completion for work, and so on.

    There is also a lot to be said for the difference between pedagogy and andragogy, but that's another topic.