Room for improvement

Robert Beichner talks to Bates faculty about SCALE-UP.

Robert Beichner talks to Bates faculty about SCALE-UP.

Two weeks ago, I attended a talk by Robert Beichner on SCALE-UP, an active-learning program he developed at NC State. There were many things he said in his talk that really aligned well with many of my own teaching philosophies. But the one thing that really struck me as new is the idea that you have to have a good space (classroom) for this active learning to happen.

He started by giving us a history of the classroom as we know it. Theaters and auditoriums were mostly used for religious events, and as the word suggests an “auditorium” was meant for you to go and listen to someone speak. But these were not designated places for learning, just for listening to stories and religious services. At some point, with the appearance of writing, these spaces started being used for dictation of books to many scribes at once, making the process of book copying a bit more efficient. Hence, the word “lecture”, which means “reading”. Still, these were not places to learn, but to copy things down into books so that more people could read them. Now that we have not only books, but the internet, and many other ways of storing information, said Beichner, we need to focus more on how we can help more people learn.

As an aside, he mentioned that there were many opponents to book printing at its beginning, since this meant that people would lose the oral tradition that had been the standard way of spreading information. Also, they said, it makes people “lazy” since they don’t have to memorize huge texts anymore. This may be true, but as we all know, not having to memorize a huge textbook frees our brains up to maybe try solving more advanced problems or to just work on something else. This is a good story to tell anyone who objects to active classrooms and uses the lecturing tradition as an argument.

Beichner and his collaborators thought long and hard about how to attain an inclusive and active atmosphere in the classroom which maximizes learning and confidence. They tried their pilot project in a traditional lecture hall, and it did not go very well. This is when he made his big breakthrough: students walk in to a room with stadium seating, long tables, and a stage, and they don’t expect to work in groups and discover material on their own. Also, there were even simpler difficulties like the professor not being able to move around the room in away that they got to interact with all of the students. And that is how they designed their state-of-the-art classrooms for active learning (which in their case is called SCALE-UP – Student-Centered Active Learning with Upside-down Pedagogies).

If you go to the SCALE-UP page, you will see immediately that front and center is a photo of their classroom, which they refer to as a “learning studio”. There are round tables, with a desk in the middle of the room (and the tables distributed around it) for the professor. There are screens on many of the walls, and the tables are separated enough that the professor can move easily and the students don’t distract each other too much. What I like about this is that it’s so different from a traditional lecture room that it primes the students for a different kind of class. I also like that it’s clearly set up to take focus away from the professor and give the power to the students, but at the same time the professor is situated so that they can help the students easily and interact with everyone.

I have tried some variations on the active learning classroom, from doing lots of workheets in Calculus class to full-on IBL on some of my upper level courses. But for all of these I have definitely felt the restrictions of my classroom. One of my favorite rooms to have IBL classes in is a large room with movable desks which has two complete walls covered in blackboard. This allows for students to write up solutions simultaneously and allows me to interact with them and give them feedback on the problems. If we are stuck on a problem we can get into small groups and discuss at a smaller scale. But this could definitely be improved.

Since attending Beichner’s talk, I have become very interested in figuring out how to convince Bates that we need classrooms like these. I realize that a lot of the restriction is infrastructure and money, but there might be a way to convince someone that we need tables in one of the rooms instead of movable desks. One of my colleagues was able to get a small grant to buy small whiteboards for group work activities (also inspired by Beichner’s talk), so there is definitely some interest. What is certainly exciting is that there are many colleagues in the STEM departments at Bates (which really are more like SM) willing to think about these things too (which is how Beichner got invited to give a talk in the first place).

So, dear readers, do any of you have any thoughts on ideal spaces for active learning? Have you ever seen a SCALE-UP classroom or something similar? How does it work for you? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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