Is a classroom really a laboratory?

It’s hard for me to track back and know whether I heard this somewhere or whether it just popped into my head, but I imagine the former. It usually comes in the form of a thought I think I should tweet.

“Your classroom is your laboratory.”

But then there’s a secondary thought that immediately follows.

“Maybe, but not for everybody.”

Many teachers don’t view their classroom as a place to experiment. I think there are a couple reasons for this. First, the accountability movement. Putting more pressure on teachers by putting more weight on how their students do on standardized tests and other accountability rules means teachers are less likely to take risks. They’re more likely to implement the district approved, research based lesson plan, over and over. This is because, if something doesn’t go well, then they are “covered”. In other words they failed but they failed trying something that the people “above” and “around” them said should work. This is fundamentally different than trying something that you developed on your own.

It’s playing it safe.

Intimately tied to the previous reason, the second is a fear of risk taking. There is a fear that if you take a risk and fail then you’re somehow a worse teacher.

Nope, you’re a better teacher because you learned something valuable about educating young people.

The students might know you made a mistake (gasp). Your administrator might know you made a mistake (GASP). But this is what education is about. You are a professional, you should be treated as such, and you should be able to take calculated risks in your classroom without fear of what might happen if things don’t go as planned.

In fact, the more we design our lessons to go as planned, the more we fail to adjust for the learning. It means that I’m dictating the pace, flow, and motion of the class to the point that I’m (likely) not being responsive to students needs. My time spent with my students is rigid and doesn’t flex based on their understanding of the concepts. Everyone has to decide where they’re going to land on the “rigid to flexible” scale but always erring to the rigid means less responding to student’s needs.

And I want to be clear. Some of you may be thinking, “look, you can’t just try a bunch of stuff on a whim.”

To which I say, of course not! Scientists don’t do this either. I’m not suggesting that teachers shouldn’t use research to inform their practice. I’m just saying that there are effective learning tasks that haven’t been developed yet and you might be just the person to develop one (or two, or ten, or a hundred…). Helping a student to understand a concept or idea is a complex task for a lot of reasons. This means that every lesson plan needs your mojo. It needs your creativity. It needs your flexibility. It needs to be a mash up of research, your knowledge, your creativity, your students’ knowledge, your gut, and a plethora of other factors.

pexels-photoIn that mashup it’s not unlikely that some aspect is going to flop. We need to be okay with that and learn from it, because there will also be days when you hit a home run. And there are few greater feelings in this profession than designing a creative lesson that just kills it. If you stay in the box all the time it’s difficult to capture that feeling.
Teaching is a creative endeavor. It has to be. But if we don’t work in an environment where risk-taking is encouraged and valued then it’s difficult to grow, and get better.

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