Dear School, tear down those walls! #flatclassroom

It was the late 1980’s. Trans-Am’s were screeching down U.S. highways, and Cold War tensions were veering towards the non-existent. Ronny Hollywood Reagan,  the acting U.S. president,  shouted those fabled words to Mikhail Gorbachev: “tear down those walls”! He meant of course the Berlin Wall, that had kept East Germans isolated from the West since the early 1960’s. In 1989, the dismantling began, and I hope we all can agree the world is better off for it.

A few months ago I issued this same command to myself, to remove the barriers that separate my own students from the world outside the classroom, and by extension the school itself. The process has been slow, I admit, but the results have been positive enough to warrant a post. So please, lend me your mind for the next few minutes.

Like many of my new ideas concerning education, the source was Twitter. I followed up a tweet on a project called ‘eracism,’ sponsored by ‘flatclassroom.’ A month later, my eighth graders were using a Voicethread to debate the merits of Facebook with a school in Manitoba, Canada. The kids exchanged pictures, and the results were judged by a competent and thorough panel in Australia, who kindly pointed out the strengths and weakness of each speaker. A week later there was a heated debate with an intermediate school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and next week we begin the final round debate against an international school from Slovakia.

I bring attention to this because the learning outcomes were positive in both the short and long term. Prior to, and during the debate, students collaborated to research the topic. They would assemble in my classroom during break and lunch to rehearse, and support whoever was speaking in the debate. The public nature of the event also brought out the best in students on a more enduring level. They assessed heaps of data for reliability. They provided clear definitions for the terms of the debate. They  organized their speeches in a logical and sequential manner, referring back to arguments given by the previous speakers. The attention and critical thinking required for rebuttal has also transferred to discussions held in subsequent class discussions. Below are a list of “essential skills for survival in the 21st century” that has been making its rounds in IB workshops:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: ability to ask the right questions. Problem “Posing.”

  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence.

  • Agility and adaptability

  • Initiative and entrepreneurial skills

  • Effective oral and  written communication skills

  • Accessing and analyzing data

  • Curiosity and imagination

With the exception perhaps of “initiative and entrepreneurial skills,” students exercised all of these “essential skills.”

An educator in Melbourne Australia and I have recently launched a second debate. Our History students have been using a google doc. to debate topics on 19th century Russia. Again the results have been positive. So, a mature reflection is at hand. The outcomes develop the students academically and socially, while enhancing their knowledge of the powers of social media. The technology is available to make it happen frequently. And there are many teachers out there with the means and motivation to make it happen. I conclude with the following question masquerading as a command: LET’S! (potential collaboraters, kindly leave your contact info. in the comments slot below, and we’ll be chatting soon!)

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