Karen Hillier is an iCoach as well as an English teacher at Friendswood High School. Her classroom is not like any FHS has had in the past. It is a new concept and one that Hillier finds fitting for 21st century schools. She calls her new arrangement a collaborative learning environment.
The discovery of the classroom set up is actually the result of a research project that she had students do her first year of Project Based Learning instruction. They were asked to design a 21st century school. One group was in charge of classroom layout, and they came upon a design by Steelcase, an innovative office furniture company.
“I loved the design!” Hillier said. “I took it to Mr. Griffon (principal) and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ He said, ‘Build it.’ You have got to love that in a boss.”
Her classroom is divided into four or five groups, each with a group table, laptops, and a smart board. The students work on projects collaboratively.
“As a teacher, I’ve had to make certain adjustments. First, I’ve had to adjust my curriculum to be both inquiry-based and product-based. I’ve had to re-examine my purpose for teaching certain materials in a particular way. I’ve had to literally re group and re work the curriculum for my class after every year since beginning this program,” Hillier said. “More importantly, as a teacher I now realize that knowing my material and standing in front of rows of students and spouting off my infinite wisdom is not productive instruction. We as people are doers. We thrive on hands-on learning.”
Groups do change throughout the year. This year they will change with each major project.
“The problem with changing groups (as far as students are concerned) is that they really get attached on a personal and academic level with their initial group members. While it stands to reason that students will join up with friends when given the option, this is not always the case. Most students like to work with others who have the same work ethic. Sometimes this does not include all friends. They really fight me on that first switch of group members.’’
Unfortunately, as with real world situations, students find themselves in groups with people who don’t carry an equal load. Hillier tells them that while this is a reality of life, it is also an opportunity for leaders to emerge.
“Students will perform for their group members before they will perform for me (or their parents for that matter). They fear the disappointment of their peers more than that of me. For this reason, I love the way that the group dynamic develops over the course of the year. My classes are typically louder than most. When on project work, they are going in four sometimes more directions, yet they are always involved,” Hillier said.
While giving her extra work in preparing for class, she sees the new environment as a great way to learn.
“We were born to work with others and help others. In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, ‘ Collaboration is the stuff of true learning.’ This shift in philosophy has changed me and my role as a teacher.”