Modularity, the 20 Percent and Desks with Wheels

I want to talk about the need for modularity in schools but first, I feel like I need to explain why this is such an important issue.

It’s like this: the conversations I’ve had lately have been painting a frustrating picture of schools and the teaching profession. Non-educators have talked to me about how the system of schooling kills creativity, passion, and interest-driven learning. At the same time, the pre-service teachers I work with at Colorado State University share a frustration with not knowing the specific teaching practices they can immediately implement in their school sites when they begin student teaching next semester. In my class yesterday, for instance, a student shared the class sentiment about teaching: “We know the what. We know the why. But, we don’t know the how.”

The public view of schools as soul-crushing and the vexed feelings of pre-service teachers are part and parcel of the same issue: schools are traditionally viewed as lacking in modularity. The typical image we see of schools is the idyllic  chalkboard/whiteboard/smartboard room with lined desks and a teacher professing to passive youth. Even if we know that this isn’t what schools always look like, it is an architecture engrained in what we believe and in many of the theater-style rooms on college campuses. But that’s not what schools always embody or what they can be. 

The idea that there is a singular right way to teach in schools is fundamentally flawed. The needs of students from one period to the next are going to vary drastically. In this light, I don’t believe that teachers can know the “how” of teaching until they know whom they are working with in classrooms.

And, this is why I want to talk about modularity. While the mono-myth of public schools is this trenchant view of boring classrooms, the possibilities of modularity in instructional design and in spatial design of classrooms are powerful. I want to emphasize modularity as different from flexibility. I understand modularity as being able to connect and shape various discreet units in new, important pathways and products. The pedagogical framework and content for a classroom (the “what” and the “why”) need to be able to be shaped to meet the needs of a given classroom context (the “how”).

Recently, I had the chance to talk with my friend Andrew Moriates, an English teacher at Mission Viejo High School in California, about the Twenty Percent project he asks his students to complete. In general, I hope you watch the conversation below: Andrew has a particular attention to the needs of his students and the ways a structured yet open-ended assignment like this can support all of his students and meet the required Common Core State Standards that are currently being used by California (and the majority of the U.S.).

As I listen to Andrew’s ideas of classroom learning in the Twenty Percent project, I am struck by how technology facilitates and augments the instructional design in his classroom. In particular, student interests are what shape a fifth of these students’ school year entirely. I think that kind of modularity is pretty cool.

It is important to listen to Andrew’s description in light of the perception of the static classroom that I described at the beginning of this post.  While I know that Andrew may have the loose structural pieces for this project at the beginning of the year, how it will unfold, the kinds of feedback and assessment he will provide, and the types of activities his students engage in are unknown. Andrew’s instructional design is shaped by the interactions he has with his students.

Talking with Andrew about his Twenty Percent project reminded me that modularity isn’t tied to design. The ways we physically shape our classrooms provides powerful, clear statements about the expectations for students. I am reminded of the video game company Valve’s employee manual, which was leaked online in 2012. In describing the work environment at Valve, the company emphasized that its success was driven by having individual choose what and how to work on projects. There is a sidebar of the manual, for example, that is called “Why does your desk have wheels?” The beginning of the response should be a clear signal to classroom teachers about how spaces can be designed:

Think of those wheels as a symbolic reminder that you should always be considering where you could move yourself to be more valuable. But also think of those wheels as literal wheels, because that’s what they are, and you’ll be able to actually move your desk with them.

Similarly, the direction of the company’s projects is shaped largely by individuals and their empowered decision-making:

How does Valve decide what to work on? The same way we make other decisions: by waiting for someone to decide that it’s the right thing to do, and then letting them recruit other people to work on it with them. We believe in each other to make these decisions, and this faith has proven to be well-founded over and over again.

Trust, flexibility, and the need to be able to respond to one another shape one of the biggest players in today’s video gaming landscape. Likewise the Twenty Percent project mirrors models shared by many tech companies, most notably Google. In doing so, I think it would behoove educators not to become beholden to specific technologies but rather to the ways today’s successful companies allow for shifting, modular workplaces. In both social and physical design, the businesses we are preparing youth for can look a whole lot like the classrooms teachers are going into. 

Banner image credit: Andrew Moriates (Moriates’ students take part in an interest-driven learning activity.)