As a teacher of PE, I am used to coaching from the sidelines and this works in a practical subject. However, I have always struggled to make this transition in the classroom when teaching theory, until now. 

2020 and the events that unfolded, notably the pandemic, forced me to teach from the sidelines through necessity rather than choice. As the education world came to grips with remote teaching and hybrid learning, I found myself delivering lessons from my laptop rather than face to face. Initially, this had its challenges. How would I engage students? How would I keep their interest without physically being there? Would they mind me boring? etc etc In the midst of the pandemic I was reunited with an old article which once sparked a fire in my own teaching: Alison King’s famous article ‘from sage on the stage to guide on the side’. This was a writing ahead of its time and one that challenged the education world to do better. So, what does the future of better look like? 

We know teachers are creatures of habit and there are good reasons for this. Routines are essential in creating healthy thriving learning environments. COVID forced me to reflect on my own teaching habits and sure enough direct instruction, with me at the front of the class was taking over again. If you walk the corridors of most schools you will see this model being played out over and over again. Typically, this involves students sat at desks and the teacher stood at the front of the class imparting knowledge. Traditionalists call this method the direct instruction method. 

Teaching from the Front of the Class via the Direct Instruction method

The primary motivator for building the Future Classroom was to shake things up and challenge myself to think and teach in a different way. A small team of us starting renovating an old art room in March this year. A room that would become our classroom of the future.  

I consulted students and asked for their views. The aim was to design an engaging place to learn, one that was equipped with technology and innovation in equal measures. Collectively, we opted for the ‘no desks’ approach. As liberating as it sounds, it was a bold move to go for a chairs only set up. Students would write on whiteboards around the room, the learning would be agile and flexible, like the workplace. This meant I would have to be flexible and adaptable to fit this model,  so no more teaching from the front! 

And so the reigns were off, the experiment was live and the jury was out. My inner jury was telling me this was the right thing to do, to become 10% braver and move outside of my comfort zone. The jury of my peers were skeptical and many couldn’t see how the future classroom concept would work. However, the most important jury of all; the students were full of passion, ideas and suggestions for this bold new venture. They were onboard and welcomed the change. 

In September, the project went live and I found myself teaching from the side of the room. As part of a social media campaign, students were asked to vote on their preference for furniture and what teacher set up they preferred. Interestingly, they went for mobile teacher desk on wheels which could be transported around the room. 

Now I had a mobile desk I had no excuse to teach from the front. My students were telling me they wanted me to be agile and ‘free from the front’. So, I obliged. 

360 image of me teaching via direct instruction from the back of the class

Prior to the future classroom opening I had been playing around with a 27-minute learning model based on some research by Hattie (2014) on ALT (Academic Learning Time). 

At the centre of the research is the idea that students should learn in 27-minute episodes to optimise attention, retention and focus. The model works, I have road-tested it in many different contexts over the past 3 years and created a version that works for me. That version consists of 27 minutes of new content (taught), a break, then 27 minutes to consolidate learning. See the model below. 

Lessons from the sidelines

So, what did I learn from experimenting with different places to teach from within the room?

Firstly, teaching from the back of the room has two clear advantages.

  1. Students focus on the content rather than the teacher. I am quite animated when I teach so students often focus on my antics which can distract from the learning. 
  2. I can see what they see so can iron out any imperfections as they arise

Teaching from the side of the room is more of a challenge as you have students eye-line. I found that ‘guiding from the side’ works best in the last 27 minutes of the teaching model I use. Students tend to prefer direct instruction at the start, albeit it from the back of the class in this context. At the root of the knowledge vs skills debate is the logical assumption that students require knowledge in the first instance so they can exercise their skill in asserting what is known. I agree with this. 

I created a second model of teaching, Model B which allows me to set up working teams. This creates an agile feel to the lesson as students are out of their seats, exploring, creating and embedding what has been taught. 

In conclusion, teaching away from the front of the classroom has been a challenge, but it’s been a fun one. I like the new normal and prefer being based at the back or the side of the room. From here, I can coach, support, advise and guide rather than tell, inform and direct. I suppose the greatest takeaway has been the students responses to this model, they love it! 

It helps in our context that we have an amazing future classroom to experiment in. The technology has helped by giving students a medium to explore contents at greater depth in the last 27 minutes of the lesson. I’ll finish this blog post with some images of students engaged in their learning. Note: I don’t appear in any of the images because here the learners are the main actors on the stage, and the stage is  theirs.