A Look Inside the Classroom: How to Encourage Disruptive Learning by Saying “Yes”
By Charles Laurent | January 29, 2020
As a fourth grade teacher, I often find myself reflecting on my learners and their experiences within our class. I am always experimenting with new ways to further engage them and challenge them to think deeper. After 20 years teaching in K12 classrooms, I have discovered that being an innovative teacher does not need to be a daunting task, but rather a series of small and incremental steps in how one thinks and responds to their students. To that end, I feel it is worthwhile to share my teaching experiences in the hope of demystifying what it means to be an innovative educator.
Recently, as I began to organize my thoughts for this blog post, I turned to the Cambridge Dictionary to revisit the definition of “disruptive.” There I discovered three different meanings, “tending to damage the orderly control of a situation,” “causing trouble and therefore stopping something from continuing as usual,” and “changing the traditional way that an industry operates, especially in a new and effective way.” It was this last description that piqued my curiosity and affirmed for me an important element of my teaching philosophy — that teachers and learners should always be looking for ways to be “disruptive.”
Disruptive teaching and learning is not a new concept. Dedicated and passionate educators are always looking for ways to better engage their learners. One need look no further than social media and platforms such as Twitter or Linkedin to see teachers throughout the world using innovative and novel approaches to teaching children. From non-traditional seating options for learners, known as “flexible seating,” to the reemergence of Project-Based Learning/Problem-Based Learning methodologies, teachers are sharing the myriad ways they are engaging their classes.
There is no shortage of books on the topic of innovative teaching practices as well. Author/educator Dave Burgess challenges educators to Teach Like a Pirate, inspiring them to be “mavericks and renegades who are willing to use unorthodox tactics to spark and kindle the flame of creativity and imagination in the minds of the young.” George Couros, in his book, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, examines how schools can “empower(s) students to learn on their own. To wonder. To explore. To become leaders.”
For the more cynical among us, words and terms like “innovative,” “creative,” and “growth mindset” are simply the latest buzz words, nothing more than a passing craze that make for good hashtags on social media. They may be right about this, but it should not serve as an excuse for not looking for ways to “disrupt” teaching and learning. Our students deserve it, and our students’ parents expect it.
So what does disruptive learning look like? That is a difficult question to answer succinctly. Instead, I will share a recent experience I had with a learner in my fourth-grade class not so long ago. I had assigned what can most aptly be described as a very traditional writing assignment in which I asked students to write a descriptive piece about fall on our campus. Being the compliant, non-disruptive learners they were trained to be, they accepted the assignment with a lukewarm enthusiasm and set to work on describing the sights, sounds, feelings, smells, and tastes of the fall season on our campus. Admittedly, I view myself as a “disrupter,” and this assignment was embarrassingly non-disruptive. However, as the students worked on editing and revising their written pieces, one child approached me and asked, “Mr. Laurent, could I turn my writing into some kind of video?” In spite of school schedules, plans I had already developed, I said yes. The child, along with several other “disruptive conspirators,” bee-lined to their iPads and set to work.
Since I had no assessments or rubrics for this part of the project, I changed course midstream and leaned heavily on the children to self assess. In the week that followed, my students captured images to represent their observations, created an iMovie, composed their own musical pieces in GarageBand to accompany them, narrated their movies, edited them, and finally published them for the world to see. As it turned out, the work of the children was well-received by our Admissions Director, who featured it on the school website.
I would say that the project itself was not overly innovative. It’s 2020, and an expectation for embedding technology into the curriculum is far from a novel concept. However, what makes the story illustrative of disrupted learning is the fact students, not I, effected change. It was their fresh way of looking at the assignment and developing new ways to approach it that was disruptive in all the best ways. As a teacher, what I took pride in was my willingness to allow the learners to think innovatively. Moreover, it never occurred to me not to let them pursue the idea. Instead, I instinctively said yes, and moved out of the way.
Perhaps that is the first step in becoming an educational disrupter; being flexible and open to the learning our students want to do and how they want to do it, and then providing them the time, space, and support for it to happen.
Relinquishing the need to control the classroom environment at all times and embracing the ambiguity that often accompanies organic learning can be unsettling and oftentimes discouraged, especially for educators expected to adhere strictly to system-wide curricula and prescribed teaching methodologies. Fortunately for me, I teach and learn in an environment that not only encourages educational innovation but celebrates it.
In the end, I believe all teachers and students, regardless of where they work, can disrupt teaching and learning within their classrooms in small ways. It starts by reexamining our own, as well as society’s preconceived notions of what a “teacher” should be and matching those notions to the reality of what we want for our students and how best to achieve it. We can no longer say we value independent thinking yet not provide our students with opportunities to think independently. Nor can we espouse the importance of innovative thinking if we are uncomfortable with, or unable to provide the time for students to identify and grapple with real-world problems and develop their own solutions.
As for me, I can’t tell you that I “teach like a pirate” or have an innovative mindset. I don’t have a pithy quote or a catchy hashtag. For my students and me, disruption, in its most positive sense of the word, started when a child came to me with an idea, and I said, “yes.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fourth Grade Teacher & Robotics Coach, Rocky Hill Country Day
Passionate Educator with over 20 years experience incorporating theater, art and robotics to project-based learning. Degrees from Emerson College (BFA, Performing Arts), and Boston College (M.Ed, Elementary Education). Laurent has been featured in Edutopia, Education Week, NAIS and his Op-Ed piece was published in the Providence Journal. Recipient of the 2018 Henry Ford National Teacher Innovation Award.