The classroom is a dynamic environment–ever changing, constantly adapting, and never able to be replicated.  Therefore, as educators, it is imperative that we are constantly changing and adapting with those surroundings.  This, however, is exhausting.  Even the most dedicated teachers experience burnout within their first couple of years.  Our country’s expected standard of education has, without a doubt, risen over the past decade, but our methods have not necessarily adapted to align with this higher standard of education.

What is “The Standard?”

Today, students are not only expected to master the skills of the past, but they are asked to master even more complex tasks than before.  Additionally, they are expected to think critically, solve problems, and create, rather than consume.  This is, of course, a good thing. It’s definitely what we’ve always wanted for our children; however, the confines of a system laden with accountability measures and bureaucratic hoops disallow teachers from developing the mindset to take risks and actually achieve these idealistic goals for students.

“Education is not preparation for life; it is life itself,” said John Dewey, one of the most influential thinkers in education.  And he’s right.  The classroom environment is this dynamic and ever changing environment, and it should mimic life–not simply be a preparation for this preconceived notion of what “life” is later on.  The classroom is a life force all its own, similar to how the Earth system is dynamic and adaptive. Just like all systems, they need to receive their energy from somewhere.  The Earth system receives its energy from one main source: The Sun. From here, plants, the primary producers of energy on Earth, harness the sun’s energy and convert it into sugars–sugars that consumers are then able to use for energy.  This process of energy transfer is integral to productive life on our planet. Without it, the Earth system would crumble.

The classroom ecosystem works similarly, especially in the current traditional model–the one where teachers burn out.  As teachers, our primary source of energy is our teacher manuals, classroom resources (i.e., trade books, research, reflection), and of course, the Internet, the modern teacher’s most crucial resource.  As the primary producers of knowledge in our classrooms, we harness this energy from our resources and use it to craft lessons.  Then, our primary consumers, the students, intake the energy we’ve molded into lessons, internalize them, and use them to fuel future learning experiences.


The Problem with the Classroom Ecosystem

Laws of thermodynamics state that energy is neither created nor destroyed; rather, energy is transferred between organisms, merely changing its forms as it does so.  However, while it is changing forms, a great deal of this energy is dissipated elsewhere as heat, contributing to a greater energy disorder or dissipation, known as entropy.  In the Earth system, as little as 10% of the energy from the Sun is actually transferred into plants and utilized by primary consumers (see right).  Likewise, when the primary consumers transfer energy from plants into themselves, 10% of that energy is then usable for the secondary consumers.  Clearly, this is inefficient.  By the time the primary consumers have ascertained that original energy, they’re really only getting about 1% of it.  But on Earth, it’s the best we’ve got.  In the classroom, however, I think we can do better.

Continue to think of the teacher’s resources as the sun, the teacher as the primary producer, and the students as the primary consumers.  In the traditional model, by the time those original resources are processed and delivered to the children, they receive only a fraction of the original knowledge.  A great amount of the “energy” has been lost in translation, making for an inauthentic learning experience–one created out of obligation, isolated from the rest of the curriculum.  It’s no wonder that we have not achieved the vision of “21st century learning.”  Students are not able to reach deep levels of thinking, because so much of the “energy” is lost in the planning and teaching process.

The Solution for the Classroom Ecosystem

In the modern classroom, we have more options.  The playing field has been leveled due to the Internet and the vast amount of information that is available at the touch of a button.  Teachers no longer need manuals; likewise, they no longer need to be authoritative resources on every topic imaginable.  In the modern classroom, children can be raised to the level of primary producer, and teachers can do this by allowing students to research on their own and conduct inquiry-based projects.  Teachers can limit the amount of energy that is dissipated by making the original energy source for learning immediately available to the kids, fully maximizing the potential of each student, the effectiveness of the teacher, and in turn, the overall efficiency of the classroom ecosystem as a whole.

While this involves a paradigm shift, teachers and students will both benefit.  Teachers will work smarter, not harder, while students will become the determiners of their own learning experiences and constructors of their own knowledge, helping to achieve our vision for 21st Century learning–helping to create problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners.

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