The Third Teacher

I came to Hillbrook last year as a Resident Teacher. Modeled after the medical practice of resident training, in this program I was meant to be a second teacher in the classroom. My job was to teach shoulder-to-shoulder, to observe and to ask critical questions so I could stretch my own practice. Being a second teacher in the same classroom everyday, I was also in a unique position to serve individual students on a just-in-time basis. I was an extra resource, a different perspective, a partner for reflection for both students and my co-teacher.

Coming from a background as a classroom researcher, I was accustomed to having two teachers in the room. I was also used to paying attention to the individual experience of students and the factors of the learning environment that affect them. As researchers we designed a lesson in our lab, and brought it to dozens of different schools. We knew learning was not as simple as the lesson we designed yielding an outcome. It met and meshed with each environment where we brought it. While running a study, the second teacher in the room was responsible for noticing the factors that might affect or explain our results. Which students appeared unfocused? Uncomfortable? Were we only engaging a certain identifiable subset of students? In order to explain our data, we had to identify what factors of the students and the environment might be most important to interpreting the learning outcomes.

Having a second teacher in the room at Hillbrook allowed Brian Ravizza and I to notice similar details. We spent many hours reflecting on individual students, and group behavior patterns. We experimented with ways to differentiate. Some of our solutions focused on adjusting the lesson: scaffolding the content, or giving more choices. Others addressed the limitations of the physical room, the tables bolted to the floor, the metal stools, the single whiteboard and projector at the front of a very long room. We noticed the differences in energy and style of thinking that happened when a teacher sat at a student table, when we worked outside, or split the science lab in half. These different physical formats implicitly communicated different expectations about where students could sit or stand, whether they had permission to move around the room, whether and how they should collaborate, and what they should be doing.

During that same time last year, I was invited to apply my research training to a study Christa Flores and Don Orth were conducting in the iLab. They hypothesized that the new space would provoke different behavior and styles of thinking in students because it effectively communicated different classroom norms. They wanted to measure specific behaviors in the iLab to identify how the space affected learning.

We tried out a lot of methods. We surveyed students and teachers, interviewed them, watched time-lapse footage of the room’s use, and did behavioral counts. We ended up with a lot of data and sparked a lot of conversation about the space. As I stood in Christa Flores’s classroom with my clipboard and stopwatch, students often asked me about what I was doing. And as we interviewed students about how the iLab compared to other classrooms, students became apt to initiate conversations about space themselves. Teachers from across campus were encouraged to use the iLab, and they were also interviewed.

Their stories echoed what I had seen as a researcher at Stanford: the same lesson done in two different spaces became two different lessons. The iLab was a drastic shift in environment. We were not surprised that students felt differently about the space, and felt it was better suited to their work than most of their other classrooms. But we were not prepared to explain exactly why.

Last summer, a few Hillbrook teachers who were intrigued by their experience teaching in the iLab converted their own classrooms into more agile spaces. When deciding what to change, we reviewed our data. When students and teachers spoke of the iLab they lauded its flexibility; it could be several little cubicles, one big stage, rows or circles of chairs, all within a few minutes. Students also reported on how they felt in the iLab and a story about student ownership, choice, and freedom to move emerged. Julia Rubin, Christina Pak, Shushan Sadjadi and others made changes to their furniture including whiteboard tables that rolled, and flipped to nest against the walls, and some comfortable, soft-seating options. They removed teacher-decorated wall space and replaced it with whiteboard or peg-board to become student-owned space. They even experimented with getting rid of, or minimizing their teacher desk space. They wondered how the new space would better enact their existing lessons, and what new student behaviors and types of thinking it would afford.

We all associate different spaces with different activity. Whether we intend to read, do our taxes, or socialize, we choose a fitting place. And we know that the “fit” varies for different individuals. When students enter the classroom, we ask them to take on many different activities. What kind of space do we give them? Loris Malaguzzi, an Italian teacher and psychologist, began writing in the 1940s about the impact of a student’s environment on their development. He considered it so important that he dubbed the learning environment the “third teacher.”

The energy and excitement about learning spaces at Hillbrook is building. Next year, approximately a dozen more teachers will be redesigning their space and engaging in conversations with each other to reflect on and measure the outcomes. We’ve learned some things from the changes so far. And are looking forward to making further, incremental and intentional changes.