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Educational experts these days talk about learning by doing, not spoon-feeding information and expecting rote answers in return. We’re in a world where information is readily accessible. What’s more important is how we use this information and what we do with it. This is one of the core skills that is often talked about in context of 21st century learning and what students of today need to succeed in the world of tomorrow. However, our current education system is not set up to promote discovery and independent thinking.

Here is a scenario that Sal Khan (of Khan Academy fame) describes in his 2012 book[1]: “Picture the stereotype of a perfectly run conventional classroom. Desks are arranged in tidy ranks and rows as on a chessboard. Students deploy their notebooks at parallel slants, their pencils poised in unison, like the bows of a violin section. All eyes are on the teacher looming at the front of the room. Silence reigns but for the first tap of her chalk against the blackboard. It’s a decorous and fitting atmosphere… for a funeral.” Most of us have gone through years of classes like these, and at least in my experience these well-ordered methodologies fail to teach much to the majority of the students.

Now let’s introduce some chaos in this world of learning. First, let’s do away with the age-based classroom. There is no evidence that age-based grouping has a beneficial effect on learning. In fact, it can be argued that pressure of moving on to the next grade hurts the learning process. So now, the classroom is a bigger space than before with students of mixed ages. The younger ones benefiting from the knowledge of the older ones, and the older ones learning by teaching. Next, we remove the restriction of a 45-minute class. There is a chunk of time (let’s say two to three hours at the elementary level) reserved for core skills, and students use it to work towards their weekly goals as they see fit. They can spend all of this time working through math or divide it up to study different subjects. They are free to dig deep into a particular topic that interests them or they can move around if they are bored with just one thing. This brings us to the role of the teacher in this scenario. Instead of acting as the ‘sage on the stage’ delivering a standard lecture to everyone, the teacher serves more as a coach, helping, assisting and identifying where more focus is needed.

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Educational experts these days talk about learning by doing, not spoon-feeding information and expecting rote answers in return. We’re in a world where information is readily accessible. What’s more important is how we use this information and what we do with it. This is one of the core skills that is often talked about in context of 21st century learning and what students of today need to succeed in the world of tomorrow. However, our current education system is not set up to promote discovery and independent thinking.

Here is a scenario that Sal Khan (of Khan Academy fame) describes in his 2012 book[1]: “Picture the stereotype of a perfectly run conventional classroom. Desks are arranged in tidy ranks and rows as on a chessboard. Students deploy their notebooks at parallel slants, their pencils poised in unison, like the bows of a violin section. All eyes are on the teacher looming at the front of the room. Silence reigns but for the first tap of her chalk against the blackboard. It’s a decorous and fitting atmosphere… for a funeral.” Most of us have gone through years of classes like these, and at least in my experience these well-ordered methodologies fail to teach much to the majority of the students.

Now let’s introduce some chaos in this world of learning. First, let’s do away with the age-based classroom. There is no evidence that age-based grouping has a beneficial effect on learning. In fact, it can be argued that pressure of moving on to the next grade hurts the learning process. So now, the classroom is a bigger space than before with students of mixed ages. The younger ones benefiting from the knowledge of the older ones, and the older ones learning by teaching. Next, we remove the restriction of a 45-minute class. There is a chunk of time (let’s say two to three hours at the elementary level) reserved for core skills, and students use it to work towards their weekly goals as they see fit. They can spend all of this time working through math or divide it up to study different subjects. They are free to dig deep into a particular topic that interests them or they can move around if they are bored with just one thing. This brings us to the role of the teacher in this scenario. Instead of acting as the ‘sage on the stage’ delivering a standard lecture to everyone, the teacher serves more as a coach, helping, assisting and identifying where more focus is needed.[2]

If we were to walk into this room, we’d see students sitting in groups, some discussing history, or literature, others doing math problems either by themselves or in groups, and teachers sitting with some of them helping out or taking part in discussions. To an observer this will look chaotic, and perhaps not conducive to learning. But I believe that this model of individualized learning enables students to understand and retain more knowledge than the very orderly classroom of today.

Let’s take this further and introduce project-based learning into the mix. Instead of students spending all their time with books or online, a big part of their day should be spent in doing hands-on projects individually as well as in teams. This is taking ordered chaos to another level, where now you not only have to figure out the answers for yourself, but deal with things that don’t work exactly as you planned and teammates who may not see the problem and the solution as you envision. Welcome to the real world, where chaos is an integral part of all that you do. A learning environment of “ordered chaos” will prepare students with 21st century skills such as effective communication, collaboration, leading by influence, initiative and entrepreneurship.

Moving from an ordered classroom to environments that are built on ordered chaos is one of the essential ingredients in changing how students will learn effectively now and in the future.

Babur Habib is an experienced tech entrepreneur with a passion for building innovative products and businesses. He’s currently working on reimagining K-12 education by launching a school system with a focus on 21st century learning skills. 

[1] Khan, Salman (2012-10-02). The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined (p. 203). Grand Central Publishing.

[2] Many experts have talked about this reformatting of the classroom. See Salman Khan’s book: The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined and Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. Another excellent talk is by Sir Ken Robinson: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.

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