I love this chapter. Mention layers to any geologist/earth scientist and they automatically get images in their mind of stratigraphic, atmospheric, and oceanic layers that they spend hours on end studying. Make that geologist a Shrek fan and you have a layers enthusiast.
The beginning of the Cooperative Learning chapter discusses the layers of our “complex world” and the varying needs and skills that need to be addressed in order to accomplish classroom goals. The five elements first discussed are positive interdependence, face-to-face promotive interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small group-skills, and group processing. Something that strikes me every week is that the ideas and tools we are discussing are completely universal across subjects. All of these important elements are not dependent on what the content is, and this ties back to how to we teach and how do students learn. The answer to both of those questions is always different based on what kind of students you have and what kind of feedback you get from formative assessments. That is why these elements are important, because even when lesson plans don’t click the way we want, or students aren’t grasping concepts at the rate expected, these methods will always be useful.
The chapter says that positive interdependence “emphasizes that everyone is in the effort together and that one person’s success does not come at the expense of another’s success.” This is extremely important because so much of student’s learning can be affected by their social environment and emotional feelings regarding it. The American culture is often one of extreme competition, where the “dog eat dog” mentality dominates businesses and in order for there to be a winner, there must always be a loser. Students experience pressures from their families and their friends that may encourage this as well. Classrooms should be a safe haven from this. Competition can sometimes be a useful tool to motivate students, but if students feel that failure is inevitable or that they will be shamed, it will disengage them from learning and participating.
Mark Barnes is a 20 year classroom teacher who experienced this first hand. He explained in an article that he had a very black and white classroom, where misbehavior was met with consequence and he gained the meanest-teacher-in-school reputation. He said that this alienated his students and that even though his students behaved, he felt that it was at the price of their learning. He shifted his classroom into a Results Only Learning Environment “founded on mutual respect and understanding.” He explains that “a no-rules, no-consequences learning community, based on cooperation and filled with exciting activities and projects engages students and eliminates boredom.” He made the journey to success a team effort where he could more effectively personalize instruction to the individuals in his class. This was much more effective that him acting as a dictator making demands of his minions.
This blog post has taken a very roundabout turn to answer the primary question, but I wanted to highlight different aspects of student needs before answering it concisely. The short answer to “How do students learn?” is; it depends, it varies, it changes constantly. The short answer to “How do we teach?” is; however we need to in order to reach the diverse and dynamic students we have. Therefore, the short answer to “Why is a flexible classroom necessary?” is that nothing else comes close to being as effective, nothing else addresses fully what our students need. Why must we be flexible? Because our students are not rigid. Nothing is ever black and white, so why should our classroom be?