Breaking down the walls of the classroom

Thursday 20 January 2011

by Nik Peachey

In this posting I would like to argue that in order for technology to really enhance learning and for learners to achieve their full potential, we need to fundamentally rethink the relationship between learning and the classroom and to rethink the role of the teacher.

As things stand at the moment the most common scenario is that students have a scheduled class which they go to, the teacher comes along, the lesson ends and they get some homework, some might even have access to some online self access materials in and attempt to implement some form of blended learning.

Personally I feel like this isn’t really good enough anymore and it isn’t realising the full potential of what technology can now enable us to deliver.

Walls image

Breaking down classroom walls

In the questionnaire that appeared in the very first posting in this series. One of the questions I asked was “ Is the paradigm of the classroom as the predominant means of education outdated?

The response was that 64% of those who voted thought that it was outdated, so I’m assuming that many of you agree with me, but what do we replace it with?

Alvin Toffler in an article entitled ‘Reshaping Learning from the Ground Up’ argues that it’s not enough to reform education, but that we need to totally rethink the entire system from scratch. He argues that the existing model of education was designed for the post industrial revolution world. A world in which the main requirements of society were that we have a well trained work force that arrives on time and works obediently, but now in a world where jobs in large scale factories are largely disappearing , we need to develop a new educational model which will produce people capable of working in the digital age.

I think a really good example comes from one of the teaching suggestions made by Phil on my last posting. In his comments he describes an activity he did with students using technology to reach beyond the defined limits of the lesson time and the classroom and how it kept students engaged and interacting with each other after and between classes.

I think this is exactly the kind of thing that technology should be enabling and what we should be focusing on. There are many arguments against using technology in the ELT classroom, not least that the students need classroom time for their spoken face to face interaction and I can see some logic in this, but I do think we need to reconsider the way technology can extend this beyond the lesson and the classroom.

There are however problems that would come with this, not least that as a teacher you could then be expected to be available to all of your students 24 / 7. How could you cope with that?

Well you probably could cope with it, if it were factored in to your working ours and you got paid for that time. The fact is that at present most schools pay for ‘contact hours’ and any time you spend as a teacher adding value to your lessons and providing students with greater opportunities to enhance their language abilities is pretty much down to your own dedication.

The other problem of course is that if we use technology to extend learning beyond the limits of the classroom and the lesson time, we need to have trained teachers who are able to cope and keep up with the technology as it changes and course materials that are designed for this kind of approach.

  • At present most standard ELT teaching qualifications only really deal with what teachers do in the classroom and very little credit or demand is put on how they extend learning beyond it.
  • At best most course materials only offer self-study activities for students to do online after and between classes. They don’t offer environments or tools that can extend social interaction with peers, teachers or the real world of language speakers beyond the classroom, and yet technology can make all of these things possible.

So isn’t it time we started to rethink the role of the teacher and extend the bounds of the lesson beyond the time the students spend in the classroom?

What do you think?

  • Do mainstream teacher training courses need to change the way they address and evaluate the role of the teacher?
  • Is it reasonable to expect all teachers to be digitally literate?
  • Should teachers be finacially compensated for the learning oppportunities they provide beyond the classroom lesson time?

16 responses to Breaking down the walls of the classroom

  1. I totally agree that there is a need to change the way technology is being used for instruction and learning in most cases. However, the K-12 and higher education school settings do not allow the kind of freedom needed for students to learn and teachers to teach. Parents and students need to take action and force schools to break down the walls. Talking about technology and changing roles as a way to make a difference in how students should learn has not been very effective.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Nellie

      Yes I agree that talking isn’t really enough, but i don’t think it is fair to expect students and parents to initiate the change. It has to come about through the whole of the teaching institution and needs to start from the way we train and evaluate teachers all the way through to the design of course materials and how students interact with content and with each other.



  2. Sheona says:

    Hi Nick,

    You are such an inspiration but to someone who still works in a classroom with a blackboard and chalk it seems virtually impossible to imagine the day when the kind of teaching you advocate actually takes place. There are so many things that can be done and a lot of very frustrated teachers out there who find themselves hindered in their development as teachers because educational institutions are dragging their heels and not willing to make the kind of investment needed in teacher training or equipment..

    However, I would like to say ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ so let’s be positive!!

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Sheona

      I think if you have the will, then there certainly are ways, and I don’t think you need to have any tech in your classroom to at least get started. There are plenty of free tools we can use to set up networks and communities for them to access outside of class and lots of websites we can use to develop motivating learning activities that they can access and do from any computer.

      But you are right, there does need to be training to help teachers do this and understand how to use it. Of course the second point is that really is this involves more of the teachers’ time by enabling greater engagement outside of the classroom time, then it isn’t realistic to expect it to happen if teachers don’t get paid for the work they put in.

      Of course one of the best ways around this is to try to use technology tools that make things like marking and supervising homework easier so that it saves time on the tasks we already do.

      Anyway, as you say Sheona I am positive and change is and will come. I’ve recently published a couple of postings on my own blog that have free tasks that teachers can download and use as guidance to create materials for their students. You can find them at:
      “5 Tasks to Teach Yourself to Teach with Technology


      “3 More Tasks to Teach Yourself to Teach with Technology”

      I hope you find these useful.



      • Nudrat Rahman Sheikh says:

        I think it is not just lack of time and training. It is the pressure of completing the syllabus, the written work in workbooks and note books before the assessments that restricts the teachers. Also I have observed that even after the training only a few would take an initiative to incorporate the ideas and tools in their lessons simply because they do not want to come out of their comfort zone, they do not want to take a risk to try out any thing new. it is the fear, what if something goes wrong?

  3. Phil says:

    Thanks for the mention. The cheque is in the post.

  4. Nina Liakos says:

    I’d like to address the second question. My first thought was that it may not be reasonable to expect all teachers to become digitally literate, and we should expect the next generation of teachers to be so, not this current generation. Then I remembered how librarians were expected to become digitally literate pretty much overnight: and do you know what? They did it. Suddenly paper card catalogs were a thing of the past. If librarians could do it, why not teachers? But adequate training must, of course, be provided. It is not fair to expect teachers to transform themselves, at their own expense. And we all know how online teaching is even more time-consuming than classroom teaching, and how difficult it is to draw the line between work and personal/family time.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Nina

      Yes, a very good point about librarians. The other problem is that is we expect the next generation of teachers to be digitally literate and able to actually use technology effectively to enhance learning, then we need to have now a generation of teacher trainers who are already digitally literate and who are incorporating the appropriate use of technology into their courses, and I tend to feel that gnerally this isn’t the case.

      In many cases I think teacher trainers are even more reluctant than teachers to engage with technology and are more than happy to stay within their classroom comfort zone.

      Your last point is a really big one, “online teaching is even more time-consuming than classroom teaching”. That’s very true and what’s even worse the time you do spend is often paid at a lower hourly rate than a classroom contact hour would be, so no big insentive there for teachers to skill up.



  5. […] the DELTA Publishing blog, Nik Peachey argues that traditional fixed-time, classroom-based teaching is becoming a thing of the past and teachers need to change their ways to fully embrace the computerised world in which we live. […]

  6. Evan says:

    Isn’t this a matter of politics as much as of education? At the end of the day it is the politicians who lay the ground rules for what happens in the classroom and how much people get paid. And they will only change things if they come under pressure from voters. So it’s not the teachers we need to convince, it’s the voters.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Evan

      I guess that depends on where you live and where you teach. In private language schools it would be the decission of the director / owner and whether they see the potential of a market edge on the competition. That seems to be what has driven the acquisition of a lot of interactive whiteboards (They look great in the promotional materials).

      In the case of state schools, I guess it would depend on how much autonomy each school has and how much say they have over how they use their teachers time and spend their budget.

      Really, I think most voters and most governments do want the best education system they can afford, so I dont think that’s the problem, though there might be a problem in how well informed they are about what ‘the best’ actually looks like.

      Personally, I think the greatest barrier to change is just lack of imagination to visualise the benefits of an approach that doesn’t yet exist and a lack of courage to try something new and try to make it work. Much safer to do things the way we always have.


      Nik Peachey

  7. Evan says:

    Yes, you’re right – it’s all about what is the “best”. and what you can get for your money.

    Very little consensus there. :-) For example, you might fight for technology, and someone else might fight for small classes. And someone else would say it’s all about making teachers more accountable. And someone else might argue that standardized tests are the biggest problem. When I worked in a private language school the biggest issue was probably the lack of properly trained teachers. And so on.

    So I don’t think it’s only about lack of imagination. It may be about too much imagination. We don’t really know what is “best”. And certainly not in technology, where the speed of change is incredible.

  8. Hey Nik. Thanks for this post.

    I’m kind of torn on whether a teacher needs to be more available outside the classroom, so I’m going to play with your second question, instead: Is it reasonable to expect all teachers to be digitally literate?

    And in your reply to Sheona you made a great point: “I don’t think you need to have any tech in your classroom to at least get started”

    In the same vein, just like we don’t need individual computers in the classroom at the start, I don’t think we need especially computer saavy teachers either. These “old school” teachers can have computer saavy friends on twitter for example, who’ll guide them towards the zones where their students will benefit the most.

    That’s what’s amazing about twitter and PLNs… we don’t need to be experts anymore or even anywhere near expertdom. :) We just need to be connected and listening, and it seems like that’s getting easier and easier, isn’t it?

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Brad

      Yes I agree. I think Twitter has provided an excellent platform for the development of PLNs and the circulation of information and support, but that does presuppose a certain level of tech and a willingness to engage, which isn’t always there.

      Really, in terms of skills, technology has never been easier to use and continues to become more intuitive.

      But what about teachers who are unwilling and or refuse to engage with digital literacies? Would we employ teachers who weren’t able to read and write?



  9. Tracey says:

    Very interesting topic. I’m in my second year of my PGCE. I will be attending a subject specialist conference in April and presenting a paper as part of my course requirements. I chose to do my paper about the use of a blog to extend the teaching and learning beyond the weekly class session. I have to upload my final paper this weekend and was feeling quite down as the overall result hasn’t been as positive as I would have hoped. Barriers have been my lack of knowledge due to being a ‘newbie’ to this platform, lack of resources/time etc.I am now much more aware in many different ways of how I could have done and will do things better.
    This morning I started looking for more references to finish off my paper and I received an email notification of a new posting to my blog. A learner who had missed my class this week had posted ‘I would like to practise my English be cause it is going to worst :( ‘. This made my day as the learner is obvioulsy enthusiastic to learn outside of the class session and is communicating to me in English outside of the weekly session.
    I need to develop my knowledge and strive to do better this time and next time for both my learners and my own sense of achievement.
    Thanks for eveyone’s comments in this thread. Very interesting.
    I will also point other ESOL tutors to your site during the presentation of my paper. I’m sure they will be as inspired as I am.


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