Featured Interview with Kristen Swanson

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Kristen Swanson
Kristen Swanson

I peruse many blogs and Twitter feeds on a weekly basis, but there are only a handful that immediately cause me to pause, reflect, and then take action. Kristen Swanson wrote a blog in early December that did just that — an analogy about classrooms as keyholes or boxes.

Zmuda: The description of classrooms as keyholes or boxes instantly resonated with me. First, can you describe the distinction?
Swanson: Classrooms as keyholes have students regularly engaged in inquiry and learning is everywhere. Students inside keyhole classrooms generate questions, not answers. They feel empowered to tackle complex problems. Classrooms as boxes are places where students see learning as black and white, where learning is controlled and measured and it’s very discrete. Essentially, students inside box classrooms are trapped within the confines determined by the teacher. These two descriptions frame a continuum upon which we can see most classrooms that we experience.
As practitioners we should constantly reflect on a simple question — Who owns the learning right now? If students own the learning, the classroom is a keyhole. If teachers own the learning, then the classroom is a box.
Zmuda: What are the defining characteristics of each?
Swanson: Classrooms as boxes tend to have lots of right answers. They focus quite a bit on content mastery, or knowing many facts about a particular topic. They aim for skill mastery, and again, they think that learning can actually be quantified by tiny little bits of information. Whereas classrooms that are viewed as keyholes have a lot of complex questions and tasks that may not have a single right answer. They focus on the idea that learning is to develop competencies, and competencies are bundles of knowledge and skills that students can deploy in all sorts of unfamiliar situations, in and out of school. Classrooms that are keyholes look for performances in school that mirror adult work in the real world and, essentially, learning that happens within these spaces is really dynamic.
Let’s consider an example. Imagine that there are two classrooms teaching the same topic: The Underground Railroad. The first classroom is a box. Students are learning many different facts about the topic, including famous people such as Harriet Tubman and the words to “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” At the end of the unit, students will take a test that measures their ability to regurgitate the information disseminated to them by the teacher. Many students will not recall this information in a few months. However, the students inside the keyhole classroom might start by answering the following question: Do all people deserve the same amount of freedom? Why or why not? From there, the teacher will introduce them to the concept of the Underground Railroad and students will generate as many questions as they can about the intersection of freedom and the Underground Railroad. Using their questions as a guide, students will find resources related to their interests. The unit will culminate with students enacting a debate between pro-slavery and anti-slavery historical figures from the time.
Zmuda: What are the design considerations that we need to tend to if we want to create more keyholes?
Swanson: We need to consider our locus of control as designers of learning experiences. First, we need to consider the Common Core Standards and their intended role: limiting the amount of facts that we need to teach students in favor of focusing on meaning making and transfer. The Common Core Standards encourage classrooms as keyholes. Second, we need to think about the demands of 21st Century and the real world, and from there we need to design entry points which serve as these keyholes for students to explore and grapple with difficult content. Third, continue to consider who is doing the “heavy lifting” in the classroom: making inferences, connecting the dots, identifying the skills required in an unknown problem or task. If you are doing the heavy lifting and spending a lot of time talking, chances are you might be leaning towards a classroom as a box, but if the students are doing the heavy lifting, you might be leaning towards the classroom as the keyhole. If the students are asking questions, if the students are generating content, if the students are grappling with difficult questions, it’s likely that you’re seeing the classroom as a keyhole, or as an opening where students can begin to see lots of different opportunities.

More information on Kristen:

Kristen Swanson helps teachers design curriculum nationally and internationally. She has taught at the elementary and collegiate levels, served as a regional consultant for RtII, and worked as an educational technology director. She serves on the board of the Edcamp Foundation, and has shared expertise at ASCD, TEDxPhiladelphiaEd, and Educon. You can find Kristen online at www.kristenswanson.org.


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