Professional Learning

Pictures Worth More Than 1,000 Words: Online Classroom Displays

April 10, 2008

If your classroom is like most, you probably use every square inch of available space. I love to step into learning spaces that feel like museums of living history. Ceilings, walls, and tables are covered with artifacts showing evidence of student understanding. Many teachers put up exhibits to reinforce everything from the big ideas of a discipline to classroom-management strategies. But how often do you step back and take a thoughtful look at what's on display?

Linda Hartley is an educator from the United Kingdom (a native of Scotland now living in London) who used that question as the starting point for an action research project. A former teaching assistant, she began conducting research as part of her studies at the United Kingdom's virtual-learning Ultraversity. By bringing Web 2.0 tools into project design, she has set off a global conversation.

This work is manifested on her site, Classroom Displays, which is both a Flickr group for photo sharing and a blog for reflection. (The Classroom Displays blog was nominated for an Edublogs Award in 2006.) The result is what Hartley calls "a visual conversation" about those ephemeral displays that come and go from classroom walls and school hallways. Some 270 educators from around the world have joined the Classroom Displays community, and many more regularly stop in for a look.

If you want to find an example close to home, you can click on the Flickr map. From Hannibal, Missouri, for example, Terry Smith's photos reveal a classroom where students regularly take on global projects with learning partners from around the world. (To learn more about Smith's project-based class, visit his Web site.) A teacher from the Bronx shares a picture showing what looks like an army of cockroaches; the caption reveals that the bugs are plastic. (Whew!) Students lined them up as math manipulatives to show their understanding of arrays.

Click on Kuwait, and you get a glimpse inside an international school where a husband-and-wife team from the United Kingdom are teaching. Photos typically include a link to the educator's profile on Flickr, which you can follow to learn more or make connections.

Though the colorful photos are what initially attract visitors, Hartley acknowledges a goal that goes beyond browsing: She wants to get more educators -- especially those teaching in the early grades -- using Web 2.0 tools with their students. But she recognizes that they first need to get more comfortable using these tools themselves. As an entry point, what could be more familiar and low tech than bulletin boards

Hartley tells more of this story in her blog Reinventing Project-Based Learning. But here's the short version, in her words: "I'd seen the power of blogs and wikis for my own learning during the course of my degree, and I was convinced they were going to be really important for children's learning. It seemed to me that if I could show primary school staff the value of these tools for their own practice, it would be easier for them to see the potential power of these tools for the children's learning."

To hear Hartley tell more about her strategies, listen to this podcast interview with Scottish educator David Booruch.

What do Classroom Displays users learn in the course of talking about bulletin boards and hall displays? Most of the more than 1,500 images are tagged, so users learn the value of folksonomies for making sense of large collections. On the blog side, there's an ongoing exchange of ideas across geographic boundaries. Educators who are new to blogging can easily join by commenting. Hartley says that one of the most encouraging signs is watching a community of interest "actually becoming a community of practice."

The newest addition to Classroom Displays: videos. This means teachers can now have students describe what the displays represent and what they learned by producing them. Video displays also have the potential to encourage good questioning techniques for getting at student understanding. Teachers who have never made a podcast or video with their students might be prompted to give it a whirl as a strategy for capturing student reflection -- and that means the conversation grows and grows.

A Classroom Displays postscript: On a recent trip to London, I had the pleasure of meeting Linda Hartley in person. Over lunch at the gloriously appointed café of the Victoria and Albert Museum, we chatted away like a couple of old pals. After all, I've been following her good thinking online for some time, so we were just picking up where we'd left off. As we compared impressions about where education is heading on both sides of the Atlantic, I couldn't help hoping that these rich global conversations will become more and more commonplace for teachers and students alike.

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