Return to the One-Room School

one-room class
I don't know that anyone wants to literally return to the one-room schools of the past. This one is from 1940 in rural Kentucky, USA. But the concept may have present day applications.

According to Wikipedia, one-room schools were once commonplace throughout rural portions of various countries, including Prussia, Norway, Sweden, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Spain.

In these rural and small town schools (some of which literally used someone's house), all of the students met in a single room. A single teacher taught academic basics to different aged children at different levels of elementary-age boys and girls.

I imagine that younger kids were hearing some of the older kids' lessons and older kids could get some remedial lessons when the younger kids were being taught. I think that could be an interesting model of learning. I also think it would be a challenging teaching assignment. It's a topic I delve into a bit deeper on my other blog.

Any debate about whether to group students by age or ability is hardly a new one. Terms like "performance-based" "ability grouping," "competency-based education" and "age-based instruction" pop up in lots of article, papers and dissertations. Classes and schools have been created around these ideas. And they still are being created - perhaps for different reasons than those that brought the one-room schools of the past into existence.

What is a school without grade levels? I read about a number of contemporary schools, including a district in North Dakota, that felt a drive to teach competencies meant eliminating age-based classrooms.

Back in 2016, I read an article in The Atlantic that asked "What If Schools Abolished Grade Levels?" Their panel concluded that sorting kids by age or ability creates problems.

What are some reasons to consider this approach to education?

In traditional classrooms, the learning is likely to be too fast or too slow for a good percentage of the students.

Rather than using "seat time" (students progressing through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair), base promotion onward on mastery of competencies and skills.”

Allowing students to learn at their own pace, including progressing more quickly through content they truly understand.

Those sound good. Are there any potential problems with this approach?

Grouping by ability rather than age could increase social interruptions. Having taught middle school and high school, I would tell you that there are some big differences between a sixth grader (typically 11 years old) and an eighth grader (at 13). Even more dramatic would be a class with two very good math students that are 12 and 16 years old. I actually saw that happen several times when middle school students were allowed to go to the high school (or even local college) for advanced classes. I know it works on television for Doogie Howser and Young Sheldon, but maybe not so smoothly in real life. Maturity, socialization and self-esteem are all considerations. 

Scheduling and assigning courses for each student becomes more complicated. 

But even if you question the pedagogy of this approach, what about the andragogy? When we train adult employees or our returning adult undergraduates and graduate students, how do we group? Do we put the 45 year-old woman working on her MBA separate from the 26 year old? Of course, we do not. Through some screening or admission processes, we often put learners in groups based on ability. For example, an employee is brand new to the software so she will go in level one training whether she is 22 or 55 years old.

The old one-room schools were primarily for the lower elementary grade levels, and they very much were products of economics, supply and demand, and necessity. Perhaps, new one-room schools would also work better at those levels rather than at the high school level. We already see some of this arrangement informally or just be accident in higher education and we certainly see it in training situations. This might be the time to reexamine the formal use of ability grouping at different ages and in different situations.

Setting a Course in Rhizomatic Learning

A literal rhizome appears on plants. It is not a root, but more like a stem that sends out shoots and roots from its nodes. "Nodes" may make readers of this blog think of a network and that is one reason why the word was used to describe a kind of learning. As a gardener, I think of the plants (especially weeds and invasive species) that spread with vast networks of roots and will even shoot up new plants at a distance from the original.

grass rhizome

This method of spreading appealed to two French philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in writing their book, A Thousand Plateaus. Rhizomatic learning is actually a variety of pedagogical practices that has more recently been identified as methodology for net-enabled education.

This theory of learning is not like the goal-directed and hierarchical approaches that has been the traditional approaches in classrooms. In the rhizomatic approach, learning is most effective when it allows participants to react to evolving circumstances. That means the task or goal is fluid and continually evolving.

That is a structure where the "community is the curriculum" and it turns teaching, learning and instructional design. Most educators and students are primed for pre-existing objectives. There is comfort in knowing where we are headed and then knowing that we have arrived there.

Dave Cormier's introduction/preface/prologue for an upcoming edited book on rhizomatic learning is online as a long post. Cormier avoids a hard definition as he finds that when we define "particularly in writing, we necessarily exclude some of the nuance of the meaning. We leave out the chance that the definition can get better. We leave out another’s perspective." But people want definitions.


It is no surprise that that Dave Cormier first came to worldwide educational attention as one of the early users and pioneering formulators of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Those original MOOCs were often rhizomatic in structure in that the learning path, the goals and objectives of learners, and so the course it self, was not written in a stone syllabus.

Cormier found in his teaching that using new technologies his students' work "became more diverse and more individualized, and, at the same time, I had lost some control over the teaching process." That can either feel exciting or frightening to a teacher.

And yet, like most of us, Cormier's research reading indicated that "students were ‘most successful’ when they had a clear expectation of what success could look like." Having clear goals for each learning event did not match up with what he was seeing in his teaching.

Curriculum that is textbook-driven (as far too much of our courses are "designed") support a highly structured, linear approach to learning. Add to that structure assignments that come from the content and answers to those assignments that are clearly stated (perhaps in the Teacher’s Copy) and you have a very un-rhizomatic growth pattern. This is growth restricted by borders, walls, planters and possibly even prevented from moving outside the structure by educational "chemicals" designed to kill off stray rhizomes, roots and shoots.

It seems that what gave rise to the current rhizomatic learning growth spurt was the Internet. Cormier's piece goes back much further.

First, he looks to Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Julius Caesar. Then he jumps to the year 1270 and the University of Toulouse, and then to Switzerland in 1800. On that last stop in his history, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi decides that in order to teach the entire country to read (this is before a public school programs and before teacher education programs) he needs standardization. His method is the textbook. It is a way to make 10000 identical copies of content that all will use.

Pestalozzi was using the new technology of his time - the printing press. It allowed him to scale the learning process to more people. But his efforts and ones to follow not only sought to standardize the content, but also the process and the path to learning.

Cormier argues that following that path may have led us to believe that simply following the path means that learning is occurring. He also believes now that under the technology, rhizomatic learning was always happening. As a simple example, he points at the citations in an academic article that thread back rhizomatically to sources.

The Wikipedia entry of rhizomatic learning notes that educational researcher Terry Anderson has criticized the way in which advocates of rhizomatic learning seem to attack the idea of formal education as a whole. And one of Cormier's fellow MOOC pioneers, George Siemens, has questioned the usefulness of the rhizomatic metaphor: "I don’t see rhizomes as possessing a similar capacity (to networks) to generate insight into learning, innovation, and complexity... Rhizomes then, are effective for describing the structure and form of knowledge and learning...[h]owever, beyond the value of describing the form of curriculum as decentralized, adaptive, and organic, I’m unsure what rhizomes contribute to knowledge and learning."

If this approach to learning is truly rhizomatic, it should be difficult to stop from spreading. 


Is Global Collaboration Still an Educational Goal?

globalNow that Serendipity35 has passed the decade milestone, I'm finding two things happening as I write here.

First, I sometimes write a post and then realize that I have already written about that topic in much the same manner. This is both a factor my own aging, and because Serendipity35 now is approaching 2000 posts.

Second, I come across an old post that has not aged well. Most bloggers do not update old posts. If you read something I wrote here in 2008 about AI, you should expect that the information is more historical than currently useful. The technology changes rapidly. But the education parts change much slower.

Like many of the blog posts on Serendipity35 that were written years ago, one that I wrote about some people working towards global education seems dated. And yet rereading it, it also still seems relevant. Aren't we even more about global education today, or are we less interested? 

Ten years ago I wrote this:

Word comes from Julie Lindsay (China) and Vicki Davis (USA) that their group, DigiTeen, has put out a call for digital collaboration stories for a book they will be doing with Pearson Publishing.

DigiTeen is Digital Citizenship for Teenagers and I have written about them here before. It's a great K-12 project that has won numerous awards.

They are looking to create a book that teaches how to connect classrooms on a global basis.

Has global collaboration changed your view of the world?
Has it improved some area of your life?
Established friendships that you still maintain?
Was it a positive experience? Negative?
What lesson did you learn from the project?

Well, they did publish their book in 2012. Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds: Move to Global Collaboration One Step at a Time is based on their projects.

Their Flat Classroom project was well suited for the time. K-20 schools were, and still are, moving to online education and blended learning.

book coverThey were two K-12 classroom teachers deep into the "Web2.0" of that time. Their project received a lot of good buzz and publicity. They were featured in Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, which was getting a lot of attention. Don Tapscott's Grown Up Digital, talked about them. They were featured on Edutopia, and in Curt Bonk's The World is Open. They won reflect 2007 Online Learning Award, and the Taking IT Global Outstanding Online Project, and they were shortlisted in the International WISE awards in 2009.

The end of 2018 is a good time to reflect on the 6 years since the book and the 10+ years since the project. Is "the new school of education" still global collaboration?

Back then, the authors said "High speed Internet, social media, and mobile devices have opened up a remarkable world of connection and collaboration. Global economies are now increasingly intertwined. Multinational teams are becoming the norm in the workplace. Yet most schools are unchanged."

How have schools changed since that time?  They have changed in many ways, but becoming global is not the area of the greatest change. They were correct that global, multinational teams were and are the norm in companies, but schools are much the same in that area. That is probably more true in K-12. Colleges have done a bit better about becoming more global in their collaborations.

I'm not personally involved in K-12 classrooms, but from my limited survey of friends who are in those classroom, the idea of global education does not seem to be in the priorities list as high as it was a decade ago.


Vicki Adams Davis is still blogging and still tweeting (with 159K followers currently) and teaching in Georgia. She teaches technology and business courses for grades 8-12 and serves as IT Director for the school.


Julie Lindsay is still thinking about this topic and published in 2016 The Global Educator: Leveraging Technology for Collaborative Learning and Teaching.    

Revisiting the One Laptop Per Child Movement

students using
XOs being used at a primary school in Kigali, Rwanda using the Scratch programming language (Photo: Wikimedia)

One Laptop per Child (OLPC) is a non-profit initiative established in 2005 with the goal of transforming education for children around the world. The plan was to achieve this goal by creating and distributing educational devices for the developing world, and by creating software and content for those devices.

In 2005, the typical retail price for a laptop was considerably in excess of $1,000 (US). Prices have actually decreased since then and laptops have become far more powerful, but the OPLC objective to create a $100 laptop is still an ambitious one.

The OLPC project was started by Nicholas Negroponte at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a core of MIT Media Lab personnel. The organization has grown to include passionate people creating software and hardware and sustainable community involvement to fulfill the educational mission of OLPC. 

What they created was the OLPC XO Laptop, a low-cost and low-power laptop computer. The project was originally funded by member organizations such as AMD, eBay, Google, Marvell Technology Group, News Corporation, Nortel. Chi Mei Corporation, Red Hat, and Quanta provided in-kind support.

The OLPC project has been the subject of extensive praise and criticism. It was praised for pioneering low-cost, low-power laptops.

It can be given some credit for inspiring later variants such as Eee PCs and Chromebooks.

It certainly generated interest at high levels of government and educational leadership in computer literacy as a mainstream part of education in many poorer countries.

The OLPC group and others have created interfaces that work without literacy in any language, and particularly without literacy in English. And it has increased the attention and production of free and open source software.  

My partner on Serendipity35, Tim Kellers, bought an XO laptop. At the time, your purchase funded a second XO going out free into the world. When Tim left NJIT where we had both worked, he passed the XO on to me. I can't say that I find the device to be much more than a museum piece for my purposes. Then again, it was not designed for me or my purposes or my situation.

                       via Twitter 

I was reminded of the OLPC movement by a post by Allie Cooper on the topic. She wrote:

According to One Laptop Per Child’s Chief Financial Officer Robert Hacker, the most important thing about having these laptops is the capability to access the Internet. “When we think about the causes of poverty, access to information is essential,” said Hacker. “That opens up a huge resource for learning.”

The laptops being given to students are uniformly designed all over the world. The signature mint green color is used by almost two and a half million impoverished children spanning over 40 countries. Called XO Laptops or the Children’s Machine, these low-cost devices function both as traditional notepads or tablets. It has an open-source operating system which is compatible with a plethora of educational apps included in the Sugar software suite. Sugar is designed to be a tool to help students even without the aid of a teacher.


By 2015, OLPC reported that more than 3 million laptops had been shipped. That is a success, but the project also met with criticism. My initial criticism of the laptop was that it was not intuitive to use, and the organization has been criticized for its lack of troubleshooting support. 

Back in 2005 OLPC received concerns about the environmental and health impacts of the hazardous materials found in most computers. OLPC said that it aimed to use as many environmentally friendly materials as it could. The laptop and all OLPC-supplied accessories would be compliant with the EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS). The unit would also far less power than the typical consumer netbooks available. The XO-1 is the first laptop to have been awarded an EPEAT Gold level rating

Over 2 million children and teachers in 42 countries are learning with XO laptops today.

You can learn more about OLPC at:


The 5 Minute University

How long have teachers been hearing about the shortening attention spans of students? I'm sure teachers in the 1950s were hearing about that in relation to increased TV viewing. The rise of cable TV and then video recording took that up a few notches. And then came the Internet. And now it is smartphones.  All of out attention spans have shortened as the option of things to engage with have increased.

When I first starting designing and teaching online courses around 2000, recorded lectures (mostly on VHS tapes) were the standard 90-minute lecture in length. Some were less than that, but we started hearing that research showed they should be less than 20 minutes and even better at under 10 minutes. That did not go over well with most faculty i worked with on instructional design.

While I was not surprised to read about the idea of the 5 Minute University (5MU) project, I am sure that many faculty in higher ed would still scoff at it. This project is aimed the other way - at the instructors. 

It is instructor professional development and intended as an approach for K-12 through higher education. Faculty are as pressed for time as their students and keeping up with the literature or attending an hour or a day at faculty development workshops isn't always practical.

Do they have 5 minutes?

It is compared to movie trailers, giving you enough details to know what the basic premise is but hopefully leaving you wanting more information.

For this project, faculty co-investigators developed 5MU videos about topics related to teaching, learning, and general faculty life. Each presents one topic with a general overview, enough information to get started, and a handout to continue individual development. 

This project started as a collaboration between the schools or colleges of pharmacy, health sciences, and medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Northeastern University, the University of Arkansas Medical System, Palm Beach Atlantic University and Pacific University. Their initial target audience was pharmacy and health profession educators, but it would work as well for any field.

Actually, there is no reason why the concept could not also be used in producing 5-minute videos for students as a way to introduce topics. perhaps in an online course, they could introduce the chapter or topic for the week.

This also reminds me of the print introductions offered by EDUCAUSE as "7 Things You Should Know About" which are quick reads on emerging technologies and practices that include potential implications and opportuntities in education.

Here is what one of the 5MU videos looks like.

Here is a page with additional videos and content.