Reimagining the Modern Classroom

Sep 3, 2016

By Hayley Glatter, Emily DeRuy, and Alia Wong

We asked prominent voices in education—from policy makers and teachers to activists and parents—to look beyond laws, politics, and funding and imagine a utopian system of learning. They went back to the drawing board—and the chalkboard—to build an educational Garden of Eden. We’re publishing their answers to one question each day this week. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Today’s assignment: The Space. Describe the perfect classroom.

Students need to be in classrooms that inspire them—spaces that are light, airy, and filled with examples of work that they aspire to do. Each school will have a variety of spacious classroom settings. Some will be more traditional in the way that we envision classrooms now, but others might be set up outside or within an atrium or amphitheater. There might be desks, cushions, or benches arranged in rows or circles—however the teachers want them, as not every classroom will follow a template. Each classroom will be set up based on what is necessary to meet learning objectives. But schools will prioritize configuring classes to inspire learning first and foremost, and, where appropriate, reflect the diversity of environments that students are exposed to outside a school setting. Students will have beautiful spaces that make them feel good to be at school—with art, living plants, music where appropriate, comfortable seating, and fast internet access.


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17 comments on “Reimagining the Modern Classroom

  • Nearly all of the suggestions for the educational “garden of eden” mentioned in the piece focus on physical properties of the classroom. While I agree that they do have a role to play, in my view the strongest emphasis should be on the ability of the teaching staff (and the parents) to appropriately convey to the student that true learning is the opposite of dogma, that it takes effort and sweat to succed in it, that occasional failure is just normal in this process and is actually an integral part of learning, and that true understanging (and the real excitement that that brings) follows when one has gone through it all, and that the process actually doesn’t stop when one has graduated, even from college or graduate school.



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  • All general purpose classrooms need to be designed to facilitate individual and group activities, teaching, and learning. – With movable furniture, chalkboards/whiteboards, flip-charts, and pinboard displays on walls

    They must also be geared to the age range(s), maturity of learners, and subjects taught/learning experiences.
    The overall size of schools should also be geared to age ranges, with schools for very young children catering for smaller numbers.

    Some will be general purpose or multi-purpose classrooms.
    Movable partitions with access to facilities shared with neighbouring classrooms allow more flexibility. –
    Wet areas with taps and basins and bench-tops for using paint, measuring experiments with water, box-sand-pits (infants/nursery), lockable work-benches with simple tools, etc.
    Carpeted areas where young children can sit on the floor in groups.
    Good well organised storage areas where resource materials are accessible and easily supervised, managed, and replaced at the end of use, ready for the next users are needed.

    Specialised areas for science and technology with apparatus and tools will need to be separate for security and safety. Likewise sports facilities.

    Modern teaching areas will need access to computer systems, and supervised on-line materials enabled at times (personal, group, or large screen/screen projectors).
    Some of these may need to be in separate specialist rooms, others could work with personal lap-tops or similar devices.

    Responsibility for “ownership” of particular areas is important, with young children in particular, benefiting from a base-classroom which they see as a temporary home.
    Such rooms should have bookshelves and wide windowsills where plants can be grown, with individuals taking responsibility for these.

    They should also have some storage facilities for children’s personal belongings.

    Direct access from classrooms to sheltered paved outdoor garden areas with some seats for use in fine weather, can offer variety during lesson times and play-areas during breaks. Classroom chairs can also be taken outside via individual (lockable) doorways.
    There should also be some security fencing involved, to keep very young children on site and away from traffic, and to excluded intruders from access to the children or the school’s resources.



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  • Whatever designs are used, the construction should not be a “lowest tender job”, with responsibility for standards outsourced to various contractors and subcontractors who close and disappear, after being motivated by cost cutting and lacking competent supervision!

    Wall repairs have been required at 30 schools in Scotland because of this flawed politically motivated contracting system.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-37158402
    The collapse of a wall at an Edinburgh primary school could have been caused by the way it was built, a BBC Scotland investigation has found.

    The wall at Oxgangs Primary collapsed during stormy weather in January 2016.

    A senior employee at subcontractor VB Contracts told the BBC they had built the wall and the inner and outer walls were not constructed at the same time.

    Architecture professor Alan Dunlop said this “design issue” could have been the root of the problem at Oxgangs.

    VB Contracts went bust in 2010, but the BBC spoke to a former employee, who did not want to be identified, as part of the BBC Scotland Investigates: How Safe is My School? programme, which was broadcast on Monday evening.

    The collapse of the Oxgangs wall led to 17 schools across Edinburgh being closed over safety concerns. They have all since reopened.

    The schools had all been built or refurbished following a £360m deal between the city council and a private finance consortium under the Public Private Partnership 1 (PPP1) scheme.

    The lead contractor for the Edinburgh schools project, Miller Construction, was bought by Galliford Try in 2014.

    Miller Construction had outsourced some of the work to VB Contracts, which was responsible for the brick and blockworks at Oxgangs Primary, and built the wall that collapsed.

    Internal blockworks for such walls are generally built at the same time as the brick which forms the outside skin of the building.

    This allows the builder to help make sure the two parts are properly connected, with wall ties in the right places.

    But the former employee said Miller Construction had told VB Contracts to build the internal wall at Oxgangs first so the building could be made water and wind tight as quickly as possible in order to allow inside work such as plastering to get started.

    ‘Root of problems’

    It was the outer wall that subsequently fell down at Oxgangs school.

    Architect Alan Dunlop told the BBC the way the walls were built was therefore not “standard practice” and in his view was at the “root of the problems” at Oxgangs school.

    He said: “If you’re going to do that, I would expect a method statement for that to be done. That’s a design issue. It’s not an add, it’s not something you do ad hoc. And you have to do it properly and you have to specify the right wall ties for doing it.

    “In the evidence of the photographs that we have seen, that doesn’t look to be the proper wall tie that you would actually use in circumstances like that.”



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  • My kids classroom (as others) are the mountains we walk up, the rail trails we ride along, the beaches we swim, surf and snorkle at, the slopes we ski down, the basketball / netball court, the movies we see, Google, YouTube, the vast imagination of their minds when they read books… their teachers, are their grandparents, their cousins, their friends, their friends parents, their sports coaches, their parents… oh… and they have to go to some rooms a lot of the year, to stick bits of paper onto bits of card, I think they call it a “School”.

    To be fair, I am not that averse to “regular schools”, and my kids go to a “good” public school (kids just off to a an interesting “school camp”, for example)… but I find the conversation about the learning process, and the discussion of what a “classroom” should look like, to be overly restricted by the narrow idea that, that a “traditional classroom” (however, novel and inventive) is “the” environment where kids (or adults) learn i.e. I would not class moving tables from a line into a circle, or adding a sliding wall as particularly “innovative” ideas. And (terrible start to a sentence, I know) while the article specifically talks about breaking things up into “Space” and, I assume, then “Pedagogy” etc. it is pretty much impossible to untangle the various different aspects e.g. one could still run a class in just about exactly the same way whether students are in a line or in a circle – I have seen both done well and both done badly. The space needs to support what you are teaching… e.g. car mechanic?… you need a workshop with cars to be taken apart and tools on hand and a pit and hoists, a test track, trips to university wind tunnels, trips to factories, racing tracks, road accident centres etc. and experienced passionate mechanics… mathematician?… loads of whiteboards on the walls, collaborative table spaces, computers, a fireplace, coffee machine, gardens to wonder through and contemplate the world, trips to Bletchley park, running the school dance and calculating the ticket price, etc. and experienced passionate mathematicians… and collaboration between the mechanics and the mathematicians and I could go on… but hopefully I’ve contributed to the discussion a little.



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  • Unless you get a front row seat, it is hard to see the board and read the scribbles. There are heads in the way in a flat floor classroom. the “blackboard” should be replaced by a screen on your desk, with the notes/slides prepared ahead of time so they are legible and so you have a permanent copy. Copying your own illegible notes in a waste of time you could have spent paying attention to the content.

    In universities, there are profs who hate teaching. Use profs instead with huge classes, perhaps on net who enjoy entertaining.

    Classroom time should be mostly questions. Reading notes is leftover from the days before there were copiers or other ways of distribution.



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  • Roedy #6
    Sep 5, 2016 at 12:20 am

    In universities, there are profs who hate teaching.

    I think that is probably because of the mistake of appointing researchers as teachers, without regard to their enthusiasm or communication skills.

    Use profs instead with huge classes, perhaps on net who enjoy entertaining.

    Unless you get a front row seat, it is hard to see the board and read the scribbles. There are heads in the way in a flat floor classroom. the “blackboard” should be replaced by a screen on your desk,

    Modern university lecture theatres often hold 300, have tiered seats, with large screen and projector linked to the lecturer’s computer.

    Many smaller tutorial rooms also have whiteboards with drop-down projection screens at the front of the room.

    I have also seem intermediate size venues with students sitting in groups facing large flat-screen CCTVs relaying images of the teachers, interspaced with computer based materials prepared and stored on memory sticks ready for use.

    There can also be facilities for retrospective re-viewing of course materials on networks.



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  • Theo H #5
    Sep 4, 2016 at 11:11 pm

    My kids classroom (as others) are the mountains we walk up, the rail trails we ride along, the beaches we swim, surf and snorkle at, the slopes we ski down, the basketball / netball court, the movies we see, Google, YouTube, the vast imagination of their minds when they read books… their teachers, are their grandparents, their cousins, their friends, their friends parents, their sports coaches, their parents…

    This is excellent for their wider education, but school should be excluding distractions, in order for children to focus on learning key skills and specialist skills from teachers with expertise, both in subject areas and in teaching techniques.

    oh… and they have to go to some rooms a lot of the year, to stick bits of paper onto bits of card, I think they call it a “School”.

    It is unfortunate,- that penny pinching politicians, see schools more as a basic child-minding service, enabling parents to go out to work long hours to generate wealth for the wealthy.

    Children, in any case, are likely to spend many of their waking hours in school if parents are in employment.

    It is also unfortunate that gullible voters vote for these sorts of people on the promise of “tax cuts”!
    I have even seen stupid people whose pay is so low that they don’t pay direct income taxes, vote for politicians advocating cutting budgets for services to provide promised tax-cuts!

    These are the very people whose children lack the educational experiences and skills from extended families, where schools should be bringing them up to basic levels of citizen and employment competence.



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  • I second most of Alan4Discussions points on good classroom spaces.

    Having taught both primary and high school you see the flaws and benefits in both systems. Teachers are very time poor and to do truly inspirational stuff requires free time, energy and opportunity. About 10 years ago I had a couple of years of team teaching. We had 4 core teachers (year 8’s) we were fortunate enough to have a divided classroom and we paired up with two of use teaching science and maths together and the other pair teaching English and humanities. However we shared a staffroom and planned together and gossiped about the students together. I cannot begin to expound the benefits however they were massive including pretty much halving out planning loads and therefore stress levels considerably. We’d open the dividers most lessons and teach the basic content to the whole group while the other teacher managed behavior and contributed but didn’t any active planning for that lesson. Dropping the need to plan for each hour in front of a class meant we spend a lot more time planning interesting and cool stuff which increased the motivation of the students. Also we were able to teach to our strengths, I could draw, loved astronomy etc. My partner was an excellent agricultural scientist so she’d often have the kids up at the ag center (attached to our school – cows sheep pigs, crops greenhouses etc). For her lessons shoving her hand to the shoulder up some cows various orifices.

    Meanwhile I’d be out collecting dung beetles with other kids while we classified different species for our area for the local land management council. It was brilliant stuff and the kids were engaged, couldn’t get away with poor behavior and you had another adult to joke with during a lesson. Made all the difference. We could stream where necessary and we often did, but. Unfortunately we had only one space capable of doing this in the school and they split us up to try to spread the love, without divided classrooms nothing came of it and it like many good ideas died and was never re-adopted. Very sad, I wish I had a time machine it was some of my happiest moments as a teacher.



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  • I have taught only briefly at college level and am in awe of what good teachers can achieve. They are cultural heroes to a man and woman. So,

    I want to be clear about the difference between experience and education. Rich experience is great. You can almost never have too much of it. But understanding what you are seeing, noticing what needs to be noticed and retaining it by being reminded of it with additional attributes in a timely way is critical. Levering a lot of stuff into short term memory risks losing much of it. The fantasy that it is all in there and retrievable is just that and damaging to our understanding of education.

    The trick it seems to me apart from preparation for experiences is to gift kids problems. Not the checklist of did you see this or that? But, how does this or that happen? Could it be done better? Seeing things critically, as compromises, as sub optimum sharpens the attention to detail like nothing else. Not aren’t we clever but how could we do better. There is nothing more squashes a child than to have them think the grown ups have it all under control already.

    I think Alan exactly right to observe that teaching spaces may often exclude over rich stimuli. Focus and introspection are frequent requirements in education.



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  • Roedy #6 Unless you get a front row seat, it is hard to see the board
    and read the scribbles. There are heads in the way in a flat floor
    classroom. the “blackboard” should be replaced by a screen on your
    desk, with the notes/slides prepared ahead of time so they are legible
    and so you have a permanent copy. Copying your own illegible notes in
    a waste of time you could have spent paying attention to the content.

    Though one needs to be careful. There is educational research that indicates note taking / summarising (hand-written, rather than typing at a computer) tends to lead to better retention / future application of information. Having pre-printed notes can reduce student’s note-taking and hence reduce learning, despite what a student might believe.

    Roedy #6 Classroom time should be mostly questions.

    I would agree… though I would describe it more as discussion, student problem-solving etc…. i.e. student-centred activities rather than a “sage on the stage”… a multitude of different approaches like this are encompassed by the term “active learning”. This is what we do / or are moving towards (i.e. at the University where I work).

    Alan4discussion #8 This is excellent for their wider education, but
    school should be excluding distractions, in order for children to
    focus on learning key skills and specialist skills from teachers with
    expertise, both in subject areas and in teaching techniques.

    I agree and disagree. Sure. There has to be a mixture of skills… sure one needs to be able to learn to concentrate, focus, spend large amounts of time on a particular mental task… but I tend to think this is sometimes over-emphasised for school kids, at the expense of a range of other important skills… and that is coming from a mathematician / physicist / academic type!… I’m all for some standing round a whiteboard / sitting at a desk solving a problem – in suitable moderation… kind of like a good wine/beer/coffee/favourite beverage!

    And just to wax lyrical on the subject a bit further… academically, there is “good practice” and “bad practice” (as with sport) i.e. “the way one practices / learns things” e.g. (a simplistic example) a child spending ages learning to spell by trying to memorise the individual letters of the words will learn little, another child spending much less time but turning it into a deep learning experience by thinking about homophones, synonyms, antonyms pre-fixes, suffixes their origins (Greek, Latin) the history of words, their connections to other words etc…. will “learn” much more. Same with times tables and seeing the mathematical patterns rather than “by wrote” etc. (though some “by-wrote” is needed in suitable amounts and at suitable times).

    Like Reckless Monkey’s description of good deep learning experiences… learning as an “experience” (which can be quietly, in a classroom, at a desk but still needs to be a “whole experience”)… teacher and learner both get more out of it… and the role of who is the “teacher” and who is the “learner” tends to get mixed up in a really good learning environment… best times I’ve had teaching is when I’ve also been learning.

    The classroom (ski slope, ag centre, sitting on a “garden” lawn discussing poetry / philosophy, poring over equations standing around a whiteboard) needs to support the experience… too often it doesn’t.



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  • Getting short term memories to become longer term is one of the reasons for taking notes. Its not for the notes in themselves so much as the adding tags and valuations to make the ideas more accessible. On the few occasions when I did this sort of thing, I talked for just a very few minutes then allowed a minute to note take or take questions. These periods depended on the idea density. Not talking for overlong without such breaks seemed to work best.



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  • Theo H #11
    Sep 6, 2016 at 3:44 am

    You raise interesting points, but I think the scientific method of moving on from the obsolete v conservatively clinging to the past is a key issues.

    And just to wax lyrical on the subject a bit further… academically, there is “good practice” and “bad practice” (as with sport) i.e. “the way one practices / learns things”

    Due to limited resources and lack of expert teachers, many methods which were “good practice” in the past are now “bad practice”.

    e.g. (a simplistic example) a child spending ages learning to spell by trying to memorise the individual letters of the words will learn little,

    Learning letters is the key to writing, but must be made interesting in games and incidental in activities. Letters should be initially associated with names of familiar objects.

    These days, spell-checkers teach spelling very effectively once the basic writing skills are mastered.

    Again obsolete methods are an issue. It is about 20 years since I put a file of curriculum spelling lists into a computer hangman game to the delight of children playing with this.

    another child spending much less time but turning it into a deep learning experience by thinking about homophones, synonyms, antonyms pre-fixes, suffixes their origins (Greek, Latin) the history of words, their connections to other words etc…. will “learn” much more.

    I think that would be some years on from infant and nursery children learning basic writing and spelling.

    Same with times tables and seeing the mathematical patterns rather than “by wrote” etc. (though some “by-wrote” is needed in suitable amounts and at suitable times).

    Again, nursery and infant children can become familiar with times tables by singing along with musical versions of them, but I had children learning tables by circling or colouring intervals of 2s, 3,s, 4s, 5s, etc. on squares of numbers one to 100, forty years ago.

    The problem is with schools offering “a conservative education”, or backward parents/grandparents/politicians, glorifying and seeking to repeat the obsolete teaching methods from their own childhoods or in home-schooling.

    One of the worst features is some systems of modern education, is the short-termism which pours (some) money belatedly into late-teen problem areas, while treating pre-school and primary education, as poor relations working on penny-pinching budgets.

    Theo H #5
    Sep 4, 2016 at 11:11 pm

    My kids classroom (as others) are the mountains we walk up, the rail trails we ride along, the beaches we swim, surf and snorkle at, the slopes we ski down,

    You are probably spending more money on a single family trip, than is allocated for teaching materials for a whole primary class for a whole year!



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  • Alan4discussion #14
    Sep 6, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    The OP image does seem to be a Northern Hemisphere sketch of an Australian classroom! ?

    I thought it was you guys that were upside down! 🙂 When I saw the picture I was wondering how he was planning on drawing on the blackboard with no arms, and why his tie was defying the laws of gravity.

    Every time I see a globe in our school I pull it off the stand and turn it upside down. Got to get the kids to see there is no such thing as up, well only relative ups.



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