Redesigning the 21st Century Classroom

If you are a regular reader here, you’ll know that I talk often about ways I’m changing the structure of my courses to meet the needs of 21st century learners, while taking advantage of all that new and emerging technologies have to offer in terms of promoting engaged, relevant learning experiences.

I’m often frustrated by the process. It’s not that implementing 21st century technology is difficult (it isn’t, as long as there’s a plan), it’s that often, the educational models are still stuck in the 20th century.

Classroom Setup
We still have classrooms with desks in a row, with a spot for the teacher at the front to lecture. Sometimes, if it’s a computer lab, the computers are set up perpendicular to the teacher, so the teacher can see the students (but the students can’t really see each other because there are giant computer screens in the way). Most classrooms are not set up for collaboration. If students need to work together, they have to crowd around in the narrow aisles between the computer stations, or leave the classroom altogether. There’s not much desk space around their computers, so doing anything on paper or with tools other than a computer becomes challenging.

The 21st century classroom does not have crowded rows of desks. It does not keep most of the space at the front of the room for the teacher. The 21st century classroom is made up of groupings of desks that seat 4-6 students, facing each other. The teacher stands in one corner (where everyone can see) with a smart board. One entire wall of the classroom is a painted on white board. Students bring their own dry-erase markers and brushes, and can use that board whenever they want to work something out.

In a computer lab environment where students don’t need large monitors, each desk grouping is equipped with a laptop and/or a tablet (depending on the needs of the program being taught there). Each desk has a charging station for mobile devices. In labs where students need to work on larger, more powerful computers (like the Multimedia Program in which I teach), the computers are set up around the perimeter of the classroom. The centre of the classroom contains desk groupings, so when students need to collaborate away from their computers, they have a space to spread out and do so.

This is the kind of classroom I dream about. One that is designed for collaboration, student engagement, and freedom of movement and creativity.

Re-visiting Policies
The physical learning environment is one thing. The philosophical learning environment is another beast entirely. There are so many shifts that need to happen here that I hardly know where to begin.

First, we need to re-visit our own in-class policies as teachers. Most teachers still forbid students bringing mobile devices (smart phones, iPods and the like) to class. They forbid use of Facebook, Twitter or YouTube during class time. Some schools block access to these tools altogether. These tools create too much distraction, therefore, many teachers feel the only way to remove that distraction is to eliminate it altogether.

Restricting student access to technology is fundamentally the wrong approach. The solution is to teach appropriate use. I tell my students they are allowed to use their devices in class. I also tell them they are allowed to use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But I’m very clear on HOW they use them. No texting or phone calls during class unless it’s an emergency, and turn phones to silent always. Browsers closed during lectures unless I say to open to a specific page. I can see everyone’s screens on my instructor station, and telling them at beginning of the term that I can see what they’re doing, usually helps them to comply. : )

But I do encourage use of mobile devices and social networks for doing class work. I tell them to use YouTube to look up videos for inspiration, or tutorials. I suggest they find podcasts related to course material and subscribe and listen or watch to get a better understanding of concepts. I tell them to ask their Twitter and Facebook contacts for their opinions on various things. Students who use these tools on a regular basis are more engaged in learning, and ultimately are succeeding more. It’s that simple.

In the bigger picture, institutions need to start to re-visit their policies as well. They need to implement more professional development for teachers, so there are fewer of us who are afraid to embrace technology and new teaching approaches. They also need to look at the technologies they have in place for distributing course materials, discover what isn’t working, and how new technologies like YouTube, Facebook, WordPress and Ning can be leveraged to deliver content in more effective ways. They need to work with the teachers who are on the front lines of emerging technology to better understand the implications of tech in the classroom and update school policies to reflect the new era.

We have a lot of work to do. Classrooms and policies need to be re-thought, and teachers need the ability to be able to make fundamental changes to the way they do things, without fear of repercussions from their administration. The 21st century student demands that embrace all the potential that new technology holds to create a dynamic, engaged and vastly improved learning experience. And if we’re not ready to meet those demands, then I fear that we risk making ourselves obsolete.

[photo by D3]

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  • September 22, 2011 at 9:57 am
    Diane Brogan

    You might enjoy Whitney Hoffman’s new book. I’m not even a teacher and I think her ideas are fascinatining.

    Good luck

  • September 22, 2011 at 10:19 am

    In my vision, most time spent lecturing is on the lower grades. Once students hav mastered the basics they transition to self-paced learning guided by professionally done checksheets, geared toward ability to apply the knowledge. As opposed to merely passing a test. Teachers graduate to supervisors helping along and making sure anyone stuck gets referred to suitable information or practice to progress on thir checksheet and make he grade.

  • September 22, 2011 at 10:28 am

    Here! here! I don’t know what it is going to take Sue to finally make the changes in schools that everyone is asking for. However, after watching so many documentaries on why those in power want to keep status quo I can totally understand.

    I would love nothing more than to be brought into a classroom with a budget and told “fix it!”

    Let’s open a school 😀

  • September 23, 2011 at 2:43 am

    So glad you said all of this. I have a 7 yr old son and I have real concerns about the way the education system works. The old style “sit down, shut up and listen” approach sat in rows just doesn’t meet how little people learn best.

    My favourite line of your post is:

    “This is the kind of classroom I dream about. One that is designed for collaboration, student engagement, and freedom of movement and creativity.”

    Yes. Yes. Yes. As a parent this is what I want too.

    My hope is that teachers like you and parents like me can find a way to make learning environments a better and more relevant place for our kids. To do that we need to challenge the status quo and outdated practices. I applaud you for calling it as it is.

  • September 23, 2011 at 10:47 am

    A classroom like you described would be a dream come true! Educators like you, who have vision and passion will hopefully become the norm in the world of the teaching profession. It’s hard to convince adults who are basically out of touch with modern technology, or see these electronic devices as distracting and only useful for entertainment as a valid learning tool for our young people today. Someone recently blogged, [in regards to these devices] “If you can’t beat em, join em!”, and I think that with thoughtful, innovative, project-based instruction at the core of school curriculum, it may be possible to do it. Thank you for your insightful and honest post.

  • September 24, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Readers might enjoy taking a look at the videos our science students have produced extolling the virtues–and the 21st-century-learning appropriateness–of the redesigned science spaces at Beaver Country Day School ( The kids reference Sir Ken Robinson and get pretty deeply into why the flexible, clean spaces–which include a big collaboration area, Idea Paint walls, and totally mobile furniture–work for a new approach to learning. Here are some URLS:
    (You can find more on the right-side page menu on these YouTube pages.)

    Beaver is also hooked up with an incredible MIT-originated studio-learning program called NuVu–see for the whole story!

  • September 27, 2011 at 2:07 pm
    Joe Holubowich

    Hey Susan… what you say makes such sense… In theory I couldn’t agree more about student’s being trusted and encouraged to use mobile devices and social media tools in class… That’s the left side of my brain talking… the right side is still fighting the traditional and old methods.. the only methods I have known until taking your class. I’m doing my best to introduce both lobes to each other and trying to have them work in unison! Good to ease my way into the new media and marketing world through your mentoring!

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