Classrooms of the Future

What will the “classroom of the future” look like?
Anyone who is interested in educational reform probably comes around to that question sooner or later, and there are many different visions.
Cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, of the Philadelphia Daily News, gives us a
look at one possible result of ever-increasing cuts to school budgets.
Our technology, our understanding of child development, and our mandated necessity to teach all children in public schools suggest some directions, including making classrooms more accessible to differently-abled children. Growing pressure from tax-cutting state legislatures to reduce costs suggest other potential courses of action.
This West London classroom structure was designed by
Ludic Productions to facilitate a self-directed learning
experience, using new technology.
Some districts have focused on increasing class sizes or reducing course offerings and teacher employment. In recent years, districts in my area have cut hundreds of teaching jobsMore and more districts also are offering online distance-learning options. By 2009, more than half the districts in the US had adopted at least some online courses.
In addition to reducing some costs, “it provides the ability to offer coursework that is otherwise unavailable at a child’s school,” noted Anthony G. Picciano, co-author of a 2009 survey of chief administrators (the most recent data I could find). He added, “We find [this] to be especially significant in rural counties.”
Tennessee student Kelsey Stephenson takes
an online course at home. Photo by Shawn
Poynter for Digital Directions.
By 2011, several districts and states had begun to require at least some online classes, as a preparation for the future. “The reality is, [at some point] they’re going to have to do an online course,” Kathleen Airhart of the Putnam County (TN) Schools said in an Education Weekinterview. “This helps prepare the students.”
Of course, not all courses lend themselves equally well to online teaching. As a studio art teacher, I question whether anyone will ever be able to teach an entire studio art course as effectively online as in person with actual materials and immediate feedback.
Salman Khan started a YouTube
online teaching phenomenon–but he’s
wise enough NOT to teach some subjects.
The justly celebrated Khan Academy offers more than 3,200 teaching videos on a variety of topics—they even have an impressive range of art history offerings—but not hands-on classes such as ceramics or painting. I’ve seen lots of videos on these topics, true—but none could take the place of an actual teacher in a well-equipped classroom.
Wii Sports Baseball seems unlikely to replace the real thing
anytime soon.
Videos teaching athletic skills are subject to similar limitations. Although technology similar to the Wii gaming system may be developing that will bridge some of those gaps in the future, that time has not yet come as I write this.
If schools only existed to teach subject matter, it is possible that brick-and-mortar schools where students physically gather each day for a set period of time might soon be a thing of the past. But schools as we know them do not only serve as a source for academic learning.

When a massive tornado destroyed Joplin High School,
replacing it became a top community priority.
Schools also are important social and cultural centers for students and their communities. “A place can lose its bank, its tavern, its grocery store, its shoe shop. But when the school closes, you might as well put a fork in it,” writes Timothy Egan in an article about the demise of small towns in the United States. This explains why rebuilding destroyed schools after massive tornadoes in Joplin, MO, Greensburg, KS, and similar places is always hailed asan important community milestone.
Keeping children off the street and engaged in meaningful
learning is a primary role of schools that was unavailable to
these Troy, NY urchins as recently as 1910.
For many families, schools play a vital custodial function for their young children during the day while parents are at work. It is important not to underestimate the importance of this. Historically, public schools in the US were formed in parallel with the juvenile justice system, in response to a growing problem of theft and vandalism by roving bands of urchins as the Industrial Revolution pulled parents into factories, but found children to be unsatisfactory laborers.
Kansas City Missouri’s BackSnack program, sponsored by
Harvesters and major donors such as LINC (the Local Invest-
ment Commission) and distributed through schools, provides
a vital service for food-insecure children.
Many poor children also depend on theirschool’s free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs for steady food sources in an otherwise food-insecure existence. The Harvesters “BackSnack” programuses schools as a distribution center for their program to extend food aid during weekends and holidays.
Any “school of the future” would need to meet all of these varied needs, but there might be good ways to do this, outside of a traditional, brick-and-mortar school. I have often wondered if some future schools might be organized into something resembling next-generation one-room schools.
Some employers already provide day care, such as in
this Boston-area store. Could a school room be part of
some future places of employment?
Children could gather in smaller groups, perhaps in community rooms of apartment buildings or in parents’ workplaces (in a similar facility to some employers’ current day-care centers). One or two teachers could supervise and complement or augment online lessons for children who might vary in age, but all attend the same location because it is in their “neighborhood.”
This is a volunteer mentor, but teacher-facilitators in
educational centers could offer similarly individualized
attention.
These teachers could mentor students through several years of schooling, providing both continuity and individualized guidance, appropriate to each student’s personality and abilities. They also could organize outings for special classes such as hands-on science labs, studio art, music classes, exercise classes, sports team practices, or trips to museums. 
This idea does not address the needs for racial and cultural integration experiences, opportunities to associate with age-peers, etc. It would work better in cities than in rural areas, but it also might answer a more complete range of needs than individual online learning in homebound isolation, while still reducing a district’s busing and building-maintenance costs.

No one can be sure what the future will bring, but I definitely think that schools are going to change.


PHOTO AND IMAGE CREDITS: The 2011 Signe Wilkinson (Philadelphia Daily News) “Classrooms of the Future” cartoon is from the NewsAdvance website. The photo of the futuristic-looking London classroom is from Ludic Productions. The photo of Kelsey Stephenson at work in her home was taken by Shawn Poynter for Digital Directions, an Education Week publication. The photo of Salman Khan is courtesy of the Socialtimes blog. The Wii Sports Baseball screen grab is from the Wii Secrets website. GIS at Bucknell provided the image of the tornado-devastated Joplin High School. The photo of the urchins in Troy, NY is courtesy of the “Sweet Juniper!” archive. The KC LINC website provided the “BackSnack Program” image. The employer-provided day care image is courtesy of the Boston Globe, and the photo of the mentor with her school-age friend is from the Raleigh, NC Neighbor-2-Neighbor organization’s “outreach” webpage. Many thanks to all of them!




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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

2 thoughts on “Classrooms of the Future”

  1. On Video Games: There is also the Kinect from Xbox (http://www.xbox.com/en-US/KINECT) and the ability it has to track hand motions and correct movements like in the game Dance Central. All we need now is a 3D projector and we can practice surgery at home.

    I wonder if, based on your comments about the community impact, if schools might not include some business tasks that would teach students real-life skills and give them experience they could use later.

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