Sunday, November 8, 2009

Classrooms of the Future

I wrote this in response to an email from our Head of Upper School about plans for building the school's Academic Commons (our school's name for a new type of library) and classrooms of the future. The question really revolved around what technology should be included, and how to maximize innovation for teachers. What I wrote is opinionated and idealistic, and I certainly don't claim to talk for all teachers, but the issues raised are definitely worth thinking about.

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My main feeling is that the whole thing needs to be mobile. What I love about our current Audio Nonfiction class is the flexibility of sending students out for an interview at any time, because they can carry a whole recording studio with them (they use an iPod Nano and a Belkin Tune Talk microphone). We can also listen to pieces at any time with the projection and speakers in the classroom, and the fact that everything can be stored is on a laptop. The software we use (Audacity) is free and can be downloaded on any computer. However, I wish our classrooms were more flexible. The desks in the science and math rooms help this somewhat, because they are more like tables, where things can be laid out, like you would to see the whole structure of a journalism project, and the desks can be combined to make a large table for a conference room feeling. They are conducive to work, because you can have a book, a notebook, a set of pens, and a computer on them all at once without it feeling crowded. The old desks in the English classrooms are really only good for sitting, and they're not even very good for that. The math/science desks are bulky, though, and take up a lot more space, so it's more difficult to clear out the room if you want to have space to move around. My mythology class does Budokon once a semester - a form of yoga and martial arts - and I believe this type of experiential learning will become more and more important in the future. The more flexible the spaces are, and the more adaptable the technology, the more effective the teaching can be. Projection screens are useful (I mainly use smart boards as projection screens now), and it would be interesting to explore if a single projector could project in more than one direction, with screens on each of the walls. I'm not positive how I would use this, but it would offer the type of flexibility that really lets teachers and students improvise.

That's the main word I think is necessary as we move into the future with technology and innovation - improvisation. In my opinion, the smart board is a great technology, but ultimately is more limiting than a white board and projection screen. For one thing, you can't take it with you between classrooms (most rooms in our school have them, but not all of them), and it also reduces the amount of white board space you have. I know that they make pocket projectors now that work just as well as a big projector, and maybe that's the way of the future. These can be plugged into iPhones or iPods or Netbooks. To my mind, the technology we use needs to get smaller and more personalized. For the nonfiction class, the whole recording studio fits easily in the palm of your hand. This allows a spontaneous improvisation - a student at a basketball game can suddenly interview the winning coach without having to set anything up. Teachers need to have the same freedom in their classrooms.

For the Living Epic class I'm going to do with our Academic Dean next semester, our goal is to turn the students into experts. In this case, we need maximum flexibility to create any type of space that the students may spontaneously need. Some students may want to work with blueprints, and so they need desks or tables to accommodate that. Some may want to teach the class martial arts, so it needs to be able to be completely cleared out. Some may want to build something in the room (like a huge lego tower), and some may want to create a film. It's amazing how easy green-screen technology is getting to be, so having a good video camera, a big green screen that can be pulled down on a moment's notice, and good editing software on a laptop will allow students to create the next Star Wars right in the classroom itself. But we don't need to plan for the technologies - we can presume they will be small, personalized and portable, and so what we really need to concentrate on is planning for the flexibility of the space.

I think the Academic Commons also needs a few bigger spaces as well. A space that can accommodate a true class meeting will free up the complete traffic jam that is our theater for real instruction in classes like Senior Seminar. But a room for a class meeting needs to be completely flexible as well, so that it can be transformed into a medium-sized performance space for instrumental and choral music, student-directed plays, senior project presentations, etc. Since they will be used for a variety of purposes, these spaces need to be sound-proofed and have flexible lighting - in other words, a great deal of natural light that can be blocked out completely. And these spaces need to be sacred for work with students. Our current so-called Student Activity Center is anything but. It's used for so many meetings with the Trustees and Parents' Committees that it is rarely available for classes to meet in, and almost never used by students in their spare time, as far as I can tell, which is why they spend their free time in the library, and why that space becomes a difficult place to get any studying done.

The Academic Commons also needs both quiet spaces and spaces that really encourage socializing and collaboration. The sound proofing needs to be good enough that students can hold recording sessions in small rooms - both for instrumental and choral work (to make audition tapes for colleges, for example) and for projects in classes like Audio Nonfiction and the Film course. And there need to be enough of these to accommodate multiple projects happening at the same time, with no real need to schedule the spaces in advance. What we want to capture is the ability for spontaneous improvisation. There need to be smaller spaces that are just large enough for a group of students to collaborate on a project, but which don't become too casual. Access to technology should be readily available (speakers, projectors, video cameras, laptops), but should be as hidden as possible, and again - the technology needs to be small. I think the iPod Touch is a perfect model for what the technology of the future will be, especially when the pocket projectors arrive on the mass market. Even better for me is the Android phone, which allows an overlap of applications, so that one application can piggy-back on another one. The GPS technology is especially exciting, because a teacher can plug curriculum into a set of coordinates and send the students off on a quest. The folks at MIT are already working on this.

So in my opinion, we would make a mistake if we made technology the centerpiece of the Academic Commons - especially technology that is big or expensive, or which figures into the design of the buildings or rooms in any way. It's all changing way too fast to predict what it will be, except the one trend that seems definite: technology is becoming much smaller and more personalized, and soon, everything you need will be able to be carried in your pocket, and inexpensive enough to be owned by everyone. Instead, the Academic Commons needs to be designed for maximum collaboration. It needs places where students can gather to socialize, places where they can work together on a project, places where teachers can meet with students, and places where classes can really roll up their sleeves and get to work. And there need to be enough of them that one is available in a moment of spontaneous inspiration. Horizontal space (like the math desks) is essential, but it must be easily removable so that the space can be completely clear for exercises or work on the floor. Now that Barnes & Noble is releasing its version of the Kindle with more flexibility and capacity, it's only a matter of time until textbooks will be electronic, which will not only save many adolescent backs, but will let us pick and choose the physical books that really matter. I could easily see all of my classes buying an eBook reader freshman year, and then downloading all their English books for half the price they would normally buy them for. Most classics will be free, thanks to Google, and that's a large part of what we teach. The only thing that's holding me back now is the inability to scribble in the margins, but that is only a matter of months. I strongly believe there will always be a place for a real library, but the reference section will become obsolete. To me, the library will become a center of collaboration rather than a place for reference, and we need to design the space to accommodate that. Rather than making it a place for silent contemplation (we need a different space for that, like graduate carrels), the sound in the library should be geared toward group collaboration, so that sound does not carry generally throughout the room as it does now, but also doesn't make students uneasy about their excitement.

The idea that innovation can happen in a single mind is an old fairy tale. True creativity comes from the excitement of shared ideas. A classroom of the future will require the ability to focus on a variety of different projects, the flexibility to follow the whims of spontaneous inspiration, and the feeling of freedom that is essential to a playground of the mind.