What Does a 'Modern Classroom' Look Like—and What Should Educators Leave Behind?

What Does a 'Modern Classroom' Look Like—and What Should Educators Leave Behind?

The classroom. Since the 1950s, the setup of your average second, sixth or tenth grade classroom hasn’t changed all that much. Desks lined up, students facing forward, teacher up at the front giving a lecture. The same can be said for higher education oftentimes, as well. What gives?

In early October, EdSurge hosted the Austin Tech for Schools Summit in Texas, and while there, heard a bit about what administrators and entrepreneurs are doing to actively create the “modern classroom.” How do educators redefine what classrooms look like? Blow up the design entirely? Bring in more project-based learning? In this Q&A, you’ll hear from Superintendent Royce Avery and CTO Angela Matthews of Manor ISD, Director of Technology Erin Bown-Anderson of Austin ISD, assistant principal Kris Waugh of Ann Richards School, and Jon Phillips of DELL, who looks after worldwide education strategy.

What will it take to propel the “modern classroom” forward?


EdSurge: Teachers and administrators from all over the country are attempting to redefine what the modern classroom looks like. Let’s start small: What is one attribute of a modern classroom?

Angela Matthews: As I think about what the modern classroom needs to be, like you said, it hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years. You see pictures of kids from 20 years ago, where they are sitting in rows with a textbook and a teacher is still standing in the front of the room. But today we’re seeing pictures of kids still sitting in front of rows with the teacher standing in front of the classroom–instead of a textbook, they have an iPad or a laptop. That is not making the classroom modern.

The classroom being more modern is when we are bringing the real world to them, and teaching them to collaborate, communicate. Those C’s that we talk about, we need to quit talking about it and start doing it.

Erin Bown-Anderson: As far as a modern classroom goes, I would say that the biggest factor… has to do with mindset. It has to do with who is controlling the information in the classroom. Truly embracing student agency. Amplifying under-represented voices is incredibly important, and technology helps us to do that. To me, the modern classroom really is a shifting of roles and responsibilities and control.

John Phillips: I think there are two key things that I hope to share as best practices for you all today. First, a modern classroom is actually messy. It’s loud and it’s fun. 

The other thing that I see that is starting to really cascade around the globe is related to teachers. You may peek in the room, and you may not be able to see them. Where’s the teacher? Oh, the teacher is over there. It’s really cool to see that. And then, there are these three questions that I hear asked in modern classrooms. Students are engaged with and charged with: “What did you just learn? How does that make you feel? What are you going to do about it?” I think those last two questions are questions that define a modern classroom.

Kristina Waugh: I don’t think that we should just tear down the walls. I think we need to blow up our schools, actually. I don’t know if that shouldn’t be quoted… not physically. I think a great model of a school would be Barton Creek Mall.

The other thing is we have to get our teachers to move away from teaching and start facilitating, and that is what a modern classroom looks like.

EdSurge: On that note, let’s talk about the element of teachers. When it comes to modernizing the classroom, you have your early adopters. And then you have, what I like to call, your “Chicken Littles,” who are teachers that scream, “The sky is falling! Everything I’ve known for the last 30 years is changing!” How do you prepare that type of educator to move towards more of a student-centered model?

Kristina Waugh: Can I go first? We have to make it okay for teachers to fail and fail in front of students. Because if everything has to be perfect before we launch, then we never launch. As administrators, we have to open the doors up and say, “Yeah, you’re not going to know all the answers to this, but, you know what, you can facilitate your kids to figure out those answers along the way!”

John Phillips: We will always have adults that say, “Hmmm, I don’t know if this is going to work.” We’ve seen some really best practices, where it’s kind of like baseball play-off season. Think of being at bat as being the early adopter. You’re in the batting box, the pitcher is throwing the pitch at you and there’s this little thing called “on deck”. It’s the next-up. The nice thing about next-up is, you’re not in the game, but… you’re next and so you’re watching. It’s a safe place for a teacher. We call those first followers. Right? Those are teachers that we want to be committed to the cause, but not committed to the pressure.

Dr. Royce Avery: Let me just add two things from me as a superintendent. It is the leadership piece that has to be the shift. I think also superintendents have to be little bit more engaged in the process. One of the things that I’m transforming is the work that I do with principals, because I have to be the model to get in those classrooms and show that, hey, it is okay for the teacher to step out of the box and let kids take a greater role in the process.

In addition to that, I think as we change the way we do our business in public schools, we have to build that campus culture that is going to allow that to happen. Right now, we are so structured in the things that we do every day, but we have to step back a little bit and allow that risk-taking to take place in the classroom. That’s a struggle for most administrators.

EdSurge: I will say, I don’t always envy the role of an administrator, because there is a lot for all of you to have to sort through out there. I’ve been in places where I’ll sit down and the administrator will go, “We’re doing project-based learning, makerspaces, personalized learning, virtual academies. We made Disneyland…” How do you sort through and choose what is going to work best in your school and district? Or does it have to be a choice?

Erin Bown-Anderson: For us, it’s about our mission statement. We constantly go back to that. We are a PBL school, and for us, what we have to do is make learning real. In education, we have to have authentic experiences and stop doing “make-believe” school. Until we do that, it doesn’t matter what you do, until you start making school real, deep and meaningful.

EdSurge: One last question: What is something that you wish would be left in the past? Something that would not keep going forward with the modern classroom?

Kristina Waugh: We’ve got to make our schools look like galleries. We got to take down the lockers and take down the walls. We got to get the individual desk out of our classrooms, because until you do that, you’re still going to put the teacher up front, and they’re still going to direct-teach.

Erin Bown-Anderson: I think my one thing that I would like to see left in the past is a disproportionate value that’s put on standardized tests.

Angela Matthews: Okay. One thing I would really like to see changed, and this is an easy thing, because it doesn’t cost a penny. We have faculty meetings every week, and who knows best what’s happening in a classroom? Some of our most wonderful teachers. But… those teachers cannot get a place in their faculty meetings to share the great things that are happening in their classroom. So, if we can share within our walls the great things that are happening in our schools with our colleagues, we have just made a huge change.

Dr. Royce Avery: That’s very powerful, because we have people right in our own schools that can do tremendous work in training others, but we don’t give them the opportunity to do that.

Want to hear the full panel? Check out the EdSurge On Air podcast episode below.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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