The classroom of the future is here

Innovative teachers + technology + smart policies = the active learning and collaborative skills required for the 21st century.

Teenagers in Ghent, Belgium, track down farmers, asking if they can rent a chicken. Then they tweet their classmates to report on their hunt for eggs and to seek advice on growing wheat. Their assignment: produce a loaf of bread absolutely from scratch by next spring.

This coming together of old and new technology, part of a project at Sint-Lieven school called Generation Y, brings new meaning to the idea of learning by doing and new life to the subject of geography. Welcome to the classroom of the future: a farm.

In Hellerup school in Copenhagen, a couple of children curl up in a comfy corner, heads touching as they share a laptop, while trying to figure out which of the 7 million search results on wind farms will provide valid information for their environmental project. Welcome to the classroom of the future: a sofa.

If a child was asked to describe a futuristic classroom, she might talk about riding her jet-pack to a desk-filled space where a whirring machine pumps her head full of information. But adults like Steven Ronsijn, the ICT coordinator at Sint-Lieven school, and Lisolette Nylander, Hellerup’s principal, recognise that learning does not need to take place in a classroom at all. Learning can be anytime, anywhere. It should be active and exciting and it will be assisted – not driven – by technology.

Even the most brilliant teachers, the smartest bureaucrats and the savviest business people don’t know precisely what the jobs of the future will be. But they can identify the attributes that successful job-seekers will need: the ability to work in groups, to solve problems imaginatively and to think creatively – skills that industry complains are in short supply even now.

Schools themselves will become more like laboratories or art studios, to encourage the innovation and open-ended thinking that Europe needs to thrive in the 21st century. Hellerup school has already done away with traditional classrooms; its open-plan building was constructed nine years ago with flexibility, cooperation and adventure in mind. Lessons are introduced in home areas, and then students move to a quiet corner or a busy space to learn in groups, pairs or by themselves. Teachers act like mentors, guiding students toward ways of learning that suit them and the topic at hand.

As for the curriculum, says Principal Nylander, “We believe [the students] need to do more than just the subjects, because subjects today are not the same as they will be in the future.” That’s where technology comes in. “Our children are really good at collaborating,” she says.

“In policy terms, I think the single biggest thing is to stop thinking about technology as though we are going to insert it into a static curriculum,” says Professor Richard Noss, co-director of the London Knowledge Lab at the Institute of Education, University of London. “Digital technology is different to what came before because it’s possible to do things that were impossible before.” One example is the mathematics of change. You used to need to understand differential equations to visualise complicated scenarios, like global weather patterns or demographic growth. With animated computer graphics illustrating these variations, a class can have a more meaningful discussion about such crucial issues as climate change or population growth.

Change is on the way

While many schools and governments remain ambivalent about technology, experts such as Anthony Salcito, Vice President of Worldwide Public Sector Education at Microsoft, are confident that truly radical change is on the way. One reason is simple economics. Digital technology will become cheaper than textbooks, and provide a “more immersive” experience. For instance, technology can introduce Mandarin without a Chinese teacher, examine atoms in 3D or, with gadgets such as Kinect, help students with physical disabilities.

Much as the printing press transformed the world 600 years ago, IT is set to bring us into a qualitatively different era, he predicts – and policy makers across Europe must ensure their schools can make the most of it. The transformation will need teachers with top-quality training and support, parents who are involved and governments with an eye to the long haul, not the quick fix.

Julie Munkager is a maths teacher at Nordvestskolen in Elsinore, Denmark, where the local authority has provided every primary child with a netbook. “They grow with it,” she says. “It helps them improve different skills. They’re sharing. They communicate on a lot of different platforms. They’re better at connecting the visual things with the writing.”

Research has shown that good hardware is a wasted investment unless the teachers know how to make the most of it – a lesson that governments have often missed. In Elsinore, Microsoft has worked with teachers like Julie Munkager through its Partners in Learning programme, helping them use technology more innovatively.

“If there’s one thing that has an impact on the school curriculum it’s probably the assessment system,” says Gavin Dykes, an independent international education consultant. “The question is: If your students have access to the Internet during exams what questions are you going to ask them? In that one simple move you start to take on elements of 21st-century learning”. Obviously, in the world of work, web access is a given, so Denmark is piloting exams in which it’s okay to search the Internet for answers.

The smartphones that children carry in their pockets present a similar challenge. They already enable students to communicate, calculate, do research and document their work with photos. Yet many schools ban them in class, where they can be a distraction, and in exams where, in an effort to stop cheating, their possession can be a serious offence.

No mobile phones?

Steven Ronsijn, who was named Innovative Teacher Europe 2011 by Microsoft for his GenY project, manages to stimulate his students – they give up their breaks and lunchtimes to take part in his sustainable energy computer-game and traffic-monitoring projects among others – in spite of the no mobile phone policy at Sint-Lieven school. But GenY kids also go off campus, to rooms and real offices where restrictions on laptops, mp3 players and mobile phones are non-existent. As the GenY website says, “We do away with the taboo that ‘learning only happens within school walls.’”

For Valerie Thompson, director of the e-Learning Foundation in the UK, technology offers nothing less than the opportunity to close the stubborn attainment gap between rich and poor. This matters not only to individual children but to Europe’s economic well-being.

Thompson argues that governments should focus on providing families in need with computer hardware and Internet access. “So much of learning outcomes between rich and poor depends on what happens at home,” she says. “Technology means for the first time we can actually address the kind of learning support that children get at home. For me, leading-edge schools are ones that acknowledge that children learn 24/7.”

Skills development combined with universal access will help countries grow their technological footprint, says Salcito. “The connection between workforce readiness and employability skills is much tighter and much more aligned with the early years of schooling.”

With so much innovation going on throughout Europe, can schools and government “scale up” innovation, broadening it to include more students in more countries?

Anthony Salcito argues that politicians’ obsession with finding out “what works” is a “waste of time”. Informally, the Internet makes it much easier for teachers to share ideas and to choose the ones they like. But systemically, it’s not realistic to believe you can capture one person’s ideas and plunk them down somewhere else, where the ethos, culture and children are different. Instead, we need to investigate “root cause thinking”; what processes did the innovators go through and what were the conditions?

For policy-makers, technology should help these investigations. A Microsoft-sponsored programme called PiLSR (Partners in Learning School Research) is studying how educational transformation actually takes place, with a focus on three aspects: learning beyond the classroom, IT integration into the learning process and student-centred learning. Governments and schools can use the online tool, which is free and available in 34 languages, to see how their individual schools and local authorities are doing and compare them with other countries.

As Hellerup School and the GenY project show – each in a different way – technology helps students accomplish real-world things, with excitement, energy, collaboration and imagination. The classrooms of the future already exist. Europe just needs more of them.

This article was originally published in Issue 9 of the Futures Magazine.

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