What Is the ‘Modern Classroom,’ Anyway?

Shiny new devices may get lots of attention, but edtech expert Gill Leahy says that today’s best classrooms balance the space, the technology, and the pedagogy.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Gill Leahy PrometheanWhen Gill Leahy started teaching mathematics in the ’80s, she found the lack of technology in school was her largest barrier: nineteen teachers shared one computer on a cart. “Before my class, I would rush to the computer and start plotting a sine wave so it would finish when my students arrived,” she laughs. “Then I’d have 30 students crowd around the computer and discuss what would happen to the graph if I changed different variables. My students would return to their desks and plot their predictions by hand while I adapted the computer. Not all the students could see the screen, time was wasted going back and forth, and examples were limited. Even so, I was recognized as a leading teacher for use of technology in mathematics!” Gill is a former mathematics teacher with 20 years’ experience in the classroom. She is currently an international education consultant for Promethean who leads the company’s partnership in Innovative Technologies for an Engaging Classroom (iTEC), a large-scale, four-year education project that brings together Promethean and other

In order to effectively implement change, there has to be commitment to collaborate from the full range of education stakeholders.

technology-enhanced learning experts, policymakers, researchers, technology suppliers, and innovative teachers from all over Europe to design, build, and test learning experiences for the future classroom. In this EdTech Digest interview, she discusses conceptual understanding, the modern classroom, how to make one, teachers teaching and the next step in education’s evolution.

So, how did that class turn out?

Gill: We still had no way of sharing and discussing our results as a class—mathematical dialogue is so crucial for deepening conceptual understanding. When our first Promethean interactive whiteboard arrived, it revolutionized my teaching! Suddenly I could share graphs on my computer with the whole class, the students could draw their predictions on the board, and we could see graphs change in real time. The technology was no longer dictating the pace, the style, the room layout, and the examples explored. Now it was enabling different pedagogical approaches more efficiently and effectively. Looking back, this is the first time I realized the importance of striking the right balance among space, pedagogy, and technology.

When I worked on whole-school technological implementation and training programs, I realized the importance of pedagogical training on how to use the space or technology to promote new ways of teaching and learning. My thinking for the Modern Classroom has also been informed by my work at a national level with the UK National Strategies team, managing and monitoring secondary mathematics departments and consultant teams in developing effective classroom procedures for curriculum development, assessment for learning, and the analysis of data to identify key issues and define courses of action.

In order to effectively implement change, there has to be commitment to collaborate from the full range of education stakeholders, from students, teachers, school leaders, technologists, researchers, and policy makers. Without the efficiencies of technology, a shared vision, and an engaging learning environment, pedagogical change will be very hard.

I currently have had the privilege of leading Promethean’s partnership in the Innovative Technologies for an Engaging Classroom (iTEC) project. For the project, I have worked over the last four years alongside teachers in more than 2,000 classrooms across Europe to design, build, and test Future Classroom Scenarios. We have seen trends emerge, gain momentum, and influence classrooms locally and internationally. A radical change witnessed in many classrooms as a result of the iTEC project was a greater emphasis on knowledge-sharing and collaboration in the classroom and across learning communities, and less of a focus on the teacher just transferring knowledge.

How would you define “modern classroom”? How does it differ from traditional classrooms?

Gill: The modern classroom is created when three key elements come together in harmony: the space, the technology, and the pedagogy.

Each of these three elements has an important contribution to make. When education transformation projects fail to have the desired impact, it’s frequently because one element is missing. A school may focus on the technology and the learning environment and disregard the pedagogy. In this case, they are likely to end up with a “same old” situation. Without adapting the pedagogy to take advantage of the new space and technology, the class will do the same thing it had been doing. The activity may be performed more efficiently and more comfortably, but it is unlikely the outcomes will be different.

If a school focuses only on the pedagogy and the learning space—and disregards the technology—the teacher will have to operate without the benefits of efficiency and new approaches that technology can bring.

When schools disregard the space (what some call “the learning environment”), classroom activity is likely to be constrained. For example, collaboration and active approaches are difficult if students always sit in rows facing the front.

The modern classroom balances the right space, pedagogy, and technology. In addition, at Promethean we recognize that a modern classroom also must be designed to maximize the impact of critical catalysts required to motivate students to learn: engagement, personalization, collaboration, and feedback. When these factors permeate the three essential elements of space, technology, and pedagogy, the modern classroom comes to life.

What technology and environmental components are involved in building a modern classroom?

Gill: As a leader re-imagining the classroom, you want to ensure that the learning environment and technology are in place to support the changing roles of students and teachers, including those pedagogical activities most likely to deliver the desired outcomes.

You want to consider how your classroom supports a combination of different modalities, such as:

  • Whole-class teaching;
  • collaborative team working;
  • independent working;
  • small-group working; and
  • out-of-class learning.

The modern classroom extends beyond the four walls of the school: Learning can be just as relevant and valuable outside of the classroom. Students should have the opportunity to learn anytime, anywhere. In addition to devices, students need a digital environment where they can organize all their in-class lessons, assignments, and resources. Ideally the platform should be a “one-stop-shop” that they use both inside and outside of school. To make the most of resources, school leaders can identify a digital learning platform, such as ClassFlow, for example, that works with all devices and operating systems—and is free.

Aside from technology, how does the modern classroom change how teachers teach?

Gill: Technology on its own does not change the way teachers teach. In the modern classroom, lessons are more likely to be student-centered, with ownership of learning shifting from the teacher to the student.

Developing procedural knowledge is important, but it must be accompanied by the application of that knowledge to new situations.

The modern classroom opens up possibilities in teaching supported by technology and a learning space that rearranges easily to provide flexibility. Students might be seated in groups, using their devices and other resources to collaborate on a project. Students might also collaborate on a widescreen interactive display to share and record strategies toward solving a problem. Likewise, an interactive, digital learning application for students to share and comment on work provides the opportunity for them to receive feedback on work from peers and teachers in school and out of school.

Why doesn’t the traditional approach of having students memorize facts and regurgitate them on tests work for today’s students? Was there a “big transition” that happened, and if so, when was it?

Gill: Has this approach ever truly worked? Developing procedural knowledge is important, but it must be accompanied by the application of that knowledge to new situations. In this sense, it’s all about balance. Students must learn to apply their knowledge through critical thinking and problem-solving. This transition has been taking place over the last 30 years. The reason it seems to be a current trend is that now we have the technology in place to mainstream and sustain the changes.

In addition, neo-millennial learners, who are fluent in multimedia and competent with technology, see all learning as interactive. They also enjoy a progressive educational experience that includes collaboration, blended learning, flipped classrooms, and project-based tasks. This new learner is spurring a faster pace to the transition.

How does a modern classroom help keep students engaged and excited to learn?

Gill: In a modern classroom, students are actively involved in constructing content and new ideas. They use active learning approaches, such as project-based learning and design-based learning, where students are engaged in real, relevant, and purposeful activities.

For example, students might design and 3D print a prosthetic hand for a child in their community who needs it. They use a bevy of technologies to make that project come to life, from conceptualizing the project as a group on a large interactive display like an ActivPanel to utilizing design software to oversee the production. The technology allows students to interact with their learning content and provides different ways to generate, examine, analyse, and apply data in real life. Projects like these expose students to a variety of future careers, particularly in STEM fields. When students can discover for themselves, they’re excited about learning.

What do you predict the 22nd-century classroom will look like? What will the next step in education’s evolution be?

Gill: I think we’re poised for many exciting developments in education!

As far as the role of technology in the classroom, I see it morphing into a ubiquitous utility that is seamlessly integrated into curriculum, delivered both virtually and physically. We will continue to see growth in learning that takes place outside of the physical classroom.

Learning will become lifelong, with students, parents, educators and employers as equal stakeholders in the process.

It is also my hope that inequality in education will be reduced and achievement gaps between the rich and the poor will close. It will not be acceptable for education outcomes to be determined by factors such as gender, birthplace, and wealth.

Education spending may not increase, but the student population will, so we will have to be more productive with existing resources. Teachers cannot work any harder, so they will need technology that reduces the workload. Some examples might include:

  • Technology to make grading, feedback, and informing parents faster and more efficient;
  • technology that makes subject-matter expertise more widely available, with great possibilities for distance learners; and
  • interactive digital content and platforms that use learning analytics to either gauge misconceptions and suggest remediation/peers for support or challenges those who excel to explore further and guide others.

Teachers will continue to move into their role as facilitators and activators of learning and will be fully supported by access to a host of resources, including digital content, new approaches, experts, peer support, and more.

Lastly, I think we will move into more open learning formats where students and teachers can have the flexibility to select the most appropriate space, pedagogy, and technology to enable learning.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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