Here’s how we can reinvent the classroom for the digital age

Here’s how we can reinvent the classroom for the digital age

When I was in elementary school, about 50 years ago, teachers used to stand in front of a class of 40 or 50 children and write on a blackboard with chalk. To make sure the material was absorbed, the teacher asked occasional questions and assigned lots of homework. If students discussed their homework or helped each other in tests, it was called cheating, and they were punished.

Today, the blackboard has become a whiteboard; chalk has become a magic marker; the slates that students used have been replaced by notebooks; and classes have sometimes gotten smaller. Little else has changed. True, some schools are providing their students with laptops, and teachers are increasingly using technology and encouraging collaboration. But the methods are essentially the same—with the teacher dictating learning.

What is becoming possible, however, is a revolution in education. I am not talking about the much-hyped Massive Open Online Courses. To me, these are as imaginative as the first TV shows in which radio stars stood in front of a camera with a microphone in hand. I am talking about a complete transformation of the way teaching is done, with the computer taking the role of the lecturer, the teacher becoming a coach, and students taking responsibility for their own learning.

The digital tutor of the future will do knowledge transfer better than a human can. If the student likes reading and lectures, it will teach in a traditional way — through eBooks and videos. If not, it will teach through games, puzzles, and holographic simulations. What better way to learn history, culture, and geography than by being there virtually and experiencing it?

In the future I am talking about, the role of the human teacher is that of guru: to teach values such as integrity, teamwork, respect, caring and commitment; to be a guide and mentor. And students take ownership of their education. This future isn’t as far away as you think. I’ve already seen early signs of it in Silicon Valley.

Esther Wojcicki, who is a teacher at Palo Alto high school, has been pioneering a new method of learning for the past 30 years. She joined the faculty at Palo Alto in 1984 as a teacher of English and journalism. She had a Master of Arts in journalism from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and had worked previously as a reporter. When she arrived, there were 19 students in the journalism program, publishing a bimonthly eight-page newspaper that they created on a typewriter, pasted up with hot wax, and printed using hot-metal typesetting.
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