How to build the classroom of the future
NOTE FOR 2021 READERS: This is the 18th in a series of award-winning open letters to the next century, now just one generation away. Kids born this year in the U.S., and nearly 50 other countries, are expected to live to 2100 and beyond. Dear 22nd Century examines likely scenarios for their future, and how we can make the best one happen.
Dear 22nd century: So, how was school today?
Of all the areas where we could measure progress between the 2020s and the 2100s, none seems more up in the air right now than education. The pandemic forced us into history’s largest experiment in remote learning, from kindergarten through college — and beyond, as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like Udacity, Coursera and EdX exploded in popularity during the early months of lockdown. COVID struck a blow to standardized testing, with an incredible two thirds of colleges dropping their SAT and ACT requirements. You don’t know what those acronyms mean? Good. Let their systemically racist, eugenicist legacy remain in the dustbin of history.
If you were a starry-eyed optimist with a desire to disrupt our lumbering old system and an ed-tech hobby horse to ride, the return to school in fall of 2021 was your moment. Funding for education technology startups around the world has nearly tripled in two years. We seemed on the cusp of a hybrid education world — high tech and low tech, remote and in-person, in a ratio tailored to each student’s needs. Perhaps in the near future a thousand classrooms would bloom, and the marketplace of ideas would spread the most effective new models around the world. Childlike curiosity would be unsuppressed, the joy of learning would be universal, and generations of sub-optimal outcomes would end in the blink of an eye.
"Educators built an exact digital replica of what they were doing before."
On the other hand, the remote learning experiment of 2020-21 was somewhere between disappointing and disastrous for many families — those at the bottom of the economic pyramid especially. Students in low-income schools were seven months behind in math last year, a McKinsey study found, two months worse than the average for all kids. Meanwhile, judging by the parents on my Facebook feed, plenty of teens are taking the SATs even when they don’t have to — because extra credit.
“We all know SATs aren’t really optional to get into a top 40 school,” one mother tells me. On the advice of guidance counsellors, she’d just spent $4,000 on tutors that would give her son the best shot at a $100 SAT test.
“What was crazy about the pandemic is that through blood, sweat and tears, educators kind of built an exact digital replica of what they were doing before,” says Justin Reich, director of the MIT teaching systems lab and author of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education. “Very few places saw structural changes to how they organize schooling.”
The folder in the backpack may have been replaced by a folder in Google Classroom, the textbook may be on your iPad, but class still lasts for about 50 minutes and the teacher still want to see you in your seat. The basic Victorian model of education — bored kids squirming at desks, teachers and textbooks invested with god-like authority — is alive and well and living on the internet.
View it in this light and the chances of the next few generations of educators smashing this system, instead of just tinkering with it or providing alternatives for high-income families, seem slim indeed.
It isn’t just the pandemic, you see. We’ve been trying to disrupt the Victorian model with limited success for more than a century now. Maria Montessori opened her first enlightened classroom in 1907; the system she started encouraged play and creativity in learning and discouraged grades. Sticking a letter from A through F on homework does not help foster learning in the long term, as the Montessorians have insisted for decades.
And yet, even with studies showing the effectiveness of their methods, there are still only 5,000 Montessori programs in the U.S., and only 500 are within public schools (of which, to give you a sense of scale, there are 131,000).
Every generation seems to offer its own new model that is going to upend education: Summerhill school in the UK, founded in 1921 as a boarding school governed by its pupils; Sudbury Valley school, another democratic institution founded in Massachusetts in 1968; the “unschooling” movement (think homeschooling meets Montessori) from the 1970s on. Each survived. Each has its adherents and imitators. None do more than nibble around the edges of the vast public school system. They’re the exceptions that prove the rule.
Nor is our obsession with education technology as new as we think. “Books will soon be obsolete in the schools,” famed inventor Thomas Edison declared in 1913; motion pictures would replace them “inside of 10 years.” When his deadline was up in 1923, speaking to the FTC, Edison upped that estimate to 20 years hence. If Edison had written a “Dear 21st century” letter, it would be our sad duty to reply that a class consisting entirely of video is widely seen as proof that the teacher has checked out.
Reich has a telling story about one high school principal who bought piles of physical textbooks, even though his classes were trying to move to digital versions with online videos and quizzes, because most of his kids’ parents expect to see books when they visit. It was easier to build a Potemkin village of expensive textbooks than proudly tout new tech. That sound you hear is Edison spinning in his grave.
We don’t seem to learn to temper expectations. A century after Edison’s first textbook prediction, in the early 2010s, we were in the grip of Silicon Valley mania about how the rise of the internet would transform the entire educational landscape. When former Google VP Sebastian Thrun co-founded Udacity, he tells me, he thought MOOCs might cause massive consolidation, to the point where 10 companies or institutions would provide half of all higher education within half a century.
“I would probably have to recognize that the willingness of existing universities to leverage technology has been less than I hoped,” Thrun sheepisly admits. The company has shifted focus to the international scene — we’ll get to that — and to corporate training courses.
Udacity’s one bright shining exception to the rule was Georgia Tech; its online computer science master’s degree, developed with Udacity, was the top ranked computer science degree in the U.S., while enrolling an incredible 10,000 students in 2020. But that was the year Georgia Tech took the service off Udacity and onto its own cheaper platform. The more popular university-led MOOCs are, the more universities are going to want to control them. (You can still access some of the classes on Udacity.)
It’s not that the disruptive ideas are flawed in themselves. It’s that even the best big dreams run into the rocks of an extremely conservative system on their way to changing the world. Why conservative, if we all loathe the current state of schooling (Gallup polling over the last 20 years shows that roughly half of the U.S. has been “somewhat” or “completely” dissatisfied with K-12 education for all that time), if so many of us have better ideas for how to run a classroom?
Well, says Reich, it’s probably because our better ideas don’t align with each other. We’d rather our kids went through the flawed system that we ourselves survived than submit them to something untested and unknown.
“You know, as a researcher, I sort of like the phrase ‘experiment on children,’” jokes Reich. “But it turns out that most people don’t.”
Cloud school, from both sides now
When I think of ed-tech pioneers with big appealing dreams that got downsized, I think of Sugata Mitra. In 1999, Mitra was the chief scientist at the National Institute of Information Technology in New Delhi. The school was next door to a slum, and Mitra decided to conduct what became known as the “hole in the wall” experiment, where an internet-connected computer was made available for kids in the slum who’d never seen one before — literally stuck in the wall, at a child-friendly height.
To Mitra’s delight, kids in this and later experiments not only taught themselves computer literacy by trial and error, but also figured out how to use email, instant messages, and, crucially, search engines. He tried loading one hole-in-the-wall computer with educational materials on molecular biology; sheer curiosity, along with encouragement from an adult supervisor, was enough to give them test scores that put them on a par with kids in an elite New Delhi school.
Mitra’s experiment was the inspiration for the novel Q&A, which became the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire, which turned on widespread incredulity that someone born so low could possibly figure out how to garner knowledge from the internet.
That success, since replicated in more than 300 “hole in the wall” experiments across India and sub-Saharan Africa, made Mitra an ed-tech star. I met him at the TED conference in 2013, where he was awarded $1 million for his next vision: the “school in the cloud.” These were minimalist classrooms where kids clustered around a single computer and were posed one deceptively simple question at a time, to be answered collaboratively.
As you can see in a 2018 documentary, The School in the Cloud, questions had a whimsical but genuinely big-picture nature; a genre that should be familiar to, well, anyone who’s heard children ask questions. Why is the sky blue? Why is ice slippery? Can trees think? Does tomorrow exist? (You are proof that the answer is yes, dear 22nd century, so don’t let me down by not existing.)
No teacher would be present, but a team of volunteer retirees from around the world — Mitra called it the “granny cloud” — would provide a gentle mix of encouragement and delight at the kids’ discoveries via video. In the optimistic early 2010s, it seemed an intriguing and plausible experiment.
I hadn’t seen any news about what happened next, so I caught up with Mitra, now retired himself and, randomly, living near the town where I grew up in the North East of England. Turns out he spent his prize money on seven schools, five in remote areas of India and two in the UK. They were beautiful glass hexagonal structures, complete with solar power that would keep them running for almost nothing. But the communities they were in would still be responsible for the upkeep. Would they see enough value in it?
You can probably guess the answer already. Despite tentative evidence that cloud-school kids “tend to answer more challenging questions and retain the information for a longer time than they would usually,” in the words of one academic review of Mitra’s work, it wasn’t designed to make them pass tests. “What the communities in India said was, ‘this is not going to do anything for the school certificate examinations,’” Mitra says.
The cloud schools in England fared better, but parents decided to stop sending their kids around 14 — when British kids have to start preparing for their GCSEs (exams taken by UK kids at 16).
"We Google all the time. Why don't we let the children Google?"
When Mitra pointed out that reading comprehension should help anyone prepare for any exam, the parents shot back: yes, but in an exam, they’re supposed to answer alone. “And that word, ‘alone,’ was the showstopper,” he says. “Because my method was the opposite of alone.”
So Mitra scraped together money from speaking gigs and tried again. This time, he built cloud schools as part of a broader curriculum inside other schools; one in Harlem, one in a village in West Bengal.
This time, actual paid, trained teachers played the role of the granny cloud. The addition of in-person supervision made all the difference. “I didn’t need to explain very much, the teachers got the hang of it,” says Mitra. “What they realized was, ‘well, we Google all the time. Why don’t we let the children Google?’”
It’s a fair point. Why do we persist in pretending the internet isn’t a thing? When are future generations not going to be able to pull out their devices and search for information in our vast global storehouse? When, in the age of social media, are they going to be hammering away at problems alone? Never.
You may see the idea that children can’t use the internet during tests as unenlightened and self-defeating, rather like preaching abstinence in sex ed classes full of horny teens. Far better to teach them safe and responsible Googling.
After all, we’ve seen the chaos and conspiracy theory rabbit holes that can result from the irresponsible kind. Teaching kids the new rules for learning anything online — critical thinking plus critical researching — needs to be job one in all schools from now until the end of the internet.
PhDs for kids
You may not even believe in testing any more, as we understand it. Mitra has an unabashedly big idea there too. Last year, Mitra says, the UK Department of Education interviewed him to get his thoughts on what could replace exam results during the year of COVID. “Use the method of the PhD!” Mitra responded.
PhD candidates don’t have exams; they present their theses to their professors and answer questions on their research in a conversation lasting around a half-hour.
“If we can do that for our highest degree, why can’t we do it with children?” Mitra asks. “Why can’t you sit a 9 year old across the table and say, ‘do you know any math?’ Look at their eyes. You’ll know in 30 seconds!”
The British education authorities didn’t quite go for that. In the end, they offered a variety of metrics as guidelines, but at least put the results at teachers’ discretion (as opposed to the disastrous UK A-level results a year earlier, decided by algorithm). Mitra is happy to nudge officialdom in the right direction whenever he can. “I don’t get as much traction as I like, but I get more than I used to because people have been through the pandemic,” he says with a twinkle.
Tinkerer’s paradise, built in hell
This, then, is the best that we can hope for within the vast and inherently conservative parent-school axis: lots of gentle nudging, lots of tinkering around the edges (to quote the main concept of a seminal 1995 book on the slow progress of public education in the 20th century, Tinkering Towards Utopia, by Stanford professor Larry Cuban, uncle of Mark.) Techno-utopians are better off downgrading their ambitions and working within the system rather than trying to build yet another alternative that just won’t have the gravitational force to take off.
Udacity is a good example of that. Sebastian Thrun says he now calls his MOOC offerings “nanodegrees” because the word is deliberately “limited and modest.” It works wherever it can find niches in the U.S., and otherwise grudgingly accepts the power of the American textbook-industrial complex in complacent old colleges.
Still, Thrun’s company has found more success in countries where there aren’t a whole lot of universities to begin with. A partnership with the government of Egypt in the past year saw the company pledging to equip 100,000 students with free nanodegrees in web development, digital marketing, and data analytics. Now, says a Udacity spokesperson, “we have enrolled more than 200,000 students, graduated about 55,000 students, of which 18,000 are freelancers. We estimate their annual earning potential to be around $100 million” — a whole lot of extra revenue created out of nothing but knowledge.
Near future expectations may be limited and modest; long term, not so much. “Our goal is to double the world’s GDP,” Thrun explains. “That’s a very audacious goal. But education is the only thing that has ever done it in the past. It can jumpstart entire economies.”
So yes, we can tinker around the edges and keep the long-term goal in mind at the same time. For example, I’m pretty sure that you will look on the way we constantly forced pupils to sit in chairs while learning as a form of torture. They’re kids! They need to move around, like, a lot. Why not work with their bodies rather than medicate them into sitting down for hours at a time, and use all the brain-boosting, creativity-inducing, neuroplastic power we now know physical exercise provides? (Just don’t call it P.E., which in our day has horrific overtones of sweaty gym locker room.)
That’s why a very basic app called GoNoodle, which offers short-form videos and interactive games that “give kids a pathway to movement,” according to CEO KC Estenson, may have more impact on the future than a dozen fly-by-night ed-tech companies. For example, one Hamilton-esque video teaches democracy and dance moves at the same time.
The videos are generally less than four minutes, and easily incorporated into class time without disrupting the sacred primacy of the textbook. In online reviews, teachers seem to love it. With 3.5 million new downloads since the pandemic began, the company says 14 million students are now using the service every month — not too shabby a number when you consider there are 50 million kids enrolled in the U.S. public school system.
“Turning screen time into active time is an easy way to learn social-emotional skills,” says Estenson. “How do you breathe your way through a stressful moment? How do you identify you’re under stress? How do you realize you feel better when you exercise? It’s my hope that over the next 50 years, the education system starts to recognize that these types of skills are every bit as important as the traditional curriculum.”
"There are going to be more interruptions in schooling: More fires, more floods, more pandemics"
So the classroom of the future, in an ideal world, moves around a lot. And not just in an exercise sense, or in the sense that you want lots of little interchangeable groups working collaboratively on big questions, Sugata Mitra-style. Schools need to be moveable feasts of learning, resilient to any sudden COVID-like events that forces our kids to stay home. This is the climate change century, so we should expect plenty more of them.
“There are going to be more interruptions in schooling in the future,” says MIT researcher Justin Reich. “More fires, more floods, more freezing, more pandemic events, more tropical diseases migrating. The West will continue to have terrible fires. When it’s unsafe to travel, kids should be able to switch to remote learning for a week or two.”
And when they’re back, given the urgent environmental need, perhaps schools can bring respect and love for the natural world into lessons. Not least by holding them outdoors whenever possible; ideally by focusing the curriculum on the world around them, like the school in Vermont where Reich’s fourth grade kids made maple syrup in the classroom and talked to state biologists about crawfish that invaded the local lake. “If in 2100 they have a really deep, rich approach to place-based learning, that would be great,” Reich muses.
At the same time, as the climate crisis forces more of us to move around, we should also allow kids who moved away to stay on by attending class remotely, at least for the rest of the school year. Something as basic as a tablet on wheels — which our era’s tech nerds rather pretentiously call a telepresence robot — could work now, helping class buddies stick together even when they’re separated by thousands of miles.
In the mid-term future, we can surely expect more classrooms to enter virtual reality. Case studies already suggest that VR helps engage students better than other forms of learning, although the full educational benefits are hard to prove. Still, I imagine teachers of the future leading VR tours of the solar system, or through 3D representations of major historical events, and I’m green with envy that I didn’t grow up with that.
Here’s some more basic but important tinkering I would expect by your era. School starts later in the day, to allow for the sleep young brains so desperately need. It ends sooner, as in the world-class Finnish school system — where official classes end around 2pm, allowing more time for a range of extra-curriculars. Slowly, in their second decade, kids get to drop the subjects they’re least interested in, with no restrictions on which ones they want to combine.
Indeed, random collisions of seemingly unrelated subjects will be encouraged. Let teachers collaborate on colliding classes themselves. Let there be no more of the nonsense that forced me to choose between computer science and history at age 12. (I chose history, and had to teach myself computer skills at home.)
Testing is the area where the future feels fuzziest. Maybe Mitra is right and teachers should trust kids to produce theses, whereupon they get the PhD candidate treatment. Perhaps self-reported grades are the way to go, or grades given by small groups of kids that keep one another honest and accountable. Watch videos of these peer group assessments by earnest kids who hug the recipient of their feedback in this eye-opening talk by Jeff Wetzler, co-founder of the educational nonprofit Transcend, and just try to stop your heartstrings from tugging.
On the other hand, we’re human, and plenty of us actually like objective scores in real life as much as we do in the world of video games. There seem certain inalienable truths about education world — there will always be boutique name brands (nobody expects Harvard, Yale or Stanford to have disappeared in your century, no matter how big a name Udacity or Coursera or Khan Academy become), the vast majority of students will go to non-big name colleges, there will always be a percentage of kids who are ill-served by the school they’re in, and papers will always come back with a red-pen letter grade, even if the red pen was a stylus on a tablet.
Either way, I propose one modest test for the state of education in your era. Next time you see a child, ask them the time-honored question: How was school today? If we in the 21st century have done our jobs, if we have tweaked the system enough so that it doesn't rush the curiosity and creativity out of kids, if it’s easy for anyone to study a topic that really lights their fires, then you will get more than a single “fine.” Perhaps you will have a hard time making them stop as the enthusiastic answer spills out. If so, you most definitely win.
Yours in belief that children are the future,