A vision of a near future high school classroom

One of my concerns coming out of Friday's meeting of the South Kingstown school district's Technology Professional Development and Curriculum subcommittee meeting was the lack of articulated visions. Some of this, I am sure, is due to my not being involved in previous discussions. To help myself, I took some time this weekend and wrote a vision of a near future classroom. This vision does not use any software or hardware that is not available today and available at modest costs. The working document is at


A vision of a near future classroom

Andrew Gilmartin, 2014-02-28, revision 7

I am not a teacher, so this view of a class is an outside view. The teacher is Joe Smith. On days with odd number dates he teaches chemistry and on even dates he teaches French.

The students enter the classroom for a long class. The classroom is much like any other classroom with student work and inspirational posters on the walls, shelves of books, and piles of ephemera. What is different is that there is no teacher’s desk and no students’ desks. Instead, the center of the room is taken up by a table with seating for all and against the walls is a continuous workbench.

The students take a seat at the table. They jostle and chat as happens before every meeting everywhere. Some students submit last minute “independent work” and “group work” to the document store. The work might no longer be literally handed in but it still needs to arrive on time.

The teacher sits with the students. He and they are always facing each other. He asks one student to call the class to order and initiate the status update. Each student succinctly says what they did since the last class, what obstacles hindered their work, and what is planned for the next class. Another student takes notes on the status updates and deposits them into the document store. The teacher will use the status updates to track progress and understand who needs help, who can help, and what the class needs to move forward.

The students were expected to prepare for today’s class beforehand. They usually have a few days to do this outside of school and in free time during the school day. The preparation includes reading source material (primary and secondary) and the class’s agenda. The teacher briefly reviews the preparatory material and initiates a discussion. The students are expected to participate back and forth. Some students are comfortable with free discussion. Other students will need some structure and aids. Some would rather not be there at all. In all cases the students have learned to be respectful of one another’s learning modes. The students are encouraged and aided in using verbal and visual modes, and physical models (no interpretive dance, however).

The semester’s syllabus, schedule, and preparatory material are available in the document store. Students wishing to work ahead can do so as readily as students wishing to revisit the past or already completed materials. Where source material is an advancement of previous source material it is cross-linked and further linked to the students’ existing notes and finished work.

There is very little difference between preparatory material now as when it was printed in books. That is, the vast majority of it is read. It is supplemented by videos of exemplary lectures from one or more institutions, interactive visual models, theatrical productions (student and professional), self diagnostics with results linked to relevant remedial materials, and offers of one-on-one in-person tutoring. In all cases, the students are expected to help themselves as much as being helped. (Self-management is a skill that is taught and emphasized throughout the school day.)

The tools used to review the materials allow for group and individual annotations. Note taking and other learning skills are under constant review, development, and coaching as the student and teacher discover what works best. The teacher reviews the student’s notes as frequently as the finished work. The student’s notes and class participation represent where the student is in understanding the materials and being able to apply them in novel situations. Learning happens not in discrete, fixed periods of the day and week. It is a continual experience with times of intensity, times of reflection, and times of rest. The student’s tools need to support this.

Each class agenda is presented multiple times at different times each day during the week. While each agenda presentation typically has the same students attend, any student can attend -- perhaps the student missed their usual time this week or perhaps they just need to be exposed to it again. (Other aspects of the “school day” may need to change too.)

The document store is the critical change in teacher and student tools. The store holds all the class’ content -- teacher’s, student’s, and administration’s. All content is owned, dated, secured, and shared. Content has its own life. Every revision of the content is available for review and comparison -- answering the questions, “What changed between versions?” and “Show me your work.” The content can be presented in many perspectives, for example, by date, student, class, teacher, curriculum, or subject.

The second critical change is the device employed to use and create the content. The device needs to be with the student and the teacher at all times. Learning is an all day, every day activity, and especially so for students and teachers who need to schedule active lives inside and outside of the school building. The first capability of the device is to allow access from anywhere to the document store even in low bandwidth situations. The second capability is adding written, and still and moving visual content to the store. (This is done in a direct manner with light editing.) The third capability is to act as a conduit between the document store and advanced and/or special purpose devices. For example, a student wants to record the images from a digital microscope to the document store, or the student wants to store the final edit of a stop-motion video.

The student’s device is expected to be expendable. These devices will have a rough life, living at the intersections of backpack and bedroom, living room, classroom, cafe table, and playing fields. The devices are inexpensive and supplemented with a ruggedized exoskeleton. Most interaction with the device is through the touch screen, but physical keyboards are available for temporary use throughout the school and for permanent use at home. This vision does not use any software or hardware that is not available today. And, it is available at modest costs.


Since I wrote this, I have been shown and discovered some supporting materials.

Exemplary device is a Nook HD+ with Cyanogen mod at $179

Harkness table

The Power of Collaborative Learning
Oakland, CA’s The College Preparatory School

Remake Your Class: Building a Collaborative Learning Environment


For related postings see one-to-one.

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