In 2012 I wrote an article called The Stimulating Classroom. Much of it was still relevant in 2016, so I republished it with some minor amendments. This article builds on those two predecessors, with some additional material.
It seems paradoxical, but the most boring classrooms tend to be the ones that are full of technology – and little else. The worst ones I’ve been into are those in which 30 or more computers are crammed into rows, allowing no room for note-taking, let alone collaboration -- despite plenty of evidence indicating that kids learn better by working with others, at least some of the time anyway.
But even the ones with wall-to-wall interactive display screens, visualisers, graphic tablets etc etc are often, to be frank, Tedium City. How come?
I think the reason, in a nutshell, is that in the sorts of classrooms I’ve just described, the emphasis is on technology rather than learning. What a shame. What a missed opportunity. Technology can enable great and transformative things to happen in the classroom and beyond, but I think it's easy to lose sight of that if we're not careful.
Primary (elementary) classrooms tend to have this more right, or right more often, than secondary (high) schools in my experience. Secondary schools are serious, with a timetable to stick to come what may, whereas primary schools have still not entirely lost that ethos of exploration they are so good at, despite numerous “initiatives” over the years to ensure that anything that moves, or even anything that doesn’t move, is measured. The best schools still have that despite the constant pressure by Governments to test the kids and micromanage the teachers.
So what sort of things should a classroom have? I’m basing this list partly on my own experience of having taught in secondary schools over many years, and my visits to what I considered to be the schools where the education technology classrooms were the most vibrant.
Different sorts of activity require different kinds of spaces. Within the classroom there should be an area where students can use the school’s computers, and places they can sit and plug their own device in if they need to. There should be places where students can collaborate, using pencil and paper if necessary, at tables. There should also be, if space allows, some comfy chairs too. If the school wireless network, layout and rules allow, the classroom can be extended beyond its walls by allowing students to work outside.
In my experience, even if the room you have is incredibly small, you can still arrange furniture and equipment in such a way that you can accommodate different sorts of spaces. And if you can’t then I would suggest, at the risk of being designated a pariah, that you might consider getting rid of some of the equipment. Nobody needs one-to-one computing all the time, and for learning purposes it’s not usually the most effective strategy anyway unless you build in opportunities for collaborating with others.
Not e-books, but books. Not because I’m a Luddite (I’m not), but for four reasons:
First, the very practical one that if you have a few manuals and other books around, it is easy to pick them up and look things up while your partner is working at the screen.
Second, the nature of the books don’t have to be restricted to manuals. There are science fiction novels and short stories related to technology, books about the development of cyber warfare, books about the rise of Google and the fall of Boo. All sorts of technology-related books to stimulate thinking and broaden the mind. I dare you to start a class library.
Third, there’s a hidden message that old technology is still important and useful. Ebooks are great, no doubt about it, but there’s no reason to ditch paper ones, especially as you can’t display ebooks on a bookshelf as far as I know.
Fourth, I think it designates the classroom as a place of learning, not a hub of technology. I think that’s important.
Magazines and other periodicals
I always had newspapers, magazines and even comics in my classroom. I used to buy a lot of computer mags, and I’d bring them in when I was finished with them. If you want a student to write a software review, show them a variety of types of review in different magazines; they’ll soon get the idea. Even the Sunday newspaper supplements sometimes have interesting articles, such as on cyberbullying.
And the comics? Well, comics like 2000 AD or the Marvel comics, though somewhat outlandish in many respects, have interesting ideas and a great appearance from a design point of view. One of the requirements Computing curriculum worthy of the name should be the ability to present information in a variety of formats according to its purpose and intended audience. Comics or, if you prefer the grown-up term, graphic novels, can be pretty effective. There are plenty of comic-creation resources available: see the article referenced in 25 useful resources for teachers.
Tablets on demand
I like the idea of students and teachers being able to use technology where and when they need it. So that means there should be good enough connectivity to make that feasible, and that banks of laptops or tablets are available quickly and easily. Having to book the laptop trolley a day in advance doesn't cut it.
A stand-alone computer
I always liked to have a computer that wasn’t connected to the rest of the network. Yes, I know it’s a bit retro, but it meant that students could check out DVDs without having to go through a whole rigmarole to gain access to the DVD drive. It also meant that they could use programs that were not available on the network, or in the cloud but not available from the network. This sounds all very old-fashioned, but if you have some useful DVDs or CDs from days of old, why abandon them just because technology has moved on?
I also used a stand-alone computer to play music while we worked – Vivaldi, which tended to keep the kids both calm and productive at the same time!
Useful wall displays
For example, infographics showing different possible career paths, useful websites, and students' work of course.
Video or other presentations on demand
If I were teaching now, I'd experiment with having interesting and relevant videos and other media available for students to use when the opportunity presented itself. I am not sure how one could do this with primary school children, but I like the idea of having the facility in the secondary school classroom.
I am inspired by two things in this. First, when I was doing my teacher training, we could borrow videos and radio recordings that looked useful, and sit there and watch and listen with headphones.
The other inspiration is my vet. Well, not mine, but our cats'. They have a tv that seems to be able to show only Animal Planet. Very appropriate for a vet's practice methinks.
Obviously, I shouldn't recommend wheeling a television in and letting it play all day along, but it strikes me that there is something to be considered here.
Create a museum
When I was teaching, a spare desk and a window sill were all I needed to display older computing equipment and photographs. Even though we didn't discuss these artefacts all the time, I am quite sure they played a large part in creating the ambience I was looking for, that of quiet, gentle stimulation, if that is not oxymoronic.
These are just a few ideas, and I don’t even think I’ve scratched the surface. In my opinion, the classroom should be a powerhouse of learning and exploration. If that’s the starting point, then in my experience learning will follow much more than if the starting point is technology.