SCIENCE FOCUS

Innovation: How to reinvent the classroom for the digital age

Transformation will mean teachers relinquishing some control and lessons being more relevant to the pupils' real world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 April, 2015, 8:29am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 10:23am

We are at the dawn of a new era in education. What is becoming possible is a revolution - a 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 e-books 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?

The role of the human teacher will be 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, a teacher at the famed 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 worked previously as a reporter.

In a new book, Wojcicki says Google-style moonshots are necessary to transform education. She and co-author Lance Izumi advocate changing the culture of the classroom so that the teacher relinquishes some control of the learning to students and the lessons become more relevant to the real world. Here are some of the key lessons from Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom:

1) Giving students some control of their learning is the key to engagement. Schools of education train teachers to always maintain control, so one of the scariest things for teachers is to let go a bit.

2) If we want to train a generation of innovators, then we need to give them an opportunity to be innovative in school. If we want to train a group of people to obey orders and not think for themselves, then we should continue with traditional education.

3) Students do well in classrooms when they are treated with trust and respect. Everyone, especially a child, wants to feel important and empowered. All classrooms should treat students with kindness, trust and respect, giving them an opportunity for innovation and collaboration. The culture of the classroom is the key to getting kids excited about learning.

4) Mastery of learning is important. Children need an opportunity to redo assignments until they learn the material. Some people take longer than others to learn, but that does not mean that they are inferior or cannot learn. Grades can be an inhibiting factor: students who get a bad grade don't want to do the assignment again; they get discouraged. But if they just get the corrections, with instructions to revise (the same instructions everyone else gets), they will do the work. They all want to succeed.

5) This methodology can be used in all subject areas. If students were given as little as 10 per cent of the time to work on a project of their choosing, they would be more excited about learning the subject matter. Wojcicki says that 50 per cent of the time should be dedicated to blended learning. The digital tutor I described is probably five or 10 years away, but it is coming. In the meantime, there is nothing to stop us from adapting education to the modern era of creativity and innovation - and taking advantages of technologies that are already here.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Centre for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Duke University and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities

Washington Post