Redefining the Classroom: What Does the Future of Education Look Like?

I’m going to give you a few words, and I want you to just let images that come to your mind float there for a moment: School. Campus. Student.

Now you probably have some specific images of a schoolhouse, or sprawling university campus, or a child-aged pupil wearing a backpack, chattering away with friends…. in English.

But as you’ll hear today, teachers, administrators, and educational innovators are looking for new mediums, locations, and methods to serve all sorts of students.

We start, in Boston, Massachusetts, where the oldest public, taxpayer-supported elementary school in the country was opened in 1639.

“In the real world, you can’t really tease apart math from English from Social Science from Science. And that sort of integration of content is exactly what we need, too, in our schools as well.”

Those words of wisdom we heard from Tommy Chang, the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, who was brought into BPS 2 years ago.

“I am very proud of our instructional vision, that puts academic rigor side-by-side social and emotional learning, side-by-side what we call culturally and linguistically sustaining practices,” says Chang.

“My own personal story as an immigrant to this country, unfortunately, wasn’t one that was always affirming or always sustaining. So I often say my first day in schools in America, my cultural and linguistic identity began being suppressed.”

Chang says affirming a student’s cultural identity is critical to their success. He pointed to his first day in school as an example of what not to do to new immigrant students. So it’s from this background that Superintendent Chang looks to bolster students and create equal opportunities to ensure children from all backgrounds have access to future careers. He says it’s important to make sure students are getting the academic programming in schools that will help them in the workforce.

“For example, we are creating a pathway in one of our high schools around protective services, so cyber security. So what the students are learning in math class would directly apply to what they will actually be doing in terms of cyber security.”

Connections between private companies and Boston public schools are already materializing. Superintendent Chang says that the financial company State Street is stepping up to the plate to help make BPS students workforce-ready.

“We are working with State Street here in Boston as part of a large initiative called Boston Wins. And as part of this initiative, young people are going through high school getting the mentoring they need to prepare them for college. But more importantly, they are getting work-based experiences,” says Chang.

“And these companies, because they are so invested, they are willing to actually hire our students coming out of high school and coming out of college.”

State Street is just one of these companies, and has committed to hiring 1,000 Boston Public School graduates over the next 5 years.

“Now that’s a company that is putting their money where their mouth is. But if you just think about this work our companies are investing, they understand that their job force’s future is going to be our students. They are so much more willing to redesign what education looks like.”

And when it comes to redesigning, the curriculum is just one step. According to architects Brooke Trivas and David Damon of Perkins + Will, classrooms today are already being prepared for the instructional needs of the future.

“Schools were once focused on knowing—now they are focused on doing,” says Brooke, a principal architect at the firm, specializing in K-12 school design. “Schools were once teacher-centered—they are now student-centered. These are great ways to visualize the classroom. Schools were about the individual—now they are about the team.”

Some of these changes have been gradually implemented over the years—like L-shaped classrooms, natural lighting, break-out spaces. But other changes are being made in preparation for the future, where the structure of a classroom might not look quite the same.  

“When you are talking about teacher-centered versus student-centered, you are looking at a traditional stand-up-and-deliver methodology, where the teacher is at the front of the classroom and all the students are in rows,” says Brooke.

“But when you talk about student-centered, the way the classroom design looks is very different, because there is no front of the classroom. Things are done… are more varied. They are more distributed exactly around the classroom.”

What education looks like is also a focus of our next guest, Peter Stokes, Managing Director of the Huron consulting group.

“It’s difficult for institutions to grow when they’re in an urban setting,” says Peter. “And so technology is one way that institutions can start to think about expanding their capacity.”

Stokes attributes the growth of online learners to this fact, emphasizing that “Many of the institutions providing access to online education are urban institutions,” although sometimes online programs emerge with rural campuses, as well, because of the ease of access.

“So the relationship between place and reach has evolved considerably over the last several decades. And for some institutions there’s been, I think, an assumption that eventually place won’t matter at all and that in the virtual world, place is not so significant a barrier or an issue. And that virtual presence can do away with concerns about the campus.”

But ease of access isn’t the only reason institutions are developing online programs.

“On the other hand, we do see some very forward-thinking institutions like MIT, who are explicitly thinking about the ways in which education technology can not only expand reach globally, but can also inform the experience on campus and the role of place and space, classroom space in the educational process.”

So will online learning make the campus experience moot? Peter says that’s not likely to happen any time soon.

“Out of 20 million students in the U.S. higher education, only about 15% are fully online. So that leaves 85% that are having some kind of either full campus experience, or some kind of hybrid, you know campus and online. So there’s no question that the campus experience is still critical.”

But, according to Peter, it’s more critical for some students than others. The same on-campus elements that help an 18–24 year old to mature as an independent adult could keep an older, working student from pursuing a degree.

What about education that takes place outside and off-line?

That’s where Christine Cunningham, founder of Engineering is Elementary, steps in. Christine’s elementary engineering program at the Museum of Science in Boston is just one of many programs facilitating learning outside of the classroom.

“Learning doesn’t stop when the school bell rings or when the school vacation begins,” says Christine. “So we’re really excited that here we can work with students, with teachers, and with their families to create an ecosystem of learning where everybody is constantly thinking about how science and engineering constantly intersect with their lives.”

Christine says one exhibit that teachers, parents, or students can engage in is the Yawkey Charles River exhibit—where the river becomes a platform for learning about engineering and science.

“They might visit science in the park, which is one of our most beloved visits because it’s a playground. And as the kids engage in various activities of the playground, they learn more about the physics and the science underlying that. So exhibits are one way that students can interact while they’re here.They can also engage with programs. And we have a wide range of programs.”

Christine says that the school programs offer a lot of freedom, because they can leave the Museum of Science to go out into the community.

“So we have a set of traveling programs that goes out every day. The vans leave the museum bright and early, six-thirty, seven-o’clock. And drive to schools all over New England, to bring the museum to the schools. We also bring the exhibits to people, schools, and teachers nationwide because they travel. For example, the Pixar Exhibit, which was here a couple years ago, is now on a worldwide tour through at least 2023, so that reaches a lot more students and teachers that way as well.”

Christine says that engineering doesn’t have to wait until kids are in middle or high school to introduce. The principles come very easily to kids—if you can engage them on their level. So she introduced a program called “Wee Engineer.”

“They actually start much younger, building block towers, or beds for their dolly. So we started to think about how we could harness some of those natural instincts, and have kids engaged in activities that would get them thinking a little bit more in the way that engineers would.”

Christine says that a big reason that the Museum of Science sought to develop Wee Engineer is to help children to think about themselves as scientists, mathematicians, and of course, engineers.

So while many institutions look for ways to diversify education delivery, does the brick-and-mortar campus still have a place on the educational landscape?

Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, says he thinks that brick and mortar campuses will continue to be an important part of the post-high school education experience—because it’s also a coming of age experience.

“In that case, they seek a whole living and learning community in which they can redefine themselves. Reinvent themselves. Live with people like them. They want to get out from under their parents’ roof, get out of the town where everyone knows them. They’ve seen the depiction of college, and it looks pretty darn good. Not just the studies, in fact the things they’re probably thinking about in this case are the parties, and the football games, and the organizations, and the study abroad.”

LeBlanc says that while costs might not make the traditional 4-year college experience feasible for everyone in the future, he doesn’t think it will disappear entirely.

“It’s a remarkable experience. It’s too expensive—I’m not sure we’ll continue to believe that coming of age deserves four years of that. I wouldn’t be surprised if we came to a place where we evolve to a three-year residential experience, and the fourth year might be in the work, and we can think about that in other ways.”

“So, I think it will continue for young people coming out of high school. And I would challenge anyone to show me that there is a diminished interest. There is a diminished ability to pay. But people want to send their kids, they worry worry about their kids off to college.”

So while the classroom is being redefined in a number of ways, most believe that at least some form of physical space will continue to be set aside in the future.

The question is: What will it look like?

Read the full series

The Future of Education: Redefining the Classroom.

Designing the Classroom of the Future: Interview with Brooke Trivas & David Damon of Perkins + Will

What Does the College Experience of the Future Look Like? President Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University Weighs In

Engineering is Elementary Founder Christine Cunningham Speaks on K-12 Engineering Curriculum, Equal Access to STEM Education

Pathways to Closing the Achievement Gap: Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang Shares Innovations for Student Success

Kassandra Sundt

Kassandra Sundt

An Army Brat born in Canada, Kassandra got her start reporting and producing at Emerson College's WERS 88.9 FM, and later at WBUR 90.9, both in local Newscast and Radio Boston. When she's not writing about education, she's covering local Boston news and sports. Often, she can be found playing roller derby or knitting.