Radical Idea #13: Build a Better Classroom

Kids sitting in a grid of desks, listening to a lecture? how very quaint. here's how to propel classrooms into the 21st century.


A| Personalized Schedules:

"The model we have now is one teacher and 28 kids in a box, and when we receive more dollars, our instinct is to hire more people. Education has suffered from a lack of imagination over the past 100 years. Personalized education means literally knocking down the walls between classrooms to create large, open spaces and 9 or 10 different stations where kids can learn — some staffed by teachers, some staffed by virtual tutors, some with kids working independently on computers or in groups. Each day, the kids come in and look at monitors to see which stations they should be working at, like the monitors you might see at an airport."

Joel Rose, CEO of School of One

B| Telepresence:

"A French-language class could connect with students in Paris for two-way communication or a class could invite a remote lecturer. At one pilot program in Arizona, the district delivered Calculus III to three different schools with five students per site, and it was cost effective. Learning today is not confined to the four walls of a classroom."

Renee Patton, U.S. public sector director of education at Cisco

C| Beautiful Buildings:

"The environment in which a class is happening has a humongous psychological impact on both teachers and students. We're asking children to be in these places for eight hours a day — they're institutionalized, prisonlike, decrepit, with no lights or windows or books. It's not sending a great message about what we value — it's saying we don't value them, we don't value schools."

Justine Haemmerli, program administrator for graduate/public-school partnerships at Bard College

D| Internet Everywhere:

"The idea of a computer lab is misguided. Every student should have direct access to the Internet. This changes the role of the teacher in a classroom, from a purveyor of preexisting knowledge with a frontal presentation into more of a coach. The teacher could provide a starting point for a theme, to unify and excite the class, and then spend time with individuals to see where they get stuck or motivated or excited. The transformation in education will be massive, and if we let the Internet do its thing, the textbook market could go from $8 billion to $800 million to $80 million, and yet there will be more and better content and it will be available to more people."

Albert Wenger, managing partner at Union Square Ventures

E| Digital learning library:

"The iPad is a really good platform for the classroom because you can embed curriculum-based videos and games. Having a much more interactive experience for kids makes a huge difference in getting them excited and focused. Kids are instinctively creative — it's about fostering their inventiveness, not just drills."

Paula Kerger, CEO of PBS

F| Flexible Furniture:

"We need to create a dynamic learning environment, so a lot of different kinds of things can happen that appeal to different learners at different times of the day. Students sit for seven hours a day in desks that are attached with a metal bar to chairs; they are incredibly uncomfortable. VS America designs school furniture that is flexible and allows students to move. I think creating flexible spaces that teachers can reconfigure — to encourage collaborative, project-based learning — is really effective at engaging students."

Laura Stein, associate creative director at Bruce Mau Design and creative director and designer for the book The Third Teacher

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  • Brent Norris

    It looks like the parents are missing from the diagram above. I'd add some desks for parents to work at. If I were a parent I'd still be telecommuting. Give me a desk and an internet connection to check my email from and I'll teach an after school class once a month for free. Betcha I'm not alone.

  • John Mack

    Here's how my classroom worked years ago in the South Bronx. I can easily answer "tough math" interviews questions that stump Ivy League graduates. Based on what we did in 4th to 7th grades. These tough questions are based on elementary number logic.

    1. Each week specific learning goals were set. When smart kids learned them by Tues, Wed, they then helped the slower kids. Part of helping involved reviewing the Learning Notebook below. fast learners would also be given special projects to work on. Alone or together. In the classroom or at the library.

    2. Learning Notebook. Toward the end of each class we all had to write down what we learned in that class in a cumulative notebook. No taking notes until then. Instead everyone practiced and sought help as needed. then, after practice not just words or teachers demonstrations, we wrote what we had learned.

    3. Teachers spot checked a number of notebooks to see if the teaching had worked. Tutors/students helping students reviewed them to discover where things went wrong.

    4. Teaching philosophy: Must learn. We will not move on until everyone is capable of B work in the assigned learning.

    5. Diagnostic/selected testing. Many test were diagnostic, that is, they did not count toward your grade unless you wanted them to. Of the tests that counted, only the grades in the top 7 out of 1 tests would count. Students always felt they could redeem poor performance.