Rethink School Part 3 – The Classroom Role

A growing number of educators recognize the traditional classroom lecture is no longer the only way to teach the real-world skills students will need in the future, such as creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, and have incorporated lessons outside the classroom to bring them full circle.

Though apprenticeships and partnerships with local businesses are an excellent way to supplement classroom learning and introduce students to the professional skills they need to succeed, the vast majority of educators have yet to adopt new teaching models inside the classroom, relying instead on the same old direct instruction activities that have been around for centuries.

Direct instruction is still used because it worked for so long, and there is an argument to be made in favor of direct instruction to learn core concepts such as reading and math. However, direct instruction lends itself toward memorization, and in an era where machines retain and provide access to more data than a human could ever hope to master its time to teach students to work with technology, not compete against it. This begins in the classroom.

Where we are

Consider a typical fifth-grade assignment, learning the branches of the government. Under the direct instruction model, students would learn from a class lecture or by reading a textbook. The goal would be to recite the names of the different branches and the role they play today. Each student would learn the same material at the same pace and complete the same assessment at the conclusion.

Today we can use technology to tailor this lesson to the student. Known as blended or personalized instruction, these models enable students in the classroom to use the medium best suited to their learning style to absorb the material at their own pace. Students might read or listen to an article, or even watch a video, to prepare for the assessment.

While using technology in this way is only a slight deviation from the direct instruction model, it allows students to tailor what they learn to their own preferences and skill sets. The downside is  existing standards are still geared toward memorizing information rather than exploring it.

Where We Need To Go

Consider the same assignment, to learn the branches of the government, but this time the approach is to propose a bill in Congress. Students come up with a bill they’d like to propose and present, which requires them to research how to write a bill and create supporting materials to present it. They can take turns presenting their bill or serving on a branch of government to debate and perhaps even modify the bill on its way to becoming law.

This method, which could be referred to as project or inquiry-based learning, requires students not just to memorize facts but to apply those facts as they would in the real world. In the process of learning how the government works students also learn how to identify a problem and a potential solution, use technology to access relevant resources, document and present their ideas through different communication mediums, engage in civil discourse and respond to feedback.

How Do We Get There?

Applying the latest technology to the traditional “desks in a row” model rather than creating powerful new learning experiences is simply perpetuating the same norms in education with more expensive tools (Martin, 2018). Thus, it’s not enough to have technology available in the classroom, we need to create opportunities for students to engage with it and use it as a supplement to soft skills like creativity and perseverance that they need to succeed.

Claire Cummings, a teacher who dabbled with a start-up in her spare time, learned firsthand what students will face in the real world, and has modified her classroom to operate more like a company. Students sit where they want instead of in rows of desks. They rotate through stations and work at their own pace, learning grit as they learn technical skill. Cummings also let students contribute to their curriculum.

By turning her students’ passion for video games into a project, where they had to create and showcase a game of their own design, Cummings empowered her students to play an active role in the learning process, and exposed them to real-world skills such as incorporating user-feedback and modifying their creation to improve the final product.

This self-directed learning, where children pursue their own interests with little or no imposed curriculum, is just one example of how teachers can use technology to create new opportunities for learning. Much like Google’s “Genius Hours,” where employees are encouraged to spend part of their day exploring anything that piques their curiosity, students can be encouraged to use the classroom tools at their disposal to let their imaginations run wild, and embrace the curiosity that will inspire a love of learning.

Giving students the opportunity to pursue their own interests helps foster traits such as personal responsibility, initiative, creativity, curiosity, critical thinking and the ability to communicate well with people regardless of status (Gray, 2017). This is because self-directed learners find subjects and means of study that match their interests and skill level rather than focusing on skills like memorization that are becoming obsolete.

Case Study: Finland

Another new classroom model, phenomenon-based learning, comes from Finland. Long known for being at the forefront of the education system, Finland is once again offering an example of how we might transform the classroom to better prepare students for the jobs of the future.

The phenomenon-based learning system, which eliminates the divide between subjects and encourages students to look at a particular concept through a variety of lenses,  promotes 21st- century skills like critical thinking, creativity, innovation, teamwork and communication (Brown, 2017).

Under this model, students are given a broad topic such as the global economy, which may lead to exploration of history, languages, geography, politics, science and environmental studies. Students pursue the topic in the manner that appeals to them, so that one student may explore concepts relating to importing/exporting of natural resources while another may look at how mining those natural resources might impact the environment.

By listening to one another’s findings students can begin to understand the relationship between the different industries that are part of the global economy, which is more indicative of what students will see in the real world than what they might learn through separate classes on history, social studies or math.

Getting Started

Phenomenon-based learning, project-based learning, self-directed learning; regardless of the term you prefer the objective is the same – let students experience rather than observe what they need to learn. Under the direction of the teacher, who provides the initial assignment, students follow their own instincts to solve the problem as they will need to do in a professional setting.  

Incorporating these new models of classroom learning can seem daunting, but there are a number of resources available to help build lesson plans. Edutopia, The Learning Network and even Pinterest have templates to assist with instruction and evaluation, and Googling “PBL lesson plans” put a variety of resources at your fingertips.

To further help students understand the real-world applications of their classroom lessons consider a field trip to local businesses or invite guest speakers into the classroom to identify a challenge they have, and let students conceptualize and present an answer. This exposes the students to a professional setting while building a sense of community between the school and its neighbors.

Learning begins in the classroom, and by creating opportunities for students to explore and apply their knowledge as they would in a professional setting the world becomes their classroom, and skills are experienced rather than presented.


Join the Conversation

When students have the freedom to experience a learning path that interests them they are inspired to learn more, developing their sense of curiosity in the process. How does your classroom inspire curiosity? How can you help students use technology to develop soft skills like creativity and critical thinking?



Brown, K. (2017) – Finland To Become The First Country In The World To Get Rid Of All School Subjects. (


Cummings, C. (2017) – EdSurge. How a Local Tech Meetup Turned My Classroom Into a Startup. (


Gray, P. (2017) – The Mission. Why Our Coercive System of Schooling Should Topple (


Martin, K. (2018) – EdSurge. The Key to 21st Century Classrooms Isn’t Tech. It’s Evolved Teaching. (