Traditional classrooms, the kinds that I certainly grew up in, really don’t reach every child. Not because of teachers, not because of anything the teacher’s doing so much as the actual physical structure of the room.
The idea that children learn best by sitting in uniform rows facing the front of the room, has been known to be ineffective for some learners since the 1300s, as a famous painting that shows what a real classroom looked like at the University of Bologna. And when you look at it, you laugh, because there’s students sleeping, there’s students talking to each other, and there’s the poor professor in the front of the room trying to give a lecture hoping that everyone’s learning something.
So our motivation was to say if the structure of the classroom is at fault, what new structures could we design that might be better?
My name’s David Thornburg. And right now we’re located in Recife, Brazil. But we also live in the United States, and we split our time between the two countries. My background is in science and engineering, mathematics, education, and in particular, the role that technology might play in support of students learning. The Holodeck, which takes its name from science fiction, is basically an empty room that can become anything you want when you turn the computers on. So walls, which are normally white, can suddenly become viewports into outer space. They could become views out of a submarine window. They could become almost anything based on what the computer software is telling it to do. The Holodeck is based on the idea of inquiry driven, project-based learning. They’re actually engaged in a mission, and the outcome of that mission is unclear. And a consequence of that is the students are so engaged that they tend to remember what they learned in that environment for a far longer period of time than most kids remember their learning in a traditional classroom environment.
The first mission that we created was a Mission to Mars to explore whether or not Mars has or had life. Interesting question. Scientists are unclear. I really like having students explore things for which tools like Google can be a terrific resource, but that they’re not going to provide a closed answer. If people already know the answer, and it can be looked up on Google, why ask the question? Let’s ask them real questions that scientists are asking themselves these days? And that gives them a sense also of the reality of science. It’s messy. It’s unclear. There are differing points of view. What I see happening now, though, is a consumer-driven revolution, in that the students themselves are taking control of their informational tools. Students are bringing their own smart phones to school. They’re bringing their own tablets to school with every expectation that they will be allowed to use these devices in the school’s network. The challenges that I see are two-fold. One of them is students may know how to use these tools mechanically, but it doesn’t mean that they know how to judge the value or accuracy of the information that they’re finding, and they need responsible adults to teach them. If you start with four levels of data, information, knowledge, and understanding, data and information are the sorts of things that Google can provide for you. Teachers don’t have to provide that stuff anymore. Historically, they provided a lot of it. But how nice to liberate teachers and say, «Now, you can focus on knowledge and understanding, that’s where the real payoff comes.» I’ve been telling kids that in 1492 Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue,» why on earth waste time presenting that, but instead focus on what were the kinds of challenges that Columbus had with his crew to entice them to go beyond the site of land? Now that’s a very different kind of question. And one that teachers don’t often get to ask, because they spend so much time on the trivial stuff that can be looked up. The value of the question for the kids is it gets them thinking about topics in a deep way. If history teachers only get to spend time teaching the rough outlines of history in terms of events, the meaning behind those events is amazingly lost! To me the real power of technology in the classroom comes when we use it to do things we couldn’t do before at all. Not just to do old things differently. So technology is important in education to the extent That allows them to achieve educational goals in some powerful new ways.