Futuristic Schools

An educator wonders if, despite our challenges and limitations, we couldn’t all do a little bit better for our students.

CLASSROOM 21 | by Greg Limperis

Let’s face it: school can be boring. When I was a kid it was boring. Given stacks of textbooks, learning meant doing countless worksheets, chapters and sections of those books — not to mention countless hours of rote memorization.

In some ways it was simpler: teachers stood at the front of the classroom and taught you everything you needed to know to be successful in your grade. Measuring success was certainly simple: How well did you do on your quizzes? How about your tests? Most importantly, how well did you do on your report card?

Summer? It couldn’t come fast enough. No more rulers, no more books; no more teachers, dirty looks! The biggest letdown of the year was when it was over. Worse than missing out on that one Christmas gift you hoped for that wasn’t under the tree, the end of summer meant back to work in the boring classroom. Like a boring education factory, all that was produced were boring facts. I can still hear the echo of the countless times my peers or I had asked our parents (or God forbid, our teacher) “When will I ever need this in real life?”

Today, I ask you: what’s changed? How different is learning now?

For many of us, a good quarter of a century later, I’m sure a lot of us can say without hesitation, not much.

Reality is, for so many students, learning still isn’t fun.

Let’s have a quick look at so many schools today: students are still given countless worksheets, numerous textbooks and hours of rote memorization. My very own kids go to school every day, backpacks loaded with countless artifacts no longer relevant to the world in which they live. Every one of my kids has an iPod touch. With wifi, there’s an endless amount they can do. My oldest daughter has an Android with a data plan. At age 10, she has access to all the content she wants. She’s used to constant access to computers, tablets, laptops, netbooks, e-readers and more, sometimes all at once.

A lot of kids are like that: true digital learners. Funny thing is, not in school. They walk in and power down. Often, it’s required that they do so. Learning has become foreign to them. They’re asked to power down from their home life and learn in a way that’s not a bit engaging to them.

When I was a kid, we went to Plimoth Plantation, a living museum in Plymouth, Mass., showing life on the original 17th-century English colony. Today, students take a field trip back in time every day — to their classrooms. It would be funny, engaging even, if it were only once a year, but for more than 180 school days, they’re picking up a pen and paper, opening a textbook or filling out a worksheet. They’re neither visually nor intellectually stimulated. For a place that is dedicated to our future, doesn’t it follow then and shouldn’t schools be, well, somewhat futuristic?

Sometimes out of necessity, schools actually request that their students power down. BYOD is great in theory, but with diverse socioeconomics at play, can it in reality really be fair? Or what happens when you rely on students to bring in their devices for an important lesson but they leave it at home, or worse — they have it but it’s not working? How about if it becomes a distraction? What if that iPod or iPhone or Android contains inappropriate content? How do you control this? Can it even be done? Sure you can — but often it takes money, knowledge, time, and personal attention. This is exactly the stuff that schools are not made of.

Okay, so you decide to try to integrate more technology as a district so you can engage these students and meet them on their level. Where do you start? What do you invest in? Where will you get the money to fund it and how can you support it on a limited staff?

Do you put a few computers per classroom because this is all your district can afford? Do we honestly think that in this day and age twenty-five students will be okay with sharing a measly three or four devices in their classroom? How do we equitably ensure every one of the students in the class gets equal time on the computer without the ever-so-present chorus of, “That’s not fair! He got to use the computer longer than I did!”? Will each student get five minutes on the computer during an hour class in middle school, or do we tell them they can get their turn for a half hour two weeks from now? How about giving schools a computer lab to use? Do we use that lab as a specials class and the student only gets to use technology once every six days, or for ten days — and then not again for fifty more?

There’s no easy answer to integrating technology well. Making learning fun and engaging takes buy-in and passion for doing so from everyone. Training and support have to come first. Without these, teachers will find it very difficult to constantly locate workable and dependable resources. What do you do when the equipment breaks, is it still under warranty? Does it have to go back to the manufacturer? How do you know of all of the great free resources out there that you can use as an educator without getting support from someone either in-house or through a PLN (personal learning network)? Even the best PLN out there right now isn’t putting everything educators need in one location. Finding what’s new, fun and hot, and finding it quickly and easily is not always possible. What is needed now is a PLN of PLN’s.

There are plenty of sites that are fun and aligned to the Common Core Standards. There is BoomWriter, BuzzMath, Storybird, Glogster and so much more. I could go on for hours. The problem is, once again, where do I find time to find out about all of them? How do I integrate them into my lessons and more without support?

Everything has to be made easy. I love the idea of districts using something such as Blackboard’s Engage or another central LMS that is also a location for web pages in a district where educators can share and collaborate with students, each other and the community. If we can give educators the resources they need, the ease of implementation and excitement of engaging lessons to students, most everything else will take care of itself.

I know as a parent that if you can make it so that my child wants to learn, then you can engage them and give them a love of learning. I would rather spend money on buying a tablet, iPod touch, phone or, heck, even allow them to take one they already have from home into school to help make this happen. I would even be willing to give you access to it, to control what is seen and done on it on your network. I would even allow my child to get one supplied from you — if I could not afford it — and if it meant that he or she saw ads on it during the day or he or she had to do some things to help pay for it.

I want my child to be successful and I want them to be engaged. I realize they need access to the hardware and you cannot afford to put a device in every child’s hands. But prove to me you will support it, train teachers to use it well — and have a plan that puts it to use most of the school day for the next few years and, hey, I might be able to not buy markers, pens, notebooks, backpacks and you could offset the cost from not having to buy textbooks, paper, whiteboard markers, erasers, reading books, dictionaries and on and on.

We can figure this out if we want to; we all know it will make learning fun for our kids. We just have to be willing to let go of the old-school mindset — it’s called old school for a reason.


Greg Limperis, Supervisor of Instructional Technology for his district, was formerly the Middle School Technology Facilitator in Lawrence, Mass.. He founded the very popular Technology Integration in Education professional learning network, reaching thousands of educators worldwide. He has shared with others what he knows and they have joined him in sharing their insights as well. Join them in bringing about change using your 21st-century skills. 

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