Dr. Julie Marshall

The continuing technological revolution has impacted all facets of our professional and personal lives. Similarly, the field of education has experienced amazing advancements in the tools and methods teachers employ to help students learn and grow.

Gone are dusty old chalkboards. Computers have supplanted typewriters. Microsoft Word has eliminated the need for whiteout. Google and Lexis Nexus are now as common in school libraries as the Dewey Decimal System. Power Point presentations have replaced overhead projectors and transparencies. iPads and Chrome Books are revolutionizing learning.

Through all these advancements, one element has remained essentially unchanged: the physical classroom environment. Any generation could walk into today’s K-12 school and immediately identify with the rows of immovable desks and chairs facing a single direction.

At South Carolina’s Saluda Trail Middle School, we are beginning to evolve from this stagnant design to one that is innovative, flexible, colorful and engaging.

My students aren’t arranged in fixed rows. There is no front to my classroom. Chairs and tables equipped with wheels allow students to roll, arranging themselves in a variety of groupings to maximize face-to-face interaction and collaboration with their classmates and me. Tables tilt to accommodate the use of new tools, like interactive white boards and mobile devices.

This is my active learning center, not the traditional classroom we all remember from our days as students. Thanks to a Steelcase Education Grant in 2015, my classroom (along with a few dozen other lucky schools since) received a total makeover. After almost three decades of teaching, I’m overjoyed to see my students achieving at unprecedented levels:

  • Completed assignments increased from 52% the previous year to 98%.
  • End of year grades increased for 95% of the students, up from 81% showing improved grades from the previous year.
  • Growth targets in Reading almost doubled from 35% the previous year to 62% in the center.

This classroom overhaul is yielding record results and emphasizing that K-12 modernization must not end with the flick of a stylus, the stroke of a keyboard or a query to Siri. Technology alone can achieve limited results.

Students must internalize the impact. Before the active learning center, many experienced limited self-confidence and rarely collaborated in class. Through the new environment, students have found their voices. They speak with confidence. My former students who were enthusiastic leaders describe their return to traditional classrooms as “really boring.”

It is painfully obvious that students are failing to tap their full potential within the constraints of traditional classrooms.

A former student, Michael, stated my classroom inspired him to think about possible careers by asking himself, “What would an engineer do? What would a chef do? What would a principal do?” when solving problems. Active classrooms are transforming not only learning but lives. For students across the U.S., motivation and achievement are magnified through this approach.

Sadly the physical classroom, where students experience the majority of their education, is sometimes the forgotten player.

While society has embraced radical changes in healthcare, newsrooms and even libraries, we expect students to learn in a space not far removed from a one-room schoolhouse of a century ago: a regimented space where they learn to find their seat, listen to the instructor, take notes and wait their turn to speak.

Two hundred of my former students have seen the future of classroom learning over the past two years. Another hundred will experience it this school year. Let’s work to make active learning classrooms available to all students everywhere.

Feature image courtesy of Steelcase

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Dr. Julie Marshall is a seventh grade ELA teacher at Saluda Trail Middle School. Follow them on Twitter: @STMSWildcats


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