Three Things To Look For in 21st-Century Classrooms

When Greg Garner was a middle school teacher, a classroom observation he received from his principal made him re-think what his classroom looked like to outsiders and how he could better explain why the “organized chaos” was actually a good thing.

As we’re settling into a new school year, it’s a great time to think about what you’d like your classroom to look like, what it actually might look like to an observer, and if there are any changes you’d like to make to your own “organized chaos” to help move it more toward a 21st-century classroom environment.

By Greg Garner

A few years back, I was teaching a middle-school level technology class in a computer lab. The principal gave me full creative license to develop a standards-based curriculum for my students. I made a series of decisions based on both experience and research that I felt would be most beneficial for my students and, for the first several weeks, things were clipping along quite smoothly. Students were creating great products, learning a lot and seemed to be quite engaged in their work.

Then I had my first observation. I don’t remember how the conversation afterward went, mostly because my head started spinning when I thought I heard the term “growth plan.”

“How had I been so far off base?” I thought. From the appraiser’s point of view, I was exceptionally weak in classroom management. They pointed out that at no point during the observation had I been teaching, and my students were all doing different things. Each student seemed to be on a different website or program and there was no continuity to the class.

And it was loud. My ‘classroom management’ actually did have some structure with different teams working on different products in specific places around the lab. Traditional pedagogy says I wasn’t teaching simply because I wasn’t giving a lecture (okay they did have one very valid point: my classroom could be very loud at times).

As we continued our conversation about what they had seen in my room, however, I realized that it wasn’t a matter of weak classroom management or off-task behavior. It was that my appraiser had made a series of assumptions about my room and I hadn’t taken the initiative to clarify what was actually happening.

My room looked different and, if you don’t know what to look for, it looks like chaos. So here are three things I’d recommend observers look for in a seemingly chaotic classroom:

1. Engagement with the Task at Hand

  • Are the students deep into their work?
  • Are their conversations peppered with lesson-oriented verbiage?
  • It isn’t enough to see them playing a game and assume they’re off-task.
  • What if they wrote that game and they are testing it?
  • What if they are peer-reviewing their neighbor’s game?

Talk with the students. Ask them questions they can’t answer if they’re off-task (note that you might need to talk with the teacher first to be brought up to speed with what they should be working on).

2. Work Product

What are they making? What is the end goal of what students are to be doing? For this, you will certainly need to talk with students. They should be able to clearly articulate what they’re doing and what they hope it looks like when they’re done. Maybe it’s an iMovie and they are describing the story and the shots needed to make it come to life.

Maybe they’re writing a blog post that you’ve mistaken for ‘playing’ on a social network. It’s pretty easy to determine when a lesson isn’t going well if the students don’t know what they’re doing or what they’re supposed to be doing and the teacher isn’t actively addressing concerns in the room.

3. Connection

21st-century learning is, by and large, social. It isn’t an isolated incident that happens to one student in one room, it’s increasingly going global. Students from Tennessee are blogging with students in Turkmenistan and getting feedback from a class in Torino. Distance and language barriers are falling and it’s time to set higher expectations for our teachers and students.

If you see high levels of engagement and a thoughtful, compelling work product, it’s time to look for a connection. If you don’t see how their learning involves connecting with others, ask. Challenge your staff to extend learning beyond the four walls and find ways to add depth and complexity to your students’ understanding of the nature of school.

Technological innovation in classrooms is disrupting traditional pedagogical frameworks and the means of communicating information have changed. Teaching can no longer be about information dissemination, it is instead about creating context and leveraging it for real-world application. If your observation style is hands-off because traditional learning models permitted learners to be passive, it’s time to up the ante: get involved, talk with teachers and students, and become a co-learner and instructional coach.

Perhaps the best instructional leadership you can provide is utilizing these ‘active observations’ to communicate higher expectations in the areas of engagement, quality of work and connection. But you might have to give in a bit on the noise level…

This post originally ran on the Getting Smart blog here.

For more, see:

Greg Garner is a former middle school teacher and current Research Assistant at the Friday Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @classroom_tech 

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Penny Christensen

I can understand how an Administrator might get be challenged to find the learning with so many different possible classrooms, teaching styles, and teachers. I think the key to activating the Admin's knowledge is to show that in a lesson plan. Now the real challenge is how to write that plan for you, your teaching methods, or your class!

Dan Keat

This is a great article. The world is evolving and education needs to keep up with it otherwise it might risk falling by the wayside. Everything is going online now - with even educational resources going this way. I've found a great site like this, which caters to the UK primarily. It's called (

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