By Doug Ward

Here’s a glimpse into the classroom of the future.

It’s huge, and I mean HUGE: big enough for a football field, a magical playground, a dig site for studying bones, and an area for playing with dogs, bears and dolphins. It has cool carpet and places for listening. The tables are spread out and you can choose among giant chairs, bouncy chairs and floating chairs. It has crayons, of course, but also drawers to hold skulls (from the dig site, no doubt) and a secret room. Best of all, it has a portal to a lake and a monorail that will take you anywhere.poster-8-garden

Are you on board? I was when I visited Paula Kahmann’s class at Rushton Elementary School in Shawnee, Kan., last week. Kahmann’s students are working on a project to design an ideal classroom, and they sought my advice on how to do that.

I did offer my input, although my philosophy of classroom design is fairly simple: A classroom should be flexible, but there is no perfect design. (Students wrote that down.) It should have movable tables and chairs, not individual desks. It should have good lighting (preferably natural light), whiteboards, electrical outlets, strong wi-fi, and a means of displaying digital screens. It should be easy to move around in, and it should be comfortable. That is, you should want to spend time there.

I explained only a few of those things because I didn’t want to be overly prescriptive. Nor did I want to go off on a tangent about the failings of traditional classrooms, which are little more than warehouses for instilling passivity than places for learning. (I didn’t say that.)

Rather, I wanted the students to approach their room with open minds and bubbling imaginations. Kahmann had done a great job of encouraging that in earlier class periods. Students had drawn pictures of what their ideal classroom might look like, and two by two they accompanied me to a bulletin board in the hallway and showed me. I’ve included some of those pictures in this post.


One of my favorites included spare language that provided a poetic take on the world of learning:

I Would like Star.

I Would like plants.

I Would paint the Wall orange.

Students included many traditional elements in their classroom pictures and in our discussions. They thought an ideal classroom should have books, games, a snack bar, a bathroom, and a drinking fountain. It should also have places for listening, comfortable chairs, colored pencils and carpet.

Those are great ideas. An ideal classroom, no matter how futuristic, still needs to be functional.

After we had talked for a while, students asked me questions they had compiled before I came:

What kinds of desks should students have? Ones that allow collaboration, I said.

What kinds of chairs are best? Comfortable ones that fit the tables, I said.poster-9-slide-and-drinks

Should classrooms have iPads? (Theirs did.) Sure, I said, as long as teachers and students learn how to use them for learning.

Should students have homework? Sometimes, I said, mostly because it helps them learn in different places.

Should classrooms have live insects? (Theirs did.) Certainly, I said, as long as the insects don’t get loose.

My Socratic approach led to more chaos than learning, I’m afraid, and I left with a renewed appreciation for the work that elementary school teachers do.

I also left with a renewed appreciation for the minds of children. An ideal classroom should nurture those children. It should channel their energy and their awe, not contain it. It should foster experimentation and provide outlets for exploration. It should inspire them to learn, not force them to learn. It should encourage the unfettered creativity we all need to thrive in both the physical and digital worlds.

All of those things apply to college classrooms as much as they do to second-grade classrooms.

I’m not sure what sort of room design the second-graders in Ms. Kahmann’s class will end up with. No doubt, it will be one that inspires them and that makes me want to visit. Maybe next time, I’ll slip through the portal or climb aboard the monorail.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

After a session at the KU Teaching Summit last week, I spoke with a faculty member whose question I wasn’t able to get to during a discussion.

panorama of new classroom in Anschutz Library
A new classroom in Anschutz Library will offer a flexible approach to active learning. It will force faculty members and students to think differently, as there is no front of the room.

The session, Classrooms and the Future of Education, focused on how KU is working to create and renovate classrooms for active learning. Universities around the country are doing the same, putting in movable tables and chairs, and adding nontraditional furniture, whiteboards, monitors, and various digital accoutrements to make collaboration and hands-on learning easier, and learning environments more inviting.

The faculty member at my session said rooms alone would accomplish nothing unless instructors changed their approach to teaching. I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Effective pedagogy must come first, and many faculty members have created active learning environments in classrooms build solely for lecture. The redesigned classrooms are simply a means of providing flexibility in the environment and of allowing students to work together more easily.

Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus at Stanford, made much the same point about technology earlier this month.

Technology, Cuban said, is simply a tool, and its power to effect change is only as great as the person using it. Its ability to enhance thinking, engagement, learning or a host of other things depends largely on how it is used.

He drove that point home by explaining how technology companies have starting using “engagement” as a code word for student achievement. In pushing schools to buy new digital tools, companies rarely promise that technology alone will lead to improved learning. Rather, they say that digital devices and software will improve student engagement, as if engagement alone were a magic elixir.

It’s not.

Engagement matters, Cuban says, but it works alongside elements like classroom structure, student-instructor relationships, varied teaching techniques, and student grit. To those I’d add instructor and student preparedness; informed pedagogy; students’ willingness to learn about and engage with challenging ideas; and meaningful assignments, among other things.

“Anyone who says publicly that student engagement triggered by new hardware and software will produce higher achievement is selling snake oil,” Cuban writes, citing a litany of studies rejecting the idea that more technology leads to improved learning.

We need to help students learn to use technology to search for and analyze information; to solve problems, and to convey ideas. We need to provide more flexibility in the physical spaces of our classrooms to inspire collaboration and creativity.

None of those things matter, though, if instructors ignore the needs of their students, fail to engage them with challenging questions and course material, focus on information delivery rather than learning, and disregard the pedagogical lessons we have learned about a new generation of students.

Learning requires hard work from instructors and their students. Classrooms matter. Technology matters. But neither provides a magical solution.

Another take on classrooms

Edutopia recently published three articles that offer additional perspectives on remaking classrooms. All focus on K-12 education, but they offer valuable perspectives on the types of classrooms our future students will be used to using.

At Albemarle Public Schools in Virginia, students can sit at a table, on a couch or on the floor. They can stand if they prefer or even lie down. Teachers often furnish their classrooms with inexpensive furniture they buy from Goodwill or from college students moving out of town. Parents donate furniture, and some teachers have even used crowdfunding to raise money for furniture. (I’ve never seen those approaches used in higher ed, but I like the idea.)

Heather Wolpert-Gowran, a middle school teacher in California, writes about her switch to a new classroom, saying she moved everything except the tables and chairs. She plans to experiment with various types of seating, and she writes about her journey toward finding the right mix.

Finally, Todd Finley, a regular contributor to Edutopia, writes about concepts and research on classroom design. He also provides links to many examples of redesigned classrooms at elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The School of Engineering at KU will open several new active learning classrooms this fall.

I’ve been involved in planning some of the summer training sessions for the rooms, so I’ve had a chance to explore them and see how they will work.

I’ve written before about the ways that room design can transform learning. Well-designed rooms reduce or eliminate the anonymity of a lecture hall. They promote discussions and learning by creating a sense of community. They make collaboration and sharing easy, and they allow instructors to move among students rather than just stand at the front and talk at them.

The new engineering rooms provide all of that. The 360-degree panorama above shows the largest of the rooms, which will hold 160 students. (Use the controls on the image to move around the room, or just press the “Ctrl” key on your computer and use the cursor to move around.) The new building also has a 120-seat classroom, a 90-seat classroom, and three 60-seat classrooms. You’ll find images of two of the smaller rooms below.

All the classrooms contain a key factor in active learning: tables that allow students to work in groups and that effectively shrink the room size. The tables in all of the rooms have wired connections so that individual students can project to their group or classroom screens with laptops, tablets or smartphones. They also have miniature Elmo document cameras.

The smaller classrooms have monitors at the ends of the tables; the 160-seat classroom has large-screen monitors on the walls, one for each table. The lecterns in all the rooms have large Wacom touch-screen tablets that will allow faculty members to draw on the screen, and most of the wall space consists of whiteboards.

Even the common spaces in the new building provide opportunities for learning. For instance, the atrium (see below) provides a marvelous gathering space for individual study but also for conversations that often lead to informal learning.

The creation of these rooms is a huge step forward in active learning. Six other classrooms in two other buildings will also open this fall. They won’t be as fancy as these rooms, but they reflect the reality that learning is changing and that learning spaces need to change, too.

New engineering building (resized) (31)
Staff members in one of the new classrooms.


New engineering building atrium (resized) (13)
The atrium for the new building.


New engineering building (resized) (1)

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

The challenges, and meaning, of innovation

Innovation is generally difficult, but a new report says innovation in education is especially challenging because of a “high-stakes accountability culture that discourages risk-taking, rewards standardization and understandably eschews the notion of ‘experimenting’ on kids with unproven approaches.” As you can tell, the report was aimed at K-12 schools, but it easily applies to higher education. It was published by the Learning Accelerator, a not-for-profit group that promotes blended learning, and 2Revolutions, an organization that creates “future of learning models.” The report provides a framework for evaluating an organization and effecting change. It also says the term “innovation” is “overused and under-defined” and often means “something different depending on who you ask.” (That’s exactly right.) It provides a good working definition of the term:pi in numerals mirrored as pie spelled out

  •  leveraging new or unproven methods or tools to improve practice or solve persistent problems
  • identifying tools or practices from another field to be applied in a new context
  • often representing an entirely new way of thinking
  • having no rules; there is no “right” or “wrong ” way to innovate
  • always forcing important choices and trade-offs

One of the most important elements in that list is the idea that there are no right or wrong ways to innovate. That’s an important point for educators to keep in mind. To maintain good teaching, we must constantly innovate, reflect and revise. The list fails to mention another important element of innovation, though: risk of failure. All innovators take risks, fail and try again. Of course, if you want to innovate, you have to be willing to take that first step.

Questions about flipped courses

Maryellen Weimer raises good questions about colleges’ use of flipped courses. She applauds active learning, she says, but then asks: How do we know which students have the right study skills for flipped courses? Which students learn most in flipped courses? Do all courses work well in a flipped model? I’m a big proponent of flipped courses, but Weimer’s questions should linger in all our minds.

A bleak report on financing for higher education

Kansas’ funding per full-time equivalent college student dropped by nearly 13 percent, or $894, between 2008 and 2012, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. That’s a 12.77 percent cut, placing Kansas in the middle of the pack for state financing of public colleges and universities during that period. Arizona ranked last, slashing financing by nearly 43 percent. North Dakota topped the list, increasing per-student financing by 19 percent. To make college more affordable, the report recommends a new federal formula that encourages states to invest more in higher education but also sets goals for improving graduation rates and making transfer among institutions easier. Relatedly, John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, says that dwindling state financing has some institutions considering going private.

Briefly …

In an article for Edutopia, Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers offer ways to help students learn metacognition, or how to “drive their brains.” … In Educause Review, administrators from North Carolina State and the University of Pennsylvania write about the role that libraries can play in creating innovative teaching spaces. … A new report says that community colleges’ short-term certificates offer only small economic returns, especially when compared with degrees or other programs that require additional time to complete, according to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. Those certificates, which require less than a year of coursework, are growing in popularity.

By Doug Ward

Evidence is growing about the need to change the design of classrooms.

In a previous post, I wrote about my experiences with room design, student behavior and learning. I found that students were far more engaged when I moved class to a collaborative space, and that they reverted to passive behavior when class returned to the traditional space we were assigned.

The March issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning takes on that very issue in a series of essays that looks at the research on active learning spaces and instructors’ experiences with those types of classrooms. All of the contributors to the issue are from universities or organizations that have led the way in redesigning classrooms, including North Carolina State, Minnesota and Indiana, as well as the nonprofit association Educause.

desks and chairs in The Commons at Spooner Hall
The Commons at Spooner Hall set up for an active learning class.

In their introduction to the issue, the editors, D. Christopher Brooks, J.D. Walker and Paul Baepler, summarize the dominant theories about learning spaces. Those theories include the idea that “a space does not determine behavior, but influences how we act and relate within it in ways that may not be readily observable.” This applies to both students and instructors.

“In large measure, how we configure our new brick and mortar classrooms will set the agenda for how face-to-face teaching continues to change and transform student learning,” the editors write.

Robert J. Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State, offers a brief history of classroom design and pedagogy, from lectures to labs to studios to large classrooms that use an approach called Scale-Up, or student-centered activities for large enrollment undergraduate programs, which Beichner pioneered.

In the introduction to his essay, Beichner addresses an important question about classrooms: Why do we need to change them? His answer: An information-rich, technology-rich society has changed the way students live and think, making it harder for them “to learn from the kind of patient, orderly presentation that their teachers prefer.”

In other words, if today’s instructors expect to connect with students, they have to move beyond the passivity of lecture. A different style of classroom is one way to help with that.

In a concluding essay, Aimee Whiteside of the University of Tampa, mentions the challenges of transforming classrooms and other learning spaces, citing cost and resistance to change, among other elements. She suggests a “read and lead” approach for those of us interested in changing learning environments: researching, sharing ideas, and keeping administrators apprised of the “immense educational value of active learning spaces.”

I’ll write more soon about my experiences with a new style of classroom and about the university’s efforts to make more active learning classrooms available. Meantime, I’d recommend the essays from New Directions for Teaching and Learning, as well as some other recent articles about classrooms and learning.

Among the essays in New Directions for Teaching and Learning 137 (Spring 2014) are these:

  • “History and Evolution of Active Learning Spaces,” 9-16, by Robert J. Beichner.
  • “Coffeehouse as Classroom: Examination of a New Style of Active Learning Environment,” 41-51, by Anastasia S. Morrone, et. al.
  • “Strategies to Address Challenges When Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom,” 63-70, by Christina I. Petersen and Kristen S. Gorman.
  • “Conclusion: Advancing Active Learning Spaces,” 95-98, by Aimee L. Whiteside.

Other recent research on classrooms:

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.