The traditional classroom works, so why change it? This is something anyone involved in leading educational change hears at some stage.

The traditional classroom, where direct instruction is the primary method of teaching, does work. It has worked for decades. It has educated people who have then changed civilization in all areas; the sciences, politics, health, industry…everywhere.

However, to imply that it should not change assumes that we have reached the peak of educational techniques; that no major improvements are possible. Just because the traditional classroom “works” doesn’t mean that it has reached a peak or an optimal level of effectiveness.

A history of “peaks”

History is littered with times when humanity believed it reached a peak. The Titanic was considered the peak of boat design, until it hit an iceberg. The Swiss watch was considered the peak of watch design, until digital watch technology arrived. Change and improvements continue in every industry.

Consider just one example: the car engine. This is apt as the traditional classroom can be considered the engine that has driven education for hundreds of years.

In 1908 the world had the Model T Ford, a car that brought motorized transport to the masses. It was everywhere, just as our current schools filled with traditional classrooms are everywhere. It, and other cars like it, changed the world forever. It was viewed by many at the time as the pinnacle of success in personal transport.

It had a 177 cubic inch (2.9 liter) four cylinder four stroke engine that produced 20 bhp (brake horsepower) of power while achieving a fuel economy of about 20 miles per gallon. Yet was it really the peak of development as the masses at the time thought? A modern motor of similar size can now easily produce between 100 and 200 bhp, with some producing even more. How is this possible? The car engine has been enhanced by technology so that it still achieves the same end as the Model T motor, but it does so much more effectively. The classroom can also be enhanced by technology to become much more powerful.

The modern car engine may be superficially similar to the Model T engine, but many improvements have occurred in the ensuing years; things such as

  • Turbochargers and superchargers to create more power.
  • Fuel injection instead of a carburetor providing easier starting, increased power, a more responsive throttle and better fuel efficiency.
  • Engine blocks made of aluminium instead of cast iron (making the car lighter).
  • Overhead camshafts to provide increased performance.
  • Variable valve timing providing better fuel economy and power delivery that is more flexible.
  • Engine computers (ECU) that increase fuel economy and allow better diagnosis of problems or potential problems. Modern cars have a multitude of sensors.
  • Hybrid engines that combine petrol engines with electric motors. These provide increased fuel economy, lower emissions and a quieter travel experience.

(Next page: Traditional classroom redesign and continual improvement)

Redesign and continual improvement

Each of these changes increased complexity for the designers and mechanics, yet produced a better experience for the user. In some cases, the specialist knowledge and equipment needed to maintain these motors resulted in those who didn’t want to change exiting the industry. For example, there are fewer job prospects for a carburetor specialist now than there were fifty years ago.

Each improvement was also not just a “bolt on” solution. Each meant that other aspects of the engine had to be changed and redesigned. However, would anyone really want to go back to using less efficient, noisier, more polluting engines from our past?

These changes also didn’t “just happen”. They took time, effort, research and refining of ideas; but they were worthwhile and made each iteration of the motor more effective. Thus, the modern car engine looks similar in some ways to that of the Model T, but significant fundamental design changes have occurred.

Boat design now is different than in the era of the Titanic, and most watches are now designed differently to the original analogue Swiss watches.

It is difficult to find an industry that is not changing to provide a better service to clients. Change and improvements are all around us, in virtually every facet of life.

Yet, we see similar levels of improvement in education. It is unlikely that education is the one area of life that has already “peaked” and that doesn’t need to change; that lessons consisting of a large percentage of direct instruction, with possibly some minor “add-ons” and minimal leveraging of technology, is the optimal solution?

A call for faster modernization of education

Education is going to change and improve, like every other industry, and technology will be a foundation of this change. In many schools “traditional” teaching approaches, based on a large percentage of direct instruction, are still the norm. Computers and data projectors may have been added to the classroom, but more work needs to be done to make them and other technologies a more integrated and effective part of the teaching and learning process. The classrooms of 2017 need to take advantage of the enhancements that technology can provide while retaining the best “human” elements of the traditional classroom.

Creating this change takes leadership, empathy, deep knowledge of many areas, commitment, long-term vision, consistency and much more. It cannot be done by a few “lone innovators” and the “bolting on” of some aspects of technology.

Yes…the traditional classroom “works”. VHS video recorders also work, as do fax machines, CRT televisions, pagers, cassette players, sets of physical encyclopedias, plows drawn by oxen, etc.

However, we have not reached the peak of education. It is time for more of our leaders to rise to the task of guiding deep, rich organization wide transformation to enhance learning. It is already 2017. Our students deserve the modernization of education sooner rather than later, and teachers need support in making the changes!

About the Author:

Peter West is the director of eLearning at Saint Stephen’s College.