Lectures Didn't Work in 1350—and They Still Don't Work Today

A conversation with David Thornburg about designing a better classroom
Students at Wooranna Park Primary School in Melbourne, Australia go on an outerspace mission from their holodeck-style classroom

“Of all the places I remember from my childhood,” David Thornburg writes, “school was the most depressing.”  The now award-winning educational futurist and creator of the “educational holodeck,” Thornburg’s early experience in the classroom prompted him to help others rethink traditional classroom design. In his latest book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments, Thornburg outlines four learning models: the traditional “campfire,” or lecture-based design; the “watering hole,” or social learning; the “cave,” a place to quietly reflect; and “life”—where ideas are tested.

I spoke with Thornburg about his project-based approach to learning, why traditional models of teaching fail, and how to incorporate technology into education to teach students how to think creatively. Here's a transcript of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.

What was it about school that was so depressing for you?

I was in schools that didn’t support the way I learned. When I was a student in elementary school, our desks were bolted to the floor, and the desks were set up for right-handed people. I was left-handed. There was no way to accommodate me, so my teacher thought it would be a good idea to tie my left hand down with a belt, forcing me to use my right hand. I overcame the barriers, but I wanted to make sure I never did to other students what had been done to me. It’s kind of a bummer to come at it from that perspective, but that’s the reality.

How did you come up with the four types of learning?

The real breakthrough was attending a conference at the National Academy of Sciences. Every presenter at the conference was an absolutely breathtaking speaker. The whole focus was on the role of technology and learning. But a couple days in, I showed up and noticed that halfway through the event, a lot of people were getting up for breaks. There were no breaks scheduled during the day. The interesting thing was that they stayed out in the hall talking to peers about what they’d just seen in the lecture. Here we had great speaker presenting, but they were in the hall talking. It was meeting a need. That night, I reflected on the day and came up with the idea of different learning spaces. I thought that maybe we could think about technologies to support these different ways of learning.

So what is an educational holodeck, anyway?

The science-fiction holodeck that came with Star Trek: The Next Generation was just an empty room that could become a whole simulation of anything. A Victorian drawing. An ocean-going vessel. Anything you wanted, it could become. That included furniture and everything, controlled by a computer. We don’t know how to fabricate holographic furniture that people can sit on, so we need real furniture, but we’ve taken a good-sized room and covered the surfaces, no external light coming in, and in the front of the room put a large projection screen. Our first was 10 meters across and 1.5 meters high, which is big. On the side of the room, there was an interactive whiteboard and around the periphery, personal computers. Kids come into the room to go on a mission.

One that we did was a mission to Mars, to let kids explore whether Mars has or had, life. There are challenges when you’re taking off in a spaceship, and they have to solve problems. It’s very interesting, because it’s an immensely interactive environment, and after a little while they almost feel like they’re there. When the students enter the room, it’s already up and going. It’s only after they’re out of the room that I turn everything off and it goes back to the regular room. And I feel a difference. It’s like, “Whoa, where’d my spaceship go?” I get a funny feeling in my stomach.

How did you judge the success of the holodeck?

We brought back a bunch of students one year later to revisit the holodeck and asked these kids to talk about what they knew about Mars. What they knew then was much more than what they knew at the end of the mission. They were so interested in it that they continued to study the topic on their own. I don’t know about you, but if I’m asked to answer some questions from a year ago, I may have forgotten some stuff. The idea that they had grown is really exciting.

There’s been a lot of emphasis on testing recently. How do your ideas fit with these requirements? Is there room for exploration?

The emphasis on testing is changing. The new standards, especially in science and math, are radically different from what we had in the past. Basically, the function for the new math standards is to help children learn the way a mathematician thinks. The computational skills are just a byproduct. Most of the math instruction in American schools has been focused on computation, not on real mathematics. That’s changing. People are still anxious about the new assessments, but they’ll find a way to do that. The Next Generation Science Standards have been adopted by twenty-some odd states, and they pretty much mandate new types of assessments. For the first time in history, engineering is now a K-12 topic. I’m not even sure it’s even content the teachers even know, and in a way, that’s almost a blessing. It forces kids to go to projects on their own rather than you giving a lecture. It’s the idea of co-learning.

What do you think about the Common Core Standards?

In the Common Core math standards, I find a lot to like. The problem I’ve got with the standards—there are only eight—is that the illustrations use traditional topics. There’s nothing wrong with that, but someone who’s just skimming it might think they don’t have to change what they teach. Technically it’s true. You don’t have to change what you teach, but you have to change how you teach it.

You point out that we’ve been using the lecture-based model since the 1300s. Why have we kept replicating a model that doesn’t suit everyone’s needs?

It’s a fascinating question. There’s a painting of a classroom by Laurentius de Voltolina from 1350 that shows it’s not working. Students are talking to each other or falling asleep while the teacher drones on. Why has this perpetuated? I don’t know. In our workshops we tell people to go to Second Life and check out a classroom—and they’re exactly like they are in the real world. It’s strange, because this is a place you can move by teleporting, you can do whatever you want. So using space in the same way is strange.

Henry of Germany delivers a lecture to university students in 14th-century Bologna

Is it possible that the failure of students in lecture-based classrooms is due, in part, to a decrease in attention span of kids who’ve grown up in front of screens?

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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