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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?

It’s all about engagement. I’ve heard things like a child’s attention span, in minutes, is equal to their age in years. That’s so not true. If children are engaged in something, they’ll spend hours on it. We have a 6-year-old grandchild who will spend hours working on Legos or Tinkertoys because she’s got something in her mind that she wants to build, and she’ll do it. If children aren’t paying attention, it’s not because of a decreased attention span—it’s because they aren’t given tasks that honor their dominant ways of learning. That’s the critical element. And if it’s painful for the kids, it’s gotta be doubly-painful for the teachers. The teachers want their kid to be successful. If you have a climate that predisposes kids against that, it makes it absolutely exhausting and draining and depressing for teachers.

You say that many teachers use technology to do the same old things better, rather than using it to do things differently.

The poster-child for that is the interactive whiteboard. It’s not to say that interactive whiteboards can’t be useful, but the way they’re used is to replicate the full-frontal model of teaching by having a big board in front of the room that the teacher uses. The same technology in our holodeck, for example, could become a control panel for a spaceship. It would have buttons, giving an interface for a time-machine, a spaceship, whatever the issue is about. We went through this with e-books. There’s a lot to be said for e-books. When you read a book on a Kindle and put your finger over a word, the definition pops up. That’s handy. Also, you can carry around 100 pounds of books in your backpack. So there are all kinds of plusses associated with that. But the potential downside is for people who say, “Well, to change my teaching, I’m using new technology. For example, our kids have e-textbooks.” That’s not changing things. You’re still doing the same old thing. Maybe we should be doing other things with these tablets and other technologies. You can create your own movies, write programs and applications, things like that. That’s taking new tools and using them in powerful new ways. So the power of the new tool is to use it to do things we couldn’t do before at all.

You point out to another problem—that teachers often give out too much information, in the form of answers, rather than leaving questions open-ended.

That’s one of the reasons we came up with “Knights of Knowledge” videos. They’re basically driving questions to stimulate a project, but they have just enough information to set the context of the question. The trick is knowing when to stop. We had a very funny experience in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I showed a video of a church in Lisbon, Portugal, that was built in the 13th, early 14th century that was not only a church but also a fort. The question was:  Why did churches at that time need to look like forts? There was a history teacher in the front row who said, “Well that was because…” and I said, “Don’t give the answer.” He did, and I said, “Okay, now we’ve taken away the opportunity for the kids to have that discussion themselves.” We’re all proud of our content expertise. I’m proud of my content expertise, and yes, I love sharing it. But there are times to do that and times not to do that. If your goal is to have kids think and solve problems, you need to know when to give information and when to stop giving information. And that’s an art.

The clip in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where the teacher asks, “Anyone? Anyone?” and just gives the answer and keeps on going illustrates the problem perfectly. It’s a little too close to the truth.

Students at Poughkeepsie Day School work in a cave-style learning space

What do you think about the idea of the “flipped classroom,” where homework consists of lectures that were typically given during class time, and in-class time is used for hands-on projects?

You’ve gotta be careful with the flipped classroom. If what you’re doing is taking the teacher’s one-hour lecture and have it be a one-hour video the kids watch at home, what have they done really? It’s the same model, just on a video. I would say that the real opportunity with a flipped classroom is have the video content be very short. It’s interesting enough as a concept, but my problem is that it’s being used to perpetuate a traditional educational model. One could argue that having the lecture on video is nice, because if you didn’t understand something you could go back and replay it. I’d agree that that is useful. But I think there’s better ways to use technology than that. So I’m not a huge fan. But I think all of these are works in progress that will evolve in the next few years. Hey, at least we’re having good conversations about the topic, and we haven’t had that in a long time.

Some schools are still reluctant to embrace cell phones in classrooms. You wrote that New York City, at one point, students had to leave them in trucks outside the school for $1 day.

The resistance comes because of two things. One is the feeling teachers have that they’ll lose power, that they’re competing with the device. The second part is the worry that students will use the tools to cheat. The answer to the second one is a bit easier. Just don’t ask questions for which Google is the answer. It turns out that crafting Google-proof questions is tricky, but it can be done. And also, what’s wrong with kids going online and looking stuff up? If they’re that engaged in the lecture that they want to know more about it, why not have the tools to do it? But it does freak people out. Some of the onus was on the children themselves—if they have a phone with them, they need to use it in an appropriate way. They shouldn’t be sitting there playing games all day long.

But I can imagine it being very difficult to get attention from students in an environment where their attention is being split.

We did some work at a school district in Indiana, and the high school there just moved to one-to-one computing, with computers built right into the students’ desks. One of the English teachers, in her sixties, had been quite resistant to having the technology in the room, and took a while to get hooked up with it. Once the technology got in there, she became the teacher she wanted to be when she got into teaching. It was like, “Whoa, I can have kids do real interesting stuff.” For example, one of the books they were reading was To Kill a Mockingbird. One student was doing research on the author, and discovered that the author was friends with another author, and the conversation moved in a very wonderful direction related to language arts. She felt that she could ride that wave—the kids weren’t just into the book, they were into the author herself. She was delighted with it, becoming a big proponent around the state doing workshops on the topic.

So you don’t see any problem with the easy access to answers that Google provides?

I think that there are tasks that are best done without the tools, and tasks best done with them. If I’m having lunch with friends and we’re going to split the bill, I’ll pull up the Tipulator app on my cell phone and calculate there, rather than pull out a pad and pencil. The question is when is it appropriate to use the tools. The trick is to craft the kinds of questions that require reflection.

What about financial resources? Your educational holodeck sounds like it requires a hefty investment. What about schools that can’t afford it, or students who can’t access the technology at home?

This can happen anywhere. Is every school going to have a holodeck? Of course not. But does every school have the capacity for teachers to rearrange the furniture in interesting ways to facilitate different interactions? Sure. We don’t bolt desks to the floor anymore. It’s the idea of being free to explore. We have a reading resource teacher who designed an ideal room with chairs that cocooned kids as they read, and a tumbling blanket on the floor, some tables, a fireplace. She had all these wonderful designs in her room, and we found almost everything she wanted in an Ikea catalog for a fraction of what the school spent on furniture. So it’s not that expensive to do it, as long as you have the freedom to do it. In terms of the technological side, take a look at the price of tablets. The Kindle Fire HV tablet is $150. Kids spend about that on a pair of sneakers. And these prices will continue to go down over time. The challenge is not getting technology in the hands of kids. The challenge is how we facilitate the creation of a learning environment that allows these technologies to be used in ways that support learning.

All images excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from From the Campfire to the Holodeck by David Thornburg. Copyright © 2013