What do the best classrooms in the world look like?

The Hive
Collective wisdom.
Oct. 20 2010 3:33 AM

Brilliance in a Box

What do the best classrooms in the world look like?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Imagine if we designed the 21st-century American classroom to be a place where our kids could learn to think, calculate, and invent as well as the students in the top-performing countries around the world.

What would those spaces look like? Would students plug into mini-MRI machines to record the real-time development of their brains' executive functions? Would teachers be Nobel Prize winners, broadcasting through screens installed in the foreheads of robots that don't have tenure?

To find out, we don't have to travel through time. We could just travel through space. At the moment, there are thousands of schools around the world that work better than our own. They don't have many things in common. But they do seem to share a surprising aesthetic.

Classrooms in countries with the highest-performing students contain very little tech wizardry, generally speaking. They look, in fact, a lot like American ones—circa 1989 or 1959. Children sit at rows of desks, staring up at a teacher who stands in front of a well-worn chalkboard.

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"In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms," says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). "I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets."

Kristin De Jesus in her South Korean classroom. Click image to expand.
Kristin De Jesus in her South Korean classroom

And yet, when politicians and bureaucrats imagine the classroom of the future, they often talk about a schoolhouse that looks like an Apple store, a utopia studded with computers, bathed in Wi-Fi, and wallpapered with interactive whiteboards (essentially giant touch screens used in place of chalkboards in more and more classrooms nationwide). "In the 21st century," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a speech in Washington, D.C., this March, "schools can't be throwbacks to the state of education 50, 20, or even 10 years ago. … We must make the on-demand, personalized tech applications that are part of students' daily lives a more strategic part of their academic lives."

But the most innovative schools around the world do not tend to be the ones with the most innovative technology inside them. To American exchange students, the difference can be disorienting. Kristin De Jesus is currently attending a public school in South Korea through an international study program called Youth for Understanding. De Jesus came to Korea, which consistently ranks at the top of the world in international exams, from a high school outside of San Diego, where she would be a junior.

In her Korean school, near Seoul, her classmates have iPod touches and iPhones and play Nintendo, just like her classmates in America. But the classroom itself is austere. "In California, we use white boards, while in Korea they use chalkboards," she says. "There is a dirt field outside. We have a projector, that's about it." Back home, teachers would hand out Mac laptops for kids to work on in class. But in Korea, the only computers are older PCs, and they remain in the computer lab, which is used only once a week for computer class.

South Korean classroom. Click image to expand.
De Jesus' low-tech South Korean classroom

So how to explain that these old-fashioned classrooms tend to crank out kids who possess far more of the math and science skills valued by modern-day employers? For one thing, while the American school day can be as short as six hours, Korean kids attend school about eight or nine hours a day—and then many of them continue studying alone or with tutors until late into the night. Korean parents also put enormous pressure on kids to study. "The American system is a lot easier," De Jesus says. "When I was in California, I barely ever studied and did pretty well in my classes."

School does not have to be grueling to be good. In Finland, the schools have almost nothing in common with the pressure-cooker classrooms of Korea. Finnish students start going to school a year later than American kids, and they do less homework on average. Standardized tests are rare. And yet, in 2006, Finnish teenagers ranked first in math and science among 30 OECD countries. (The United States ranked 25th in math and 21st in science.)