Classroom of the Future

What will education look like a decade from now? PQ asks the region’s leading independent schools
Renee Rosensteel DeAnna Kwiecinski's robotics course is taught in a new "model classroom" at The Campus School of Carlow University. The reimagined space helps to encourage learning through teamwork and is furnished with unique seating and dry-erase-topped desks. DeAnna Kwiecinski’s robotics course is taught in a new “model classroom” at The Campus School of Carlow University. The reimagined space helps to encourage learning through teamwork and is furnished with unique seating and dry-​erase-​topped desks.
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It is 12:23 p.m. on a school day, about seven minutes before DeAnna Kwiecinski’s robotics class starts at The Campus School of Carlow University in Pittsburgh. But dashing in the door, red-​faced and breathing hard, are third-​graders Lorenzo Auteri and Tyler Sharek. “We ran because we wanted to get here first,” Tyler said, fiddling with a Lego robot and the Dell laptop that sends it commands. “This is our favorite class. We love programming.”

It turns out that they also like the classroom, from the rocking, bouncing and swiveling chairs to the desks with dry erase board tops that Kwiecinski was allowed to buy last summer. The purchases fulfilled a “wish list” she had that turned her room into a model classroom, which Carlow hopes to replicate in every room in the future if it can find funding.

It’s cool!” says Lorenzo of his green rocking chair. “You can rock without falling.”

The class is divided into teams of three students engaged in “project learning,” which leaves very little lecturing from Kwiecinski. She functions almost as a consultant, moving from team to team, making sure they’re sharing the tasks and checking to see how they’re progressing on their laptops with the programming of their Lego robots.

Periodically she gives them challenges: “See if you can program your robot to make a tone or note when it reaches 12 inches.”

The result is an energetic, noisy, 30-​minute class that passes so fast, students invariably say at the end: “I wish we had more time.”

The changes that this classroom, curriculum, and teaching method represent — as basic as they may seem — are a glimpse into the future of education in independent schools. But is it a clear indication of the future?

I really don’t think we can even say what will be happening in five to 10 years because it is moving so quickly,” said Linda Phelps, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, which represents nearly all of the independent schools in western Pennsylvania.

Phelps’s own history informs her. When she was the first teacher in her school three decades ago to buy an Apple IIe computer, a colleague told her: “Well, I really don’t think this school should move into this computer direction because it might just be a fad.”

And look where we are now,” Phelps said recently with a chuckle. “Change is here.”

There is a real tension in schools regarding the future. Some independent schools trumpet the fact that they are intentionally being methodical about change, slowing it down and focusing on the core curriculum, but trying to find a balance.

If there’s a rush to the newest fad, schools can lose the values that made them a success,” said St. Edmund’s Academy’s Head of Schools Chad Barnett.

That doesn’t mean change hasn’t found St. Edmund’s, a coeducational school in Pittsburgh for pre-​kindergarten to eighth grade. Like many schools, it has implemented a one-​to-​one policy that puts iPads in the hands of all of its first to fourth graders, and provides laptops for middle-​schoolers. “We view them as a means to an end,” said Barnett. But in the future, he believes technology will allow his teachers “to train students in a smart way to connect with students from all around the world.”

But not all change is effective, according to Leslie Mitros, head of schools at Aquinas Academy in Gibsonia, a coeducational, K-​12 Catholic school. While some schools are moving to electronic textbooks, “we still prefer book form, not an e-​book,” said Mitros, who started as a teacher at Aquinas in 1999. “There is still an advantage to having a book in your hand.”

But Aquinas and other schools acknowledge they must adapt to a world where hand-​held computers are in most of their students’ backpacks, fewer classrooms have rows of desks for lectures, and project learning has come to be seen as one of the most effective ways to learn nearly every curriculum.

Mitros said her school sees the value in online learning, for example, to fill gaps where certain courses for advanced students are not available and that “we could see more of that in the future.”

Thomas Cangiano, head of schools at Shady Side Academy, said his school’s pace of change tracks with the colleges and universities to which his students are headed. “There will be an incremental change every year, but nothing radical.”

Shady Side, a coeducational school for pre-​kindergarten through high school, with schools in Pittsburgh and Fox Chapel, has long adopted technologies that provide “access to information and ease of communication,” Cangiano said, including reaching out to other communities around the world. “So, if you’re in social studies here, you might get in touch with folks in Bulgaria and have a video visit with them.”

Those kinds of relationships are fostered through ties to schools around the world — including one in Bulgaria where Cangiano used to teach — and could be expanded in the future, he said, to “do more language partnerships.”

Two years ago, teachers at Mercersburg Academy, a coeducational boarding high school in Mercersburg, were told that they could write their own electronic textbooks on the iPads the school had given them.

I was surprised at how many offered to try,” said Julia Maurer, the school’s academic dean, who wrote one herself for the robotics class she teaches. “We had 16 out of 66 faculty participate. But we learned it’s not appropriate for every discipline.”

The school has also set up a series of so-​called “Springboard” classes that cross over the lines between traditional core curriculums — classes such as Global Food Change or Water as a Resource.

And I think in the future we’ll see more and more classes like this: project-​based and with collaborative learning,” she said.

Will such a future be more effective?

At The Ellis School in Pittsburgh, an all-​girls school from pre-​K through 12th grade, teachers and administrators are trying to get a clearer view of that.

Last year the school created its Learning Innovation Institute to foster overall change aimed at “really looking at the idea of moving from a teacher-​centered classroom to a student-​centered classroom,” said Lisa Abel-​Palmieri, the Institute’s director.

In the past, the ratio of lecture time to laboratory time for an Ellis student was about 8020, but over several years that ratio has completely flipped. Now, much of that lab time is part of the dozens of community partnerships the school has created to get “students working on real-​life projects,” Abel-​Palmieri said.

Last year, for example, Ellis high school students took part in the Pittsburgh High School Data Jam with other area schools. They researched the correlation between violence and a decrease in bus stops in the Pittsburgh area. They did their own work, with guidance from local professionals.

All of this “is a relatively new approach,” said Robin Newham, Ellis’s head of schools, “especially in the education field that has traditionally been glacial in its change; the tempo of change has really ramped up. I’ve heard the think-​tank folks talk about the elimination of brick-​and-​mortar schools. But it’s hard for me as an educator to imagine that. I think what we’ll see in the future is more concierge learning, where students direct their own learning, even more than we’re trying to have them do now.”

If project learning is seen as effective for all students, it is seen as an even better way for boys to learn, said Chris Brueningsen, head of schools at The Kiski School, a boarding high school for boys, located in Saltsburg, Pa.

Seven or eight years ago, if you asked what you do to teach to boys, a lot of people, including me, would have said, ‘I’m not sure. We just do it,’” he said.

Two years ago, Kiski used research to push a movement toward more classes involving collaboration, creative thinking, and competitive learning through team projects. One of those began this winter in the school’s new entrepreneurship class Kiski created with the help of Inventionland, an O’Hara-based company that helps develop new products and ideas.

It’s set up more like a college course with four co-​teachers from different disciplines. And students who take the elective will use MakerBot 3D printers to design and build products, compete with others on their team to select the best idea, and then come up with plans to market and sell it. In the end, they’ll have their concept evaluated by an expert, “Shark Tank”-like panel.

Kiski senior James Burke of Penn Hills said that, when his biology teacher told him about the new class, “I thought, ‘I really want to try something new.’ This class really gets you out of your comfort zone.” Burke, a drummer whose product idea is to make a plastic sleeve to make it easier to hold onto a drum stick when your hands get sweaty.

The success of such classes is already informing Kiski’s future, Brueningsen said. “We’re already talking about how our facilities in 10 years will need to accommodate these type of spaces — ‘maker spaces.’ We will need more of them.”

Sewickley Academy, a coeducational school for pre-​kindergarten through high school in Sewickley, this year opened its new, teacher-​designed science building for upper school students. While including all the accoutrements needed for laboratory space — cabinets and counters for experiments and dozens of plug outlets in walls and drop-​down areas from the ceilings — its other aim was to make the space flexible, said Kolla O’Connor, head of schools.

Because, in some measure, we don’t know what the future will bring,” he said. “The general trend in schools paying attention to research is how students learn and how the brain works, and it is less about teachers teaching to students than it is creating models so students can learn. The ideas are coming at you a mile a minute. Some of them are fabulous, but some of them, frankly, are junk.”

One idea he believes will only be expanded at his school in the future is a focus on collaborative work because “schools have come to understand that collaborative work is important not only for the cognitive piece, but also the social and emotional piece of education.”

The leadership at Winchester Thurston School, a coeducational school in Pittsburgh that educates pre-​kindergarten through high school students, believes there will be a need for more collaborative work, but also work fostered by technology.

We very much believe that students need to be actively engaged,” said Gary Niels, Winchester Thurston’s head of schools. “So, the old notion of a teacher standing in front of a room and kids passively listening and absorbing is passe.”

To better move into “active” learning, the school last year hired Anne Fay, a former University of Pittsburgh computer development director, as director of eLearning. Her charge at Winchester Thurston is to “integrate technology with teaching,” Niels said. “It is not, ‘you must use technology,’ but, ‘let’s see what you’re doing in your courses and let’s see what resources are available in technology.’”

Fay calls her mission “a big project.” Winchester Thurston already uses a lot of technology in classrooms, but Fay will be systematizing it. One of her current efforts is finding a way to introduce basic computer programming concepts to younger and younger students. This year, she began introducing third-​graders to the Sphero, a programmable tennis-​ball-​sized ball that lights up, changes colors, and moves around by following commands on a computer. It begins with icon-​based programming, where the students simply push pre-​set commands on a hand-​held device, telling the ball how fast to go, or what direction, in part by drawing a line with their finger on a computer grid. Recently, however, Fay began showing students how to program it with more detailed commands.

I like it. It’s so fun,” said 9-​year-​old Isabella Bird after she got to spend 30 minutes maneuvering Sphero around and over obstacles. “We have a math class, and we’re programming games and stuff in there and it’s pretty fun, too.”

Is playing with Sphero like math class?

This is all fun,” she said.

That’s the best kind of learning, Fay said.

You want them engaged. That is the future of education.”

Sean D. Hamill

Sean is a staff writer for The Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette. After three years working for a daily newspaper in rural Missouri, and 12 working for papers in Chicago, he moved home with his family 2 12 years ago. He continues to write for newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and New York Times. He and his wife, Dr. Joey Kallem, a local emergency veterinarian, have two sons.

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