Since early October, Slate has been asking readers to help redesign the American classroom, to ditch the 19th-century model that dominates our schools and update it for the 21st century. You submitted more than 350 ideas on the Web—here the top 10 and winning ideas, as chosen by votes and expert judges. We also thought we could brainstorm other great ideas if we gathered a whole bunch of Slate readers in a room and gave them free cocktails. On Nov. 8, 250 Slate readers—many of them teachers—and a dozen writers and editors gathered at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., for drinking, eating, and classroom designing.
We split up into 15 groups, each tasked with answering one of five challenges: how to incorporate the outdoors into classrooms; how to incorporate technology into classrooms; how to improve classroom furniture; how to design a great classroom on an unlimited budget; and how to design a better classroom if you could spend only $1,000.
Here are some of the most interesting ideas:
1) Ikea. By far the most popular idea, one that arose in almost all the groups, is that classrooms need more flexible, comfortable furniture. Too many students still sit at rigid, single-sized desk-chairs. You proposed lighter, more mobile furniture; adjustable furniture that comfortably fits both the shrimpy 11-year-old boy and the towering 11-year-old girl. You thought classrooms would benefit from couches, beanbag chairs, standing desks, and sitting balls. (Some teachers had used those in their own classrooms, with much success.)
2) Breaking the rectangle. Group after group clamored for desks rearranged in horseshoes, or desks arranged in small pods, or kindergartenlike stations—anything but the old-fashioned, rectangular grid of desks.
3) Technology is not the answer. A couple of groups recommended laptops for all, but in general you were skeptical of gizmos. (Except the iPad. If I had a dollar for every time someone said “iPad,” I could build my own Los Angeles County public school building.) The teachers among us strongly endorsed basic projectors over electronic whiteboards. One creative tech idea was to give teachers better, prompter data about their students. Students should take tests electronically, and teachers should learn instantly what skills they know and what they don’t, not find this out weeks or months later.
4)More nature and natural light. You were enthusiastic about school gardens and classroom plants but didn’t see them as any kind of panacea. What won more favor was increasing the amount of natural light and outdoor air. More windows and skylights, windows and doors that stay open, ceilings fans, and fewer fluorescent lights—there are all cheap and easy improvements.
5) The $50 plan. My favorite idea, probably because it came out of my group, isn’t a solution at all. In group after group, teachers complained about their lack of classroom autonomy: no choice in furniture and no budget for altering the classroom. At least one teacher was actually barred—by official school board directive—from rearranging her class’s desks. My group was trying to improve classrooms on a $1,000 budget, and one canny participant proposed this: Give each teacher $950 to spend as she sees fit, then pool the leftover money and use it to chronicle what’s happened in each classroom. Soon the school will collect its best practices and have a better sense of what kind of classroom changes work best with what kind of kids. In an educational system that too often demands uniformity, this idea encourages experimentation and variety.