How to Embrace the 21st-Century Classroom: TRY


A Classroom Visitor

Let’s imagine for a second you are Abraham Lincoln standing in the middle of a modern day classroom in your long coat and stovepipe hat. You look around to see rows of student desks waiting for eager young minds to fill them. You see a teacher desk in the corner in the front of the room. A board in the front has the day’s lesson written on it. You nod your head in approval. As you stand there the bell rings and students start to enter, taking their seats. The teacher stands at the front of the room instructing the students to get out their pencils and books and asks them to start writing down the notes on the board. Now take a moment and think about this setting, which was very familiar to Abraham Lincoln who felt education was so important in everyone's lives. When he visited schools in 1860 while campaigning for President he was in a room like that I just described. But here is the fact: if Abraham Lincoln was able to visit a classroom 150 years later in 2020 he’d be right at home in a lot of them. The only thing to make him feel out of place would be leaving the classroom to see our world today, which is nothing like his. 

So what is the problem here? The fact is education is the one profession stuck in traditions that stem back hundreds of years but it is the one profession that every student preparing to enter the workforce needs to experience daily for anywhere between 12-18 years of their life. It’s time for educators to break tradition and update our teaching methods to meet the changing world that our students must face.

As educators we face many difficulties in trying to innovate and change our classrooms.  We have to deal with state mandates that many times come unfunded. We need to deal with the social/emotional issues of our students. We can no longer ignore what is happening at home as we know those issues carry over into the classroom. We worry about the impact that social media has on our students living in an era when face to face communication is lessening and online communication is on the rise. These are just some of the challenges we face as educators on a day to day basis and there are so many more.



So how do you deal with this and how can technology help innovate your classroom without adding one more thing to your plate?

My short answer to this is: just TRY. “Just try” is all I ask of my teachers on a daily basis. I ask my teachers to try a new tool to assess students just once for this unit. I ask my teachers to try and post something positive to social media that is happening in their classroom. I ask my teachers to try and incorporate an Internet Safety topic into their lesson this week. I ask them to try a new communication method with parents and see if they get a better response regarding their students. After my teachers try it I ask them to try it again, but a little sooner this time.  Then I ask them to try and add a little more to what they’re doing with technology on top of what they just tried. And we keep this cycle going. And you know what? The teachers that just try a little more each time are doing new and exciting things in their classrooms. Those classrooms have more engaged students and students who prefer to go to those classes compared to those where teachers haven’t tried. Just like teachers push their students to do better I do the same, with the mantra of TRY.


How can embracing technology help us teach?

I can’t get around things like state testing, but I sure can help students better prepare for the tests. I work with teachers to try new tools like Quizizz or Kahoot to get students assessing online instead of by paper and pencil. We don’t take state assessments on paper anymore so we need to get students to practice using things like touchpads and keyboards to navigate and answer questions. We also need to work on building students’ typing stamina so I push teachers to try and have students use things like Google Keep to take notes, or do their free writing in Google Docs or Word. Some teachers say they can’t do this because “our students have not been properly trained to type so they will never be good or fast enough typers and it is holding back their learning.”  What I say to that is, you guessed it, “just try it.” Yes, students do not necessarily have the proper form and technique of typing as was instilled years ago. Just like cursive writing has mostly disappeared from education so has typing class. But the question is “how effective would they be today?” To be an efficient typist you need to practice proper technique all the time. But as soon as a student has a chance they’re on their phone thumb-and-swipe typing. So they’re not practicing but they are aware of where the keys are. They are experienced typists just without classic technique. So let's encourage typing and try to get them to use classic technique. It will come to them over time.



How can we harmonize instruction and technology?

Another concern that teachers have is the idea of screen time. I can’t disagree with this but focus should be on the concept of managed screen time versus open-play screen time. There is not a classroom today, even in the most advanced one to one school in the country, that should have students in front of the screen all the time. Technology is there to enhance teaching rather than replace it. The moment students are learning more from their device is often when the teacher knows something is wrong in that classroom. Now I do believe in distance and flipped learning, but there still needs to be that human connection. As we grow into adults that methodology can shift a little, but with young students (especially in those K-12 environments) teachers should still be teaching but through facilitation versus direct instruction.  We need to let students learn by doing instead of memorizing. Students have Google for memorizing. I always tell my teachers, “if a student can Google an answer it is the wrong question to ask.” Yes, 2+2 will always be 4 and that is some of the push back I get. But if you change 2+2 into “Johnny has 2 apples and Suzie as 2 apples so how many apples do they have in total,” Google can’t answer that. And let's face it - real world math problems can better answer the question of why than just a bunch of numbers thrown on a page.

Lastly, one of the regular arguments I get is the idea that “students are being desocialized by technology so why should we push it in schools?” The question I pose back is “if this is your belief and we know technology is not going away, why are we not teaching our students to better utilize technology to be social in a positive way?” Those teachers aren’t wrong that technology as a whole has desocialized a lot of people. I have students that can barely talk to each other face to face but can do it online without problem. And I do believe we need to fix this.  But this goes back to my TRY mantra. We need to try and incorporate more presentations in class; more ways for students to present material in a verbal fashion. So many times this is looked at as just one more thing to do because we don’t test speaking skills. But it is one of the most important skills that we can teach. I also get feedback about how mean students can be to each other online. We do see a lot of that because many students see how adults are online as well. But why not teach our students how to be positive global citizens and have them practice by having them comment on each others’ work online in an application like Google Classroom, or Schoology? Identify ways for students to share positive feedback with each other to show them how that works so much better than negative comments. We need to do a better job of building our students up rather than stifling them by ignoring the problem or going the other way and punishing them. Let’s correct the problem instead of steer away from it.



As educators we need to start making our learning environments different enough that a visiting Abraham Lincoln would feel uncomfortable visiting our classrooms. We need to add TRY into our vocabulary and our daily practices more. And we need to look at ways to make our students better global citizens, not just people we see for a year to teach them from a book and move them onto the next grade. It just doesn't work anymore. By changing the way you view your approach to new methods of teaching you will soon realize how it is positively changing your classroom.

Here are a few classes related to this topic:

Michael McGowan
Mike McGowan is currently a Technology Director and building administrator for Sunnybrook School District 171, a PreK to 8th grade district in Lansing, Illinois.  Mike is also an Executive Board member for IDEA (Illinois Digital Educators Alliance) the Illinois ISTE (International Society for Technology in Educators) affiliate. 

Share your thoughts