8 Things to Look For in Today’s Classroom

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As I think that leaders should be able to describe what they are looking for in schools I have thought of eight things that I really want to see in today’s classroom.  I really believe that classrooms need to be learner focused. This is not simply that students are creating but that they are also having opportunities to follow their interests and explore passions.  The teacher should embody learning as well.

Will Richardson recently wrote this in a comment on one of my recent posts on what teachers need to be like in our current day and the focus that needs to be on learning:

…we need teachers who are masters at developing kids as learners who are adept at sense making around their own goals. Teachers who are focused on helping students develop the dispositions and literacies required to succeed regardless of subject or content or curriculum

This moment is all about learners having an amazing new freedom to learn, not teachers having an amazing new freedom to teach. I’d love to see 2013 all about making that shift in our thinking around education.

Although technology is not the focus, it does give us many opportunities to magnify the opportunities I list below.  So with that being said, here are some things that I believe will help the learner of today be successful in our world, both today and tomorrow.

1.  Voice – Students should have the opportunity to not only learn from others but also share their learning with others as well.  We live in a world where everyone has a voice and if we do not teach our students to use this effectively, they will definitely struggle.  To me, this is so simple yet so essential.

2.  Choice – This is not only about how students learn, but also what they learn about.  How do they further their learning in areas of interests to them?  Throughout the first few years of university I did poorly, yet in my final few years my grades were better than they ever had been.  What was the difference?  I actually cared what I was learning about.  Strengths based learning is extremely important.

3.  Time for Reflection – Classrooms are an extremely busy place and I understand that many feel that they are rushed through the curriculum, but I think that taking the time to connect and reflect on what is being learned gives learners a better opportunity to really understand what they have learned.  I know many classrooms have DEAR time (drop everything and read), so why do we not have time to simply write and reflect?  This is not only for students, but for teachers and administrators as well.

4.  Opportunities for Innovation – Recently I visited Greystone Centennial Middle School during “Innovation Week” and saw students that created a hovercraft (not kidding) using things that they had around the house.  They were able to guide it around the gym and it was able to carry people around.  These kids were in grade 9.

When I asked the students about this opportunity, they had told me that they had saw something similar on YouTube but it was missing a few elements that they wanted to add.  They made it new and better.  I can only imagine what the students will do after they leave school because of this day, not in spite of it.

5.  Critical Thinkers – In the “factory model” of education, students were meant to be compliant and basically do “as they were told.”  This is not something that sticks with a child only, but goes into adulthood as well and it creates “yes” people who tend to lose all originality.  One of my best friends and my first admin partner, told me to never just let him go out on his own with his ideas without questioning them and sharing my thoughts.  His reason?  He wanted the best ideas, not his ideas.  He wanted me to ask questions.  He wanted to be successful.  It was not his ego that was important, but the success of his staff and students.  I have learned to ask the same of all those I work with and although it can turn into spirited conversations, it is was best not only for school but all organizations.  We need to have students that are able to ask questions and challenge what they see, but always in a respectful way.

6.  Problem Solvers/FindersEwan McIntosh has a brilliant Ted Talk discusses the notion of “problem-based learning” and how it is not beneficial to give students problems that aren’t real.  Instead, he focuses on the idea that students need to be “problem finders”; being able to find some tough challenges and then being able to solve those problems.  Megan Howard shares a wonderful story of how one of her grade six students was able to see that there was a problem with classmates losing their school uniforms and then being able to use QR codes to be able to identify them.  Let’s start asking kids to really look into finding what the problems are and giving them some purpose in solving something real.

7.  Self-Assessment – I don’t think that I have ever heard a teacher say, “I can’t wait until we get to write report cards!”  That being said, I think we spend too much time focusing on being able to tell others what our students can do and know, and not enough time helping students understand those things themselves.  Portfolios are a great way to share this knowledge and will actually have students develop their own understanding of what they know.  If you can write in a report card that a student can do something in October, yet they can’t do it in January, is that report card still relevant?  I think that we should spend more time working with students to teach them how to assess themselves and not just do it for them.

8. Connected Learning – When I first started teaching, I remember really struggling with science.  It was a subject that I struggled with as a learner and that continued on as a teacher.  I now think that if I was in the classroom, that the best person to teach science wouldn’t be me, but a scientist.  With most people that having a computer also having a Skype account, there are many that are willing to share their expertise in different areas.  This does not only have to be via technology, but we should also be bring in experts from our community to talk to students.  I know many teachers have done this for a long time, but technology opens the doors to people that we could not even imagine being a part of our classroom even ten years ago.  Even Shaquille O’neal has made some time to  Skype with students in one school.

Now I believe that all of these things are extremely important to the success of our students in the future, but there is one thing that is important to all of this; that our students are good people.  One of the things that I have told my students over and over again is that it doesn’t matter how smart you are if you are considered a jerk.  Treat others with kindness and consideration. Always.

Finally, let’s start to really tap into the wisdom of our rooms and have students not only learn, but teach each other.  There is a saying from my time as a referee was that the best officials are the ones that you never notice.  Does the same hold true for a teacher?  I have walked into classrooms and have been unable to identify who the teacher was immediately because they were, as Chris Kennedy would say, “elbows deep in learning” with their students.  Students were  also teaching others along the way.  If we start to acknowledge that everyone can be a teacher, and everyone a learner, I really think that you will be able to see more of the elements I have discussed in our classrooms today.

What I have missed?  I would love your thoughts and feedback.

Update: As David Wees points out, relationships are a fundamental in this classroom.  As I know that I talk about this regularly on the blog, I would agree with David that NONE of this happens without a loving and trusting environment.  Thanks Mr. Wees!



  1. All great thoughts. If that list seems overwhelming for a teacher, even integrating one or two of these pieces would impact the students….

  2. Great post George…we seem to be too occupied with “covering” the curriculum though, in preparation for assessments (which are now tied to teacher scores). Going to keep seeking ways to innovate and inspire a culture of learning with tech. These are great tips and should be part of our current teaching rubrics used for supervision.

    • Thanks Bill! I would love for schools to start looking at how they evaluate teachers based on the skills needed for today’s students. I think a lot of schools have the same evaluation tools that they have used for years. A lot have the same professional development as well. How do we change that?

    • I think that I did list the notion of “caring” when I talked about kids becoming good people. That is extremely important. I would also say that “problem finding” would be part of the “challenge” that you refer to. As for creativity, I always wonder how innovation and creativity align? Can you be innovative without being creative?

      What do you think?

  3. Loved the post George and had to share on FB for my teacher friends. Thinking of you – Lakers in Houston tonight and San Antonio on Wed. Go Spurs Go

  4. Great list, George. I especially appreciate the “self-assessment” comment about teachers spending more time explaining a student’s learning to someone else…and not enough time helping the actual students understand. We are moving towards “Assessment Capable Learners” in our district, and I hope we can re-focus our efforts to ensuring students understand this essential part of the learning process.

  5. A very wise colleague once informed me, when I asked for feedback, that good teachers teach but great teachers inspire! This list is a checklist for great teachers. As a leader the same list should be checked when working with staff as our classes. Thanks excellent post will be sharing with my staff for sure!

  6. Another excellent post George! Your opening paragraph begins with these comments:
    “I really believe that classrooms need to be learner focused. This is not simply that students are creating but that they are also having opportunities to follow their interests and explore passions. The teacher should embody learning as well.” I agree! My admin partner and I have been having similar conversations. Connecting with what inspires us, or what our passions are, helps us to remember why we became an educator. When we get mired down in the day to day routines of life and school, we need time to step back and reflect on our purpose, our passions, our inspirations. Imagine the conversations we can have between colleagues when we dialogue about what inspires us and what we are passionate about. How about taking that one step further and creating a Vision Board to include inspirational words, images, etc., perhaps including goals to work towards. What about taking this idea into the classroom and dialoguing with our students about their passions, inspirations, goals? Having them create their own Vision Board would be a powerful activity to share together.

    All points mentioned above are crucial…from student voice and choice, to developing inquiry and innovation… but the idea of self-reflection resonates with me. Our children really are not given enough time to develop this skill. We deal with children today who let their impulses drive their actions or allow their emotions to take over without giving much thought to the affect on others. Children need time not only to reflect on their academic learning but their relationships and social interactions. Lee Crockett and Ian Jukes, in their book ‘Literacy Is Not Enough’, talk about the need to develop Emotional Intelligence as well as Cognitive Intelligence in 21st century learners: to develop self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. It’s funny how awareness and learning comes to us in ‘layers’. Today one of our teachers brought forward to her grade one class a video she saw on You Tube about a little girl who was saying affirmations to herself in the mirror. The teacher then provided a platform for her students to look in a mirror and say affirmations to themselves. What a beautiful moment for her to witness what her children were saying. Sadly, one little boy couldn’t even look at himself in the mirror as his self-image and love of self is quite low…it breaks your heart. But with her baby steps, she is providing a platform for her children to talk about themselves, about how they feel, and help them grow in love of self.

    Wow, this is a lengthly blog response! I guess your post inspired alot of dialogue in me! Thanks George!

  7. Love your post! I don’t think you can “over emphasize” #7 Self Assessment.

    Students and teachers need to work collaboratively with multiple assessment points to calibrate their own understanding of the learning targets. The closer that the students and teachers are in “assessing,” the greater the learning for students! And the benefits seem so obvious for “learner-focused classrooms.”

    Thanks! I will be back to reread this!

  8. I think on the whole, reflection time is not factored in as much as it should be in our school day, or even school life. Having said that, I’m not sure it could even be ‘scheduled’ in the day. I think its unnatural to stop and say ‘now its reflection time’ as we might for say reading. Reflection is individualistic. However giving time throughout the day to reflect in different ways is what’s needed. Some students might reflect on a blog, in a notebook, make a podcast, create a drama or write a poem or song. Are we supporting these ways of reflecting and self assessment?

  9. Great post George

    A simple mental note that I take with me as do my walk throughs in classes is one I picked up from a brain based learning expert: “whoever is doing the talking and the writing is doing the learning”

    Thanks again

  10. I think the thing that gets left out of all these discussions is time outside.. immersed in nature.. and not in a classroom or school. We often forget we are connected to the Natural World.. and this is not being taught in many places and students don’t have the opportunity to connect with their environment. Students are less likely to care about Nature or the environment if they are not immersed in it on a daily basis and develop a relationship with their natural surroundings. I would use this framework to get outside and leave the classroom… connect to Nature and learn from the world outside the classroom. For example, when I surveyed my students 80% of them reported spend less than 1-2 hours a day outside playing in a natural area.

  11. Great read that sums up what best practice really should look like in our classrooms. I wonder how many teacher evaluation systems we currently have in place actually judge these points. Hmmmm….

  12. Excellent post. I think classrooms would be more engaging and motivating to students if curriculum was presented and then students themselves were allowed to decide the course and direction in which they would like to take in learning the subject matter. By allowing and providing ownership students will indeed be motivated and strive to achieve at a high level . Just my observations and opinion…

  13. Loved this article because it’s what I believe in and have been trying to achieve through my work for the past few years. One natural model that addresses all the above is the Challenge Based Learning model (http://www.apple.com/education/challenge-based-learning/). What I have experienced with the use of this model are students that are empowered, engaged, excited, take ownership of their learning, are collaborators and publishers, and naturally incorporate service learning into their challenge. Worth a try.

  14. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree entirely. I also think the power of feedback for both students and teachers is essential. Can u imagine how powerful it would be at the end of a lesson if the teacher asked ” how did I do today? Did I help u understand? What could I have done better?”
    Interesting thoughts.

  15. George,

    Great points here! As you and David pointed out, relationships are foundational to enable your 8 points to exist in the classroom. I especially like the point about solving real problems. This would require a great deal of time in the classroom, but the learning would be so much deeper and relevant to students. Thanks for sharing!

    Be Great,


  16. This is the second time I’ve read this and forwarded as it is so clear and concise. Your thoughts reflect what we in early childhood education have long believed and practised-learners and learning at the heart of our interactions and pedagogy. The points in your blog lead to increased engagement for the learner. I would also add wellbeing to the essential ingredients. Relationships are part of this but this alone doesn’t completely capture the importance of resilient wellbeing and learning dispositions. True engagement (not mere compliance) and wellbeing lead to deep learning, as Ferre Laevers says.

    • Love the quote and comment. Thank you!!! I appreciate you reading.

  17. Not sure how you distilled the whole of the Education Transformation discussion out there but you did it, George! A helpful and succinct article that is clearly having an impact.

    I can’t think of anything you have missed. Once the elements that we should find in our classroom are present, what do we think will be the next evolution of reconceptualizing teaching and learning? What will evolve out of prototyping as we redesign a competency-based curriculum together, no matter the province or jurisdiction we live in?

    The Questions I have about Future Classrooms:

    1. Will that classroom still exist as we know it today or will we come to realize the value of situated learning in apprenticeship type learning situations (Seely Brown and Hagel III) or in communities of practice (that have the expertise to help you do cool things like making a hovercraft, for example), or will we continue to “place kids behind a fence to “teach” them about the world outside” like Gary Stager has said? Will our socio-technological understanding appropriately drive practice to create powerful learning opportunities for students?

    2. Will schools become a little more “rough and tumble” as Stephen Downes predicts and allow students to follow programs perhaps similar to Dennis Littky’s schools, where Tuesday and Thursday are dedicated to learning what students need to learn to help them do their interest-based internship-type jobs better on Monday, Wednesday and Friday?

    3. Will teacher’s be working side by side with groups of students tinkering and working on open ended problems as the “Maker Ethic” suggests? Will teachers develop a disposition of being “usefully ignorant” and modeling how to proceed in the face of (fun) challenging intellectual activity when the solution to that problem or innovation is better informed by a domain outside of their specialty?

    4. Will we work more “organically” in schools and not have bells every 45 minutes at which point we salivate, accept the message that what we are working on is not important enough to continue doing at the moment and have this experience repeated 6 or 7 times a day, as Stager has asked? Or will we be truly able to create environments that facilitate self-directed learning?

    5. And perhaps the most important question of all is if policy makers and leaders have the capacity, vision and will to divest “control” of specific content-oriented outcomes and standardized content-driven assessments to make it all possible, like they are saying they do?

    • Great questions Paul. I think that within the work and classrooms that we have now, the elements that I have are possible, yet maybe not ideal. Does that make sense? It would work much better in a more open environment with a lot of teacher training and administrators having vision to make this happen.

      Your questions are fantastic and very helpful as schools move forward. Would love to see them in a blog post of your own? I think that they should be shared with a larger audience.

      • Yes, George, I completely get what you mean in how your article has the elements that are possible, but maybe not ideal, and what has to fall into place to get there. Exact same frequency, for sure. Well put.

        If the new curricula and cross curricular competency work turn out to be as open and enabling as envisioned, we get past the effects of prescription and standardization of the old model, and teachers feel truly invited to create learning environments based on how we know kids learn – think of the possibilities!

        Like I said in my last question, though, I still fear that the bottom will fall out at the 11th hour.

        I think I will blog about that sometime soon. Maybe in #Etmooc, possibly. Thanks for the encouragement.

  18. Hi George, I was intrigued by your last comment as it touched a nerve. I was puzzled why you were tasked with teaching science by your administrator when it was obviously not an area of mastery nor a personal passion of yours? Would it not have made sense for science to have been taught by the teacher best qualified?

    • As an elementary school teacher in Saskatchewan, it was rare that you would not teach every subject with the exceptions of music in schools. Science was not my strong suit.

  19. David, nice post. To your point on portfolios, schools are launching digital portfolios to document student artifacts representative of skills and learning experiences. I think these can be useful tools for teachers, administrators, and parents. I support the notion of class portfolios especially digital ones, the beauty being that they can then be linked back to a more comprehensive academic student portfolio. I used a digital notebook this fall for my robotics students. It worked well. It captured the kids progress, programming skills learned, strategies, research synthesis (http://bit.ly/X3toA6). The next piece to add will be your #3 – the reflection on the process and learning. Thanks for the encouragement!

  20. Thank you, George. I really like the links embedded in the post. We must be continually inspired by the innovation by the children. We must also be innovators!

  21. Excellent post. Student reflection on their learning journey is my big take-away. I work in an elementary school and we have had the students reflect on their learning. And to no surprise they needed much guidance. For the most part students feel that the only feedback for their understanding and mastery of the skills being taught are to come from the teacher. So to ask students, young and old, to reflect on their learning will require training on how it looks, its process, and what to do with it. Teachers need to spend some time in professional development on learning how to guide students through self reflection, and really buy in to its educational value. Reflecting throughout the entire learning process will keep the students active and engaged. It will give them more ownership of their learning. This process will take some dedicated classroom time, but is this not now a 21st Century Life skill that people need in order to thrive later in life?

  22. Rigor, relevance and relationship…in three words, that’s what I look for. If one is missing, there won’t be a lot of learning going on. @jlaneyjr

  23. No. 4, Innovation, made me think of Gever Tulley and his school of tinkering (http://www.tinkeringschool.com/about/). Children with powertools, an idea, and a stack of problems to solve. Tinkering gave us relativity, home computing, peer to peer networks, and the printing press.

    His TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/gever_tulley_s_tinkering_school_in_action.html)is a nice intro, though his quote about his parents influence on him as an educator may not go down to well…his parents always said “if you are going to play with fire….make sure you do it outside”.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. Lots to chew over.

  24. I like the list. As head of a progressive school I believe we subscribe fully to these ideas–like the addition of opportunity to innovate.

  25. I agree with your eight characteristics one should find in the classroom. My only suggestions is to not isolate learning inside the classroom. Our students have to be prepared for what is beyond the classroom, and that is the community. A good classroom makes connections with the community, and a good school understands the importance of building relationships with the school’s community. The school and school system has to strengthen the partnerships with family and community. You touched on it with connected learning, but there has to be more. We have to become more full-service community schools to really make a difference and turn things around for our students. Thank you for your forum, your insight, and allowing others to have a voice.

  26. This is exactly what we should be looking for in today’s classrooms George – great insights and should be used as a model for staff performance appraisal too! I shall definitely be sharing this with my staff….thank you!

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  28. from your comment about critical thinking: “We need to have students that are able to ask questions and challenge what they see” , I believe it is so important that we also get them asking the right questions. Critical thinking skills can be taught, but it takes time, effort, and planning.

  29. It is pretty remarkable how much classrooms have changed since I was a kid. Technology is growing so rapidly! Still a student desk remains very important to their success and will still be the case for a long long time

  30. Love it – critical thinking, choice and consequence, authentic learning. Thanks! I think I might put all of your big 8 under the umbrella of ‘inquiry’.

  31. So true especially building in the time for reflection. So important to take time throughout the learning process to reflect, and give students time to capture the learning process.and speak to their learning. All 8 points are very true to be a learner form the students point and the teachers point as well. Learning need to be transparent and connected. Thank you for this post so GREAT.

  32. Great ideas! Where do you see students with disabilities in your model? Certainly integrating technology will be key if these students are to be in the mainstream.

  33. The face of education would change drastically if all of us had a supportive and innovative principal like you.

  34. A compelling, concise, and affirmative post which should “cause us to pause” in a self-reflection mode as educators. My mantra is “see & shift,” and these bullet points provide me a wonderful rubric. Thanks!

  35. Hitting from way downtown on this one George! My compliments to all of the folks commenting on this post – the conversation breathes more energy and breadth.
    For many educators, the concept of classroom, and what happens there, needs to change. Here is Josh Stumpenhorst’s post from earlier today, called Exposure; http://goo.gl/VDgFTh It relates to your list because it recommends that teachers expose themselves to different practices and perspectives. Many times teachers think they are doing the right thing (but not necessarily the best thing) for students because they only know what they have been exposed to; case in point, my recent apology to students from my early teaching years; http://goo.gl/MYJl87 We are all a work in progress. This is why I think #8 on your list, connected learning, is so essential – it brings broader perspective, and hopefully, relevancy into the learning experience. Powerful stuff George – thank you.

  36. Love “8 things to Look For in Today’s Classroom.” I would add a ninth point regarding the promotion of Health Literacy. There is an incredible need for teachers to be mindful of health issues and concerns our children and youth face. We need to explicitly teach and promote health and well-being in our classrooms. Therefore, #9) Wellness.

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