Engaged Classrooms for the 21st Century
Silent, distracted, and sleeping students in the back row, a teacher in conversation with only one student in the front, seating that discourages lateral interactions, and a dark and uninviting environment: these are the features SMU faculty identified as they created this composite “Classroom from Hell” during a pedagogy workshop at SMU in 2017. In contrast, when asked to remember effective or highly functional classrooms, faculty often talk about a culture of curiosity, multilateral interactions between students, students and faculty, and students and materials, opportunities for play and connection, and a sense of trust in the room. All of these positive features can be described as “engagement,” points of interaction in a class that invite interest, motivation, learning, and growth.
In his 2018 work that compiles scholarship on teaching and learning, education specialist Joshua Eyler identifies curiosity, sociality, emotion, authenticity, and opportunities for productive failure as key aspects of engagement that lead to genuine learning. Classrooms that provide space for these are more likely to engage students in ways that they find useful, motivating, and transformative. Disengaged classrooms, such as the one conjured by faculty in the picture above, are more likely to lead to frustration, boredom, shallow learning done only to pass a minimum requirement, and a sense of wasted time on the part of students and their instructors.
Before 2020, we had experience in overcoming physical obstacles such as poorly arranged furniture in a room. As the Pandemic starts to wind down, Flex and Remote formats have only added to our repertoire of skills. What follows are suggestions for creating spaces where students are more likely to connect with each other, with professors, and with course content; where they are more likely to undertake what Ken Bain dubbed “deep learning:” the intrinsically motivated approach to new knowledge that will stick with them, and that they will be able to use, for years to come.