Where We Were; Where They Will Go

By: Elaine Simos (@dgnlitcoaches)

Desks in perfectly straight rows of lines filled each room. Each desk was precisely placed in relation to the door and window; the ideal ratio, I recall, was 4% view of the door and .02% view of the greenery-filled world outside the window. Posters on the walls illustrated important rules to follow: how to line up; how to format name, heading, and date; how to pack up at the end of the day. The teacher’s desk stood front and center, complete with the teacher’s edition and answer key opened to the scripted textbook work on the day’s schedule.

Recollections similar to this vision of a classroom resonate with many, along with monotonous voices asking questions such as, “Bueller? Bueller?” Occasionally, the placement of the desks might vary (the fabled group project) or further separation between the learners might be effected via strategically placed privacy folders; quickly enough, however, the rows would reclaim every inch of academic space.


Today’s Learning

Today’s classrooms bear little resemblance to those with which I was accustomed as a student. In fact, other than the essential limitation of the boxlike shape of the room, I suspect that one might argue that today’s learning also differs strikingly.

In many classrooms today, the desks generally still end the day in some semblance of order; between the first and final bells, however, their placement at any given moment is at odds with the traditional view of the silent and successful student. Instead, the classroom is prone to the type of noise that active learning encourages: conversation that is sometimes quiet, sometimes boisterous, and always thought-provoking. Books, computers, tablets, and even pencils are strewn about the room, in easy reach of the next innovator in the grip of a new concept or refined application.


An emphasis on collaborative learning (and not simply traditional “group work”) is vital in nurturing students’ capacities to be creative and to innovate. Further, student exposure to the principles of design thinking results in a nuanced understanding of precisely how a process can lead to multiple outcomes or how a single result can be traced back to the application of multiple methods.

Sometimes, this strenuous process can be uncomfortable; indeed, writer Joyce Carol Oates argues that “any kind of creative activity is likely to be stressful. The more anxiety, the more you feel that you are headed in the right direction. Easiness, relaxation, comfort — these are not conditions that usually accompany serious work.” Allowing for and capitalizing upon cognitive dissonance is an important component of designing instruction that prepares students to both excel in the classroom and beyond its simultaneously comforting and confining walls.


Today’s Students in Tomorrow’s Workplace

Students today will face a challenging set of realities after graduation from high school. The types of jobs accessible to students will be a far cry from the somewhat predictable choices available to the last four generations of students. Even the workplace skills are valued quite differently. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers in 2015 actively seek out candidates who possess a variety of skills:

  • working well in a team;
  • effective decision-making and problem-solving;
  • excellent verbal communication skills;
  • properly organizing, planning, and prioritizing;
  • highly analytical;
  • obtaining relevant information and processing it;
  • creating reports;
  • fluency in computer programs;
  • selling and marketing; and
  • technical workplace knowledge.

Present-day learning environments and experiences are designed to not only build students’ literacy in a specific discipline such as literary study or rhetorical strategies, but are also intended to empower students to develop and refine the skills they will need to be successful in an increasingly complex world that requires more of their literacy skills than ever before. Moreover, research clearly suggests a link between student attainments of proficiency, if not mastery, in writing and career earnings (in all professions):


The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

Understanding the complexities of the future faced by today’s learners is an integral aspect of the alliance between schools, homes, and employers. The work is not and will never be easy; it will, however, always be important. For, while the world on which our students are pinning their hopes and dreams is ever-changing, the students themselves have changed little from those in ancient Rome to whom Marcus Aurelius might have addressed the following admonition: “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.”