George Lucas Educational Foundation

David Thornburg on the Evolving Classroom (Big Thinkers Series)

The noted educational futurist describes his "holodeck" classroom -- an environment that supports project-based learning -- and makes the case for why the role of the teacher must change from lecturer to exploration guide.
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David Thornburg on the Evolving Classroom (Transcript)

David Thornburg: Traditional classrooms, the kinds that I certainly grew up in, really don't reach every child. Not because of teachers, not because of anything the teacher's doing so much as the actual physical structure of the room. The idea that children learn best by sitting in uniform rows facing the front of the room, has been known to be ineffective for some learners since the 1300s, as a famous painting that shows what a real classroom looked like at the University of Bologna. And when you look at it, you laugh, because there's students sleeping, there's students talking to each other, and there's the poor professor in the front of the room trying to give a lecture hoping that everyone's learning something. So our motivation was to say if the structure of the classroom is at fault, what new structures could we design that might be better?

David: My name's David Thornburg. And right now we're located in Recife, Brazil. But we also live in the United States, and we split our time between the two countries. My background is in science and engineering, mathematics, education, and in particular, the role that technology might play in support of students learning. The Holodeck, which takes its name from science fiction, is basically an empty room that can become anything you want when you turn the computers on. So walls, which are normally white, can suddenly become viewports into outer space. They could become views out of a submarine window. They could become almost anything based on what the computer software is telling it to do. The Holodeck is based on the idea of inquiry-driven, project-based learning. They're actually engaged in a mission, and the outcome of that mission is unclear. And a consequence of that is the students are so engaged that they tend to remember what they learned in that environment for a far longer period of time than most kids remember their learning in a traditional classroom environment. The first mission that we created was a Mission to Mars to explore whether or not Mars has or had life. Interesting question. Scientists are unclear. I really like having students explore things for which tools like Google can be a terrific resource, but that they're not going to provide a closed answer. If people already know the answer, and it can be looked up on Google, why ask the question? Let's ask them real questions that scientists are asking themselves these days? And that gives them a sense also of the reality of science. It's messy. It's unclear. There are differing points of view. What I see happening now, though, is a consumer-driven revolution, in that the students themselves are taking control of their informational tools. Students are bringing their own smart phones to school. They're bringing their own tablets to school with every expectation that they will be allowed to use these devices in the school's network. The challenges that I see are two-fold. One of them is students may know how to use these tools mechanically, but it doesn't mean that they know how to judge the value or accuracy of the information that they're finding, and they need responsible adults to teach them. If you start with four levels of data, information, knowledge, and understanding, data and information are the sorts of things that Google can provide for you. Teachers don't have to provide that stuff anymore. Historically, they provided a lot of it. But how nice to liberate teachers and say, "Now, you can focus on knowledge and understanding, that's where the real payoff comes." I've been telling kids that in 1492 Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue," why on earth waste time presenting that, but instead focus on what were the kinds of challenges that Columbus had with his crew to entice them to go beyond the site of land? Now that's a very different kind of question. And one that teachers don't often get to ask, because they spend so much time on the trivial stuff that can be looked up. The value of the question for the kids is it gets them thinking about topics in a deep way. If history teachers only get to spend time teaching the rough outlines of history in terms of events, the meaning behind those events is amazingly lost! To me the real power of technology in the classroom comes when we use it to do things we couldn't do before at all. Not just to do old things differently. So technology is important in education to the extent that allows them to achieve educational goals in some powerful new ways.
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© 2012 | The George Lucas Educational Foundation | All rights reserved.

David Thornburg Ph.D. is an award-winning futurist, author, and consultant whose clients range across the public and private sector, both in the United States and in Brazil. As the founder and director of global operations for the Thornburg Center, he conducts research and provides staff development. His educational philosophy is based on the idea that students learn best when they are constructors of their own knowledge.

Dr. Thornburg's wife, Norma Thornburg, is currently director of emerging technologies for the Thornburg Center, and they work together on the educational holodeck classroom at Colégio Atual, a pre-K to middle school in Recife, Brazil. Learn more about the holodeck and the educational programs of the Thornburg Center on the Thornburg Center for Space Exploration website, their blog, or by following Dr. Thornburg on Twitter.

Also, read a blog by David Thornburg on open source textbooks, or read more about the educational holodeck in "Trendspotting at ISTE 2011," a blog post by Suzie Boss.

Meet other Edutopia Big Thinkers.

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mimi Jett's picture

Thank you David, for highlighting the critical elements required to transform education from current state to the future we have been imagining. Beginning with the classroom structure is elemental. Focusing on knowledge and understanding rather than data and information is exactly what technology allows now. Rather than using technology to execute on the old model better or faster, you encourage us to think differently and embrace what is possible. Thank you!

A longtime fan,
Mimi Jett

Gintaras Valiulis's picture

I understand Thornburg is a a science teacher and not history so I excuse his critical thinking question on Columbus nonetheless it should be said that his crew had not problem sailing away from sight of land. Spanish ships already sailed regularly to the Canary Islands at the time. However there are some terrific questions about Columbus for example who was he really. The standard story that he was a Genoese sailor who thought the world was smaller than Eratosthenes has measured is often repeated but not well supported. There are even theories that Columbus was a Portuguese counter intelligence agent sent to the court of Spain to lead them on a wild goose chase to the Americas! This of course is theme is supportive of what he is doing. As teachers and subject matter experts it is no so much for us to tell the kids what we know but to advise the kids how to judge and process information. Nice video.

Rough citation for assertions regarding Columbus:
Loewen, James W. _Lies_My_Teacher_Told_Me.

Deborah Shortman's picture
Deborah Shortman
4th grade ELA & social studies teacher from Columbia, SC

I have enjoyed lectures by Dr. Thornburg by way of my online graduate studies. I will always reflect on my practices because of things he said. When using technology, are we just using technology to do the same thing differently or are we using technology to do new things?

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