Mon Nov 23 2020 Michael McQueen

The classrooms of history have been deep in a process of change for decades, but this year has accelerated that transformation more than ever. With the classrooms of the future rapidly becoming those of today, the old idiom has again been proved true: necessity really is the mother of invention.

Classroom designs of the past offer an insight into the traditional assumption of a classroom’s purpose. With windows often placed high enough so students couldn’t see outside, and chairs and desks oriented toward the front, it’s clear that the classroom has always been about ensuring knowledge transfer.

With the teacher deemed the fount of all knowledge, students’ learning was centred on memorisation and regurgitation of information. However, the proliferation of technology and the empowerment of the everyday individual has clearly changed things. Consider the fact that there are 6 billion Google searches every day – 63,000 searches per second and 2 trillion searches a year[1]. Added to this, YouTube offers over 1 billion hours of content localised in 88 countries and available in 76 different languages[2].

Students today have a torrent of information beyond the classroom walls and efforts to hold back this tide are both misguided and futile. 

I remember speaking with one teaching colleague who would begin each year with a new class group by stating the rules of his classroom: ‘Turn your mobile phone on,’ For this educator, his primary job as an educator is to teach students to use the technology and information they have at their disposal – not to be threatened by it.

Beyond social media and organic online searches, examples like the Khan Academy offer a compelling example of the non-traditional learning options available to today’s students. Beginning in 2006, Khan Academy began as a series of online doodles and YouTube lectures intended to teach mathematics to his young relatives. By 2009 the site had become so popular that Salman left his job to devote himself to creating online educational materials, freely available to all. At the time of writing, Khan Academy includes roughly 20,000 videos, most no more than a few minutes long, on subjects ranging from arithmetic to calculus, physics and art history[3]. So significant has the Khan Academy been that Bill Gates has touted it as a model for the future of education[4].

In light of changes like this, the purpose and function of both teacher and classroom has to be rethought.

Andrew Bunting, director of architectural firm Architectus, has been concerned for years that school buildings could fail our students and society if they cannot be adapted to suit the new learning styles of emerging generations[5].

A recent large-scale study of fifth-grade students in over 700 science classrooms found that 91 per cent of their time was spent listening to the teacher. Three-quarters of classrooms were described as dull, bleak places with very little emphasis on reasoning or problem-solving skills[6].

While this reference to classroom aesthetics may seem superficial or irrelevant, Erica McWilliam argues that nothing could be further from the truth. ‘When young people enter a space of learning they receive a strong message about what their experience of learning is likely to be.’[7]

Recent years have seen students entering their classrooms and receiving the message that their learning is likely to be one of boredom, silent work and, most importantly, the past.

In contrast to this, at one school, Columbus Signature, the classroom layout and footprint is especially innovative. The classrooms do not have walls in the traditional sense, but rather feature glass panes separating classrooms from corridors and breakout spaces. Even the word ‘classroom’ is avoided at Columbus, with learning spaces referred to as ‘studios’.

The aims of classrooms such as these is to equip students with the tools they need for the future: creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.

The arrival of COVID has accelerated this process of educational change dramatically. The technology which was once perceived as a threat to the teacher’s position, has this year become the tool on which their position depends. The ‘classrooms’ of the COVID era, while vastly different to the standing vision for learning, are no doubt ones that equip students with skills for their future.[8]

The COVID classroom enables:

1. Technological Literacy. For teachers and students alike, technological literacy has become not just a future necessity but a present essential. Beyond this, Zoom, Google classroom and the old-fashioned email have proved themselves to be more than viable in the face of physical separation. Recorded teaching in bite-sized segments, independent exercises and Zoom group work not only suit the modern attention span but also suit students in preparing them for necessary future skills. A balance of collaboration and independence, listening and creating, is appropriate for the workplace that awaits them.

2. Creativity. It has been common knowledge in the education sector for years now that one of the key skills necessary for tomorrow’s workers and today’s students is creativity. The online classroom has provided ample opportunity for this lesson to be taught as the traditional classroom has been reinvented on desks and dining tables at home. Initiatives like virtual playdates and storytelling challenges[9] have encouraged both students and teachers to harness the power of imagination to confront the challenges of a crisis.

3. Resilience. Alongside this unprecedented flipped classroom have come the irreplaceable lessons of resilience and independence. Talk to any graduating student this year and the resilience taught by uncertainty, change and disappointment becomes clear. Having to learn from the isolation of home offices and bedroom desks has meant for many teenagers the loss of emotional, physical and intellectual support, community, graduation rituals and basic study preparation. Working independently has been a lesson learned by necessity, and one that will serve them well in a future of hybrid work in a growing gig economy. For one of the generations most often criticised for a lack of grit, this lesson brings a new maturity to a group coming of age.

Highly contrasting to the classrooms of old, lined with rows of desks facing the board, the 2020 classroom is one spread across homes, schools and libraries, connected by technology of the future and creative innovations of teacher and student. I have little doubt that the evolution of the classroom will be highly informed by COVID and the effects and skills in enables.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics,


[1] Madden, C. 2017, Hello Gen Z, Hello Clarity, Sydney, p. 43.

[2] Ibid., pp. 113, 114.

[3] Brynjolfsson, E. & McAfee, A. 2014, The Second Machine Age, Norton, New York, p. 199.

[4] Dintersmith, T. 2018, What School Could Be, Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire, p. 134.

[5] McCrindle, M. 2009. The ABC of XYZ, UNSW Press, Sydney, p. 119.

[6] Bellanca, J and Brandt, R. 2010, 21st Century Skills, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, pp. 154, 155.

[7] McWilliam, E. 2008, The Creative Workforce, UNSW Press, Sydney, p. 155.

[8] Goodwin, J 2020, ‘This is how we make education fit for the post-COVID world’, WeForum, 15 September.

[9] Goodwin, J 2020, ‘This is how we make education fit for the post-COVID world’, WeForum, 15 September.