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07 Feb, Tuesday
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Montreal Families

Villa Maria constructs “class of the future” today

Villa Maria High School made two big announcements this spring and while one got a lot of attention, the other largely flew under the radar.

The change you’ve likely heard about is that beginning in 2016, the school will admit boys for the first time. The other is a project that is integrating more technology into classrooms. A prototype was built this past summer and this “Class of the Future” will test out best practices in teaching.

The classroom is billed as a 21st century spin on the traditional learning environment and the first students are using it this year. Three walls are painted a bright turquoise. The fourth is a giant window designed to let in natural light. There are tables that easily slide across the floor and turquoise and purple chairs on wheels that make it easier to change the room’s configuration, and there’s also a sofa set in one corner. There’s no traditional teacher’s desk either – his or her station can be moved around depending on the day’s lesson.

And then there are the electronics and gadgets: three digital whiteboards, one digital flip board that students can write on by scanning a QR code and using their iPads (which are mandatory for students) or phones, four portable wipe-off boards, a wall that can be written on, a 3D printer and 3D video camera. The class is in the middle of the French and English wings and can be used by teachers in both sections.  Teachers must book in advance to use the classroom.

The idea is to prepare students to join the workforce. Research shows that jobs of the future will require a certain skill set – creativity and an ability to work in small groups – which the school is trying to foster with this new classroom.

“I did a little research before bringing my students into the classroom,” said math teacher André Cholmsky. “I looked at the top design companies in the world and what their creative spaces are like and they looked like this room.”

The absence of a teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom illustrates the “flipped classroom” philosophy the school is embracing. This ideology removes teachers from the role of gatekeepers of knowledge and makes them facilitators to learning, helping guide the students instead of dictating to them.

Packing the room with gadgets isn’t just for show, explains Tammy Groff, interim director of educational services. In some schools, a digital board has replaced the blackboard, but it is still used to project notes for students to copy. The purpose of integrating technology into this type of classroom is to embrace new methods of teaching that are tailored to the individual needs of the students, instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach.

In the classroom, it’s not uncommon to see a group of students working with a digital whiteboard, another group writing ideas on the washable wall, and a few sitting with their books at tables taking notes.

For Cholmsky, the classroom helps make abstract concepts concrete. For a unit on geometric transformations, which deals with moving 3D objects in space, instead of imagining how a 3D shape would move using drawings on paper, the students used a program on the digital whiteboard and moved the objects with their own hands. They even created their own objects and printed them with the 3D printer.

As of late September, there were 167 admission applications from boys for next year. Cholmsky and Groff say that the focus on individualized learning will facilitate the transition to teaching boys. Instead of treating them as a whole different beast, so to speak, they will be seen as individuals with their own learning styles.

The school has been integrating technology for the last 20 years, making more computers available to students, installing WiFi, robotics kits, a television studio, and integrating iPads. The Class of the Future project is in test mode this year – teachers are figuring out how best to use the tools to supplement learning based on their subject matter. The hope is to make some version of this classroom the standard at Villa Maria in years to come.

Cholmsky says that if teachers ignore how kids use technology in their free time and at home, they will be perceived as being archaic and outdated. The hope is that this type of classroom setting and new ways of teaching will click with the students of today, digital natives born in the age of ubiquitous Internet access who learn differently than their forebears.

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