Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

21st Century classrooms needed for the future

By Jorgen Lindgren Hansen (China Daily) Updated: 2012-03-19 08:11

21st Century classrooms needed for the future

At a time when new technology is constantly revolutionizing the way we live, what can be said about our schools? How can we accept that in 2012, school classrooms have not progressed much since an era that had no telephones or televisions, let alone computers. The truth seems inconceivable. We should be skeptical of the assumption that children can be well trained and prepared for their futures while still using the tools of yesterday.

Children nowadays are familiar with laptops, iPads, and interactive video games from an early age. Good or bad, technology is here, changing our methods of communication and thinking. Schools should not ignore this evolution. The aim here is not to get rid of books and pencils, but to make the most of technical advances in order to provide teachers with access to new, efficient, educational tools, for example, electronic whiteboards that enable teachers to engage students with interactive features.

Outside of the classroom, the Internet has begun to allow parents to keep track of their child's work. Lessons posted online not only allow students, but also their parents, to access materials, their marks, absences and late arrivals throughout the term. This is especially convenient for separated or divorced parents, and parents who work unusual hours.

Yet, despite major changes in society since the beginning of the 20th century, the furniture and classroom layout in our schools has barely changed.A study financed by a regional government in Germany in partnership with the Social Security Fund found that 48 percent of 11-14 year olds already exhibit posture problems. This comparative study, carried out from 2000 to 2004 by Dr. Breithecker, a specialist in ergonomics and head of posture and exercise of the German Ministry of Health, proves the unquestionable benefits of ergonomic workspaces in schools. While office furniture for adults, who have already developed back pain and bad posture, are invested with technology, such as special foams, fabrics, options for adjustments, why not invest well-designed furniture and workspaces for children in order to help prevent these problems developing in the first place.

Likewise a study conducted by the French government offers an alarming picture of the evolution of obesity in France. In 2009, 14 percent of the population was obese and 32 percent was overweight, compared to 8 percent who were obese and 30 percent overweight in 1997. These numbers must be met with proactive change in the way that children learn to replenish their bodies. Since the lunch break is short it is important to maximize this time so that students can refuel both their minds and bodies. Schools should provide opportunities for students to enjoy their meals, to taste the textures of food and to sample new flavors, not simply satiate hunger. As pilot programs in Europe and the United States have shown, providing fresh produce and naturally flavored foods in school canteens isn't as difficult or expensive as skeptics believe. Moreover, why not introduce simple cooking classes during the lunch break so that students can learn from an early age how to prepare healthy meals for themselves.

We should not skimp on investing in our children's health, because early investments in their lives will save money in the long run.

Meanwhile, trials are under way in both France and Germany of experimental schools that give more freedom and greater responsibility to students.

At the start of the year, students establish their own rules, including schedules, meals, and discipline. Everyday a list of activities is proposed and each student chooses his or her timetable. A student-run disciplinary committee reviews disputes and a "court" punishes students for violations to community rules. The teaching staff supervises everything. It is interesting that the students often proctor harsher punishments on themselves than the teachers would. The academic results speak for themselves, as student performance in the diplome national du brevet, are as high as or even higher than in traditional schools.

More importantly, students emerge from these schools with greater independence and self-confidence. While it's still too early to advocate the adoption of this system, it would no doubt be useful to integrate certain approaches in all schools.

But above all, today's rapidly changing world requires that schools employ technological tools to improve the overall quality of students' lives and the quality of their learning. We must feed children's natural curiosity and hunger for exploration by providing them a broader vision of the world. Therefore let us employ current technologies and adopt scientific findings to improve our schools.

The aforementioned proposals for this change will lead to more effective learning, characterized by more participation and independence in our children, who will in time become the problem-solvers of tomorrow.

The author is a Paris-based media consultant.

(China Daily 03/19/2012 page9)

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