The Classroom (R)evolution

Active learning has been in place at TCU for years. But with multidisciplinary Rees-Jones Hall now open, students and professors have a new technology-rich, 21st century place to learn together.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of TCU Magazine.

Twenty minutes into Keith Whitworth’s 10 a.m. section of Introductory Sociology, the American Dream faded. The middle class had struggled to break even and hold on to property. The outlook was bleaker for the lower classes who teetered on bankruptcy, wondering what they would run out of first – money or hope.

None of this seems to bother the instructor. Whitworth’s Wednesday morning class is unfolding as expected.

Hands in his pockets, he strolls the classroom sidestepping backpacks and noting signs of frustration: clenched fists, crossed arms, shaking heads.

It is early March — three days before Spring Break — and Whitworth’s 40 undergraduate students in Room 211 at Rees-Jones Hall are playing a rigged version of Monopoly.

Photo of students in classroom

Students in Ron Pitcock’s Cultural Memory in the U.S. class read from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” while discussing story notes projected on the room’s front wall. (Photo by Leo Wesson)

Five students at each table surround one of eight game boards. One student pushes back from a table and sighs heavily. The entire class pauses for a moment.

Whitworth makes a rhetorical announcement. “Can you rob the bank? Yes, you can … if you don’t get caught,” he said. “The instructions don’t say anything about that.”

The rules are like the traditional game: Players circumnavigate the board, buy property, build houses and make as much money as possible. But in this manipulated version, players start with different amounts of cash and assets based on their date of birth.

The two oldest players represent the two highest quintiles of U.S. household income and begin with Boardwalk, Park Place, all four railroads and other properties. The younger three players get nothing.

The economic disparity is not fair, and that’s the point. “Social stratification may be one of the most difficult topics covered in sociology,” said Whitworth. “This exercise is supposed to help students see the structural nature of inequality. They experience the different levels, and it challenges the idea that talent and ambition are enough to overcome societal barriers.”

The game is one aspect of student-centered active learning in one of TCU’s new next-generation classrooms. The walls are writable. The furniture moves. Technology turns lectures into multimedia extravaganzas. Class discussions, small-group projects and even board games are not outside-the-box activities; they’re the new normal.

In Rees-Jones Hall, students use smartphones and tablets to reserve time in private study rooms, which fill quickly. Soaring hallways are covered with quotations, factoids and graphics.

The silver-level LEED-certified building is as environmentally thoughtful as it is intellectually inviting. Smart water fountains keep visible count of plastic water bottles saved.

Yet the building, with all its technological amenities, is only part of a larger story of transformation. TCU is in the midst of an educational evolution that has spread across academic programs during the past decade, focusing more on student learning outcomes and less on faculty teaching agendas. The plan places a premium on creativity, collaboration and personal discovery.

Some call it “authentic learning” because it tweaks the roles of instructor and learner. Teachers still assign homework and determine final grades, but students are expected to act as partners in presenting and parsing the material.

Read more in TCU Magazine.