Evolving for a New World
JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images CC

15 Ways Classrooms Have Changed Over the Past 50 Years

View Slideshow
Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site. Learn more
Evolving for a New World
JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images CC

Evolving for a New World

The national average mathematics scores of America's fourth- and eighth-grade students had the biggest decline ever recorded since 2019. Reading scores also fell in The Nation's Report Card, a U.S. Department of Education assessment of students in public schools, making clear the detrimental effect the pandemic has had on students. Remote learning can be difficult for both students and teachers, but it's only the latest change to classrooms. In just a few short decades, classroom staples like overhead projectors and chalkboards have disappeared, while tablets and laptops have become everyday essentials. Here's how the classroom you may remember from childhood has evolved for today's world.


Related: 50 'Facts' You Learned in School That Are Lies

Little kids schoolchildren pupils students running hurrying to the school building for classes lessons from to the school bus. Welcome back to school. The new academic semester year start
Inside Creative House/istockphoto

Paddles Gather Dust

At one time, corporal punishment didn't raise many eyebrows, and students may have seen a fat wooden paddle or ruler hanging on the wall as a silent deterrent. But several states banned the practice in the 1970s. By 2016, less than 0.5% of all schoolchildren were subject to corporal punishment, compared with about 4% in the late '70s, according to the Society for Research in Child Development. Still, it remains legal in 19 states (mostly in the South) and a Missouri school district recently reinstated the practice of spanking children, as long as parents opt-in.


Related: What That’s Really For: Items With Hidden Design Features

Chalkboards Disappear
DaniloAndjus/istockphoto

Chalkboards Disappear

Chalkboards may long endure as a symbol of education, but the past couple of decades have seen them mostly phased out in favor of whiteboards that require dry-erase markers. Whiteboards outsold chalkboards 4-to-1 by the new millennium, according to The Atlantic. What's more, even fancier, pricier smart boards — so-called because they're interactive, allowing teachers to manipulate content from a connected computer — were outselling chalkboards by 2000.


Related: 35 Products You Never Thought Would Be Obsolete

Technology Moves In ….
Django/istockphoto

Computers Move In ….

In the 1970s, personal computing was still nascent technology, with the exorbitant price tag to match. It wasn't until the '80s that computers started popping up in schools in any meaningful way, and it would still take another decade for them to be available in larger numbers. In the mid-'80s, there was only one computer for every 100 students; by 1996, there was one for roughly every 10 students.

… And Becomes Mobile
FatCamera/istockphoto

… And Become Portable

The first kids to use computers in schools were often herded to a computer lab, where rows of clunky desktop Macs or IBMs beckoned with their blinking cursors. Today, even computer labs are starting to go the way of the dodo bird as schools increasingly attempt to embrace computing by providing every student with their own laptop or tablet. In elementary schools, that often means students grab devices from an in-classroom cart when necessary; for older kids, it often means their school-provided laptop simply goes with them everywhere.

Teachers Embrace Fidgets
Vadym Petrochenko/istockphoto

Teachers Embrace Fidgets

Fifty years ago, students were expected to sit as motionless and quietly as possible, behavior prized as a sign of an attentive, engaged student. Today, educators are increasingly recognizing that squirming isn't necessarily incompatible with learning, especially for children diagnosed with ADHD. Though fidget spinners are the most recognizable symbol of this trend — and one of the most controversial — other popular choices include squishy stress balls, plastic snap and click puzzles, Silly Putty, and even chewable jewelry.

Rooms Get More Colorful
Weedezign/istockphoto

Rooms Get More Colorful

The classroom could be a bland place 50 years ago. Dominated by cinder block walls and a drab black or green chalkboard, rooms were often monochromatic, save a large wall map or some scattered student artwork. Today, schools think strategically about what colors best promote learning and paint or accessorize accordingly. Research suggests that the key is finding a balance of shades that can keep students calm and focused, but stimulated enough to learn — for instance, muted colors paired with one brighter accent wall. 

Calculators Become Must-Haves
herlordship/istockphoto

Calculators Become Must-Haves

In the late '60s and early '70s, tricky math problems were often accomplished with the aid of a mechanical slide rule. But after a brief period of resistance by teachers who feared they were too much of an educational shortcut, powerful personal calculators became a classroom staple, especially as the price came down. Today, a Texas Instruments graphing calculator is likely to be the priciest item on a high schooler's supply list, and students are even allowed to use calculators on the SATs.

Desks Diversify …
JohnnyGreig/istockphoto

Desks Diversify …

Chances are the school desk of your childhood looked a little something like this: A plastic chair with shiny chrome legs and an attached desktop that forced you to slide in from one side only. Or maybe you had a detached chair and a wooden desk with a cubby right underneath. Today, these throwbacks are still around, but there are plenty of newcomers in the mix. Wheeled desks and chairs that can be easily moved for better student collaboration are much more common, as are standing desks that allow kids to stretch their legs. Another trend: the use of wobbly chairs and inflatable stability balls that allow kids to jiggle as they work. 

… And Break Free From Long Rows
poplasen/istockphoto

… And Break Free From Long Rows

Speaking of desks, the classrooms of yesteryear almost invariably lined them up in long, precise rows, with the teacher's desk looming large in the front. But research suggests that other types of seating arrangements can encourage more student interaction and participation, which is increasingly prized by educators. Particularly popular desk arrangements today include small clusters of desks placed around the room, especially in elementary classrooms, or U-shaped arrangements that give more students a better view of their teacher.

Schools Embrace Uniforms
Steve Debenport/istockphoto

Schools Embrace Uniforms

It might seem counterintuitive, but you're more likely to encounter a public-school classroom filled with uniformed kids today than several decades ago. Though dress codes might have been stricter, uniforms outside of private schools were unheard of until the late '80s, when a Baltimore elementary school became the first public school to implement the more standardized dress. But the trend continued to grow, largely driven by the idea that uniforms help eliminate distractions and promote community. In 2016, more than 21% of U.S. public schools were requiring uniforms, up from 12% in 2000.

Overhead Projectors Become Obsolete
vm/istockphoto

Overhead Projectors Become Obsolete

Invented by 3M in the early 1960s, overhead projectors and transparencies quickly became a core teaching tool in classrooms across the country. But 3M discontinued its iconic product in 2015. Interactive smart boards are one technology that has made the bulky projectors nearly obsolete, but slick 3D projectors are another modern-day alternative.

TV Carts Relegated to the Closet
Benne Ochs / Getty Images CC

TV Carts Are Retired

In the  '80s and '90s, there was nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a giant, boxy TV strapped to an enormous cart wheeled into your classroom, then lounging for at least five or 10 more minutes while your teacher struggled with the VCR. But smart boards and other high-tech, internet-connected projectors mean any sort of digital entertainment is a much less dramatic, more streamlined affair.

Students Get Room to Move and Lounge
Steve Debenport/istockphoto

Students Have Room to Move and Lounge

Fifty years ago, it would be almost unheard of to spot a pillow in a classroom. Today, many classrooms have reading corners or other open spaces with cozy rugs and, yes, pillows that give students a place to stretch their legs or even lie down with a book or an assignment. The amenities are just another way schools have recognized that sitting at a desk all day can be counterproductive to attention and achievement levels.

Cursive Worksheets Fade Away
narvikk/istockphoto

Cursive Worksheets Fade Away

You're far less likely to encounter those laminated pictures of perfect cursive letters, or fat stacks of cursive-writing worksheets in today's classrooms. That might be because Common Core standards, adopted by more than 40 states, don't require cursive instruction — in fact, they require any handwriting instruction at all only in kindergarten and first grade. Though cursive isn't quite dead yet, with several states adopting their own cursive requirements, today's instruction is often much less rigorous, especially as typing gains more of a foothold among younger students.

Textbooks Get a Digital Update
baona/istockphoto

Textbooks Go Digital

Decades ago, many kids hauled back-breakingly heavy loads of books to and from school most days. Though textbooks are still a mainstay in many classrooms because of budgetary concerns and teacher preferences, digital content is chipping away at the market for print materials. The biggest K-12 textbook manufacturers have seen the writing on the wall and have been busy developing web-based tools and software that can supplement and even replace physical books with individualized learning plans and plenty of interactive elements.