10 of the Most Game-Changing Teaching Innovations From the Last 50 Years

Schools may still have desks and students may still have notebooks, but a lot has changed in classrooms over the last 50 years! With “innovation” being a word we take very seriously here at Concordia University-Portland’s College of Education, we decided to take a trip down Memory Lane. Here’s a look at some of the most impactful and amazing innovations in education over the last half century.

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Overhead Projectors

While versions of image projectors were in existence since the late 1800s, the more recognizable overhead projector didn’t come around until the 1960s. Roger Appeldorn of 3M invented a projector that would display text and one’s live writing on clear film sheets. Suddenly, students and teachers could share their work and annotate text in real time. Overhead projectors became a staple in classrooms for the next thirty years.



Microfilm was invented to make copies of bank records in the 1920s, but in the 1970s it became widely used in libraries when housing hard copies of records and media became too bulky. This enabled school and town libraries to become research centers, and microfilm readers could be found in most—making it possible for students to easily search for records, articles, and information.


Invented in the 1970s, Scantron sheets changed the way we take tests and the way teachers grade them. Scantron sheets are machine-readable answer sheets for multiple choice tests. The Scantron Corporation created the sheets as well as the image scanners that read them, and it’s said they are actively used in 98% of school districts in the United States. After the advent of Scantron sheets, no longer did teachers have to strain their eyes grading endless class tests, having only to run answer sheets through a machine that instantly shared results. The use of scantrons also spurred the now familiar refrain: Do you have a #2 pencil?


Mimeograph Machines to Photocopiers

Teachers spend a lot of time making copies. A school’s morning line to make copies can be savage, but it wasn’t always so easy. Hand-cranked mimeographs created dittos, printed in purple ink. The messy process created worksheets that had such a distinctive smell that anyone who attended school during from the 1950s to the 1980s will recollect it as “the smell of a test.” (Think back to that scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High where a class collectively sniffs their dittos.) While Xerox machines started hitting businesses in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that they were fully integrated into schools and libraries. Photocopies made it possible to quickly share copies of texts or images with students, to duplicate test materials, or for students to copy and take home research materials in a library.


Handheld + Graphing Calculators

In the 1970s, handheld calculators hit the market and were a revolutionary and portable electronic device that could perform calculations, including basic arithmetic to more in-depth math. In the 80s and 90s, calculators became more affordable for everyday use and became increasingly sophisticated. When the TI-81 graphing calculator hit the market in 1990, by Texas Instruments, it was possible to work on equations at the touch of a button!

SMART Boards

The move away from dusty and musty chalkboards lead to dry-erase whiteboards. But the interactive whiteboard, known as the SMART Board, took thing a few steps further when it was released in 1991. SMART Boards connected to a computer and were controlled by interacting with the whiteboard itself. Over a quarter-century later, interactive whiteboards have become more sophisticated and have gained wide popularity in schools and workplaces. SMART Boards allow students to actively participate in learning. Instead of teacher-centered lectures, where students merely read the board and receive information, students can now interact with material on the board themselves.


Computers + WiFi

This topic deserves its own article, but here’s the short version. The computer lab became a staple in schools in the 1980s, but it was largely a separate learning space that students would visit. Learning games like the very popular Oregon Trail let students learn with technology. As we entered the 21st century, the move to laptops, hand-held devices, school-wide WiFi, social media, and more apps than one can count allowed technology to become an integral part of every classroom’s learning experience.


YouTube was launched in 2005 and has since become a go-to source for entertainment, learning, and information for billions of people around the world. YouTube connected us all, but the site has found itself on the banned web site list at many schools, seen as a distraction to students. The fact is teachers rely on YouTube as a teaching and learning tool and its usefulness can’t be discounted. To combat the banned site issue, TeacherTube was invented in 2007 by educators to provide a more school-friendly resource for video content.


School budgets are notoriously tight, putting the burden on teachers to provide much-needed supplies for their classrooms. The invention in the 2000s of crowdfunding websites like Donor’s Choose, GoFundMe, and Kickstarter have made it possible for companies and individuals to help support teachers and students get the materials they need. Talk about a game-changer.


In the early 2000s, makerspaces began to appear in Germany and the U.S. as places for innovators to invent and tinker, but when President Barack Obama in his 2011 State of the Union address called for the United States to ramp up technological innovation to stay competitive with other nations, the push for increased STEM (and now STEAM) learning took off. Dale Dougherty, creator of the Maker Faire and Make magazine, gave his “We are makers” TED Talk in 2011 that called for a movement of maker culture in education. Since then, makerspaces and programs have become a popular learning tool in school districts across the country, backed by an explosion in grants, maker organizations, and training.


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