Classroom Design for 21st Century Learning

Recently my colleague and I were asked to do PBL-101 training for a local Teaching Center.  The venue assigned to us was on a college campus in a new building that had just recently opened.  The coordinator of the event met us at the door and led us down the sparkling new hallways of the building to the room we would be using for the 3-day training.  We walked into the room and were struck dumbfounded!  There before us was a room design that was familiar to us from our childhood, row upon row of tightly packed desks.  At first we started to try to rearrange the desks into groups of four, but due to the closeness of the rows and desks, there wasn’t enough space without totally redesigning the whole room layout.   My colleague and I looked at each other, then to the coordinator and announced in unison, “This room will not do, this is not designed for 21st century learning.”   At first, I think the coordinator thought we were joking, but we then clarified that PBL training engages learners in a collaborative, inquiry-based learning environment where they will work together to create their first PBL experience.  The coordinator had to do some quick problem-solving and took us to another room that had desks where pairs could sit.  Unfortunately, this room wasn’t exactly what we wanted due to the inability to move furniture to foster flexible groupings of four.  Not to come off overly demanding, we both decided we could settle on pairs all facing front, rather than once again asking for another space.  We made it work, but I became curious as to why in the 21st century when we are building new classrooms do we still hold on to the 19th century classroom designs?

The “desks-in-rows” is an old paradigm for classroom design.  It is a great design if your goal is to foster passive verbal-linguistic learning where there is a sage on the stage who lectures and learners take notes.  This design may have been good during a certain time in educational history, but I personally feel it does not prepare students for the world they will soon inherit.   Having learners sit in rows does not foster the skills for career and college readiness of collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.   In her book Brain-Friendly Strategies for Inclusive Classrooms, Judy Willis cites that the top three dominate intelligence styles – Verbal-Linguistic, Visual-Spacial, and Bodily-Kinesthetic are the same as the past, but over the past twenty-five year there has been considerable shifts in the percentage of learners in each of these styles.  “In the United States, we have seen a dramatic increase in visual-spatial learners (accounting for 50% of learners) and a drop in the proportion of verbal-linguistic or auditory learners (accounting for 15% of learners), with bodily-kinesthetic learners representing the other 35% (Gardner, 1999).  Some attribute this change to students’ increase exposure to technology.  The theory is that children no longer grow up visualizing images to accompany stories they hear or read because computers, television, and video games visualize everything for them (Sousa, 2000).” (Willis, 2007)

So when classrooms are designed with desks in rows, the research suggests that the design is only good for 15% of our learners, so why do we continue to see this design in high schools and college campuses?

Recently, I had the privilege to visit some New Tech schools around the country and was struck by their design.   Each school had its own character, some were new buildings some old but what was the same was the design of the classrooms.  The primary method of instruction in New Tech schools is a transdisciplinary project-based learning environment of inquiry.  Student sit in teams of four people working on a common core focused real-life projects.  Collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity are the cornerstones for the classroom design.

During one of my visits to the New Tech schools I had the pleasure to take the tour of the school with architect Jim King of King & King Architecture.  King & King does most of their work with schools and municipalities around Central New York.  It was so interesting to watch him jot notes, draw pictures of what he was observing and to have some conversations with him regarding the design and structure of these New Tech schools.  His most memorable comment he made to me was, “Why don’t more schools look and sound like this?”

When we think about designing workspaces for 21st Century learners we can learn from some of the design qualities found during my visits to different New Tech schools.

Classroom Designs that Allow for Collaboration and Flexible Grouping


This was taken at New Tech High School in Fort Wayne, IN.  If you notice, the teacher is not the sage on the stage here, he can be found sitting with a small group doing a workshop for what this group needs to complete their project.


Even the hallways in the New Tech schools are designed for collaboration.  The picture to the left shows an area where the teacher can work with small groups away from the classroom to provide workshops around areas that groups need to progress on their project.  The picture to the right shows a hallway space where students can work independently or form their own small groups.

Other classroom examples where collaboration is key:


Clockwise from top left: New Tech HS-Ft. Wayne, IN; New Tech Middle School-Ft. Wayne, IN; New Tech Middle School, Ft. Wayne, IN; New Tech School, Napa, CA

The structure of the classroom is also seen in the teachers’ workspace.  Every school we visited had a common room where teachers could easily collaborate.  The “Teachers Room” looks very different from what we think of from our past.  The teachers’ room had the refrigerator, microwave, and other typical items that we usually see in teachers’ rooms, but they also have the teacher’s individual workspace and an area for whole group collaboration.


The picture to the left shows the New High School, Ft. Wayne, IN collaborative teacher work space. You can see the individual workspaces for each teacher in the back of the picture.   In the picture to the right, teachers come together to provide feedback using the critical friends protocol to colleagues who have a new plan for a project.  The culture and design for these 21st Century learning spaces provide collaborative workspace not only for students, but also for teachers (“facilitators” in New Tech Schools).   The environment is one of purposeful designs to foster collaboration: student to student, teacher to student and teacher to teacher.

As Sir Ken Robinson says, “Collaboration is the stuff of growth.”  If you are currently in a building renovation project, building a new school, or just looking to redesign your classroom, I encourage you to rethink the old paradigm of rows and closed doors.  To better prepare learners for the work force they will be part of we need to make sure we are conscious in our design so that it foster creative thinking, collaboration with others, critical thinking about real-life problems, and have an opportunity to communicate our learning and our thinking.

Some great resources and referenced books:

Shaw_PatrickPatrick Shaw-Staff Development Specialist
Trainer for Project-Based Learning for OCM BOCES

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