How Schools are Designing Classrooms for the Future

By: Michael McQueen

The 20th century model of learning has well and truly had its day. Time spent memorising, cramming, and silently listening to teachers lecturing is wasted in an age of accessible information and collaboration. 

Schools in the 21st century are quickly discovering the necessity of adjusting their teaching methods for an era that makes very different demands of the individual than the previous one.

According to Paul Curtis, chief academic officer for the New Technology Foundation, what’s needed is ‘a new type of instruction that better reflects the goals we want each student to achieve, demonstrate and document’. Curtis suggests that the goal needs to move from the approach of ‘students learning from the teacher in lecture mode’ to students ‘teaching themselves with the teacher’s guidance’.[1]

The Flipped Classroom Approach

One model that has gained significant attention and traction in recent years is the ‘flipped classroom approach’. The flipped classroom is essentially a reversal of the traditional teaching approach. In this new approach, students gain first exposure to new material outside the class environment through specified reading, lecture videos or online content from sources such as the Khan Academy. Class time is then used to do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge through strategies such as problem solving, discussion or debates.[2]

“What this enables is the kind of autonomy, collaboration and initiative that the modern world requires of workers.”

What this enables is the kind of autonomy, collaboration and initiative that the modern world requires of workers. Where the skill of memorisation has been made redundant, the ability to think critically and solve complex problems that go beyond the abilities of current AI are new necessities in our age.

Part of facilitating new approaches to teaching is designing classrooms that reflect these modern goals and facilitate these new functions.  After all, it’s hard to inspire educators to model and foster 21st century competencies if they are operating in outdated 20th century classrooms.[3]

Aesthetics is Vital, Buildings Need to Change

Andrew Bunting, director of architectural firm Architectus, is concerned that school buildings could fail our students and society if they cannot be adapted to suit the new learning styles of emerging generations.[4]

A recent large-scale study of fifth-grade students in over 700 science classrooms found that 91 per cent of their time was spent listening to the teacher. Three-quarters of classrooms were described as dull, bleak places with very little emphasis on reasoning or problem- solving skills.[5]

While this reference to classroom aesthetics may seem superficial or irrelevant, Erica McWilliam argues that nothing could be further from the truth. ‘When young people enter a space of learning they receive a strong message about what their experience of learning is likely to be. If the messages they receive tell them that ‘good things happen here’, that ‘people like me seem to enjoy being here’ or that ‘there is something special going on here’, then they are much more likely to engage with the experiences that the environment affords. It is a sad comment on the low priority given to education that so few educational buildings and resources give positive messages about learning.’[6]

Sign 'Love to Learn'

Classrooms Now ‘Studios’

Recent years have seen some fantastic examples of innovative classroom design emerge.[7] One particular case included Columbus Signature Academy, a school in which the classroom layout and footprint is especially innovative. Each learning space is sized for a double group of students in interdisciplinary classes taught by a two-teacher team in a double-block period. The classrooms do not have walls in the traditional sense, but rather feature glass panes separating classrooms from corridors and breakout spaces. Even the word ‘classroom’ is avoided at Columbus, with learning spaces referred to as ‘studios’.

Some schools are moving beyond traditional building styles themselves. One school in Reading has recently gained approval to build an outdoor, eco-friendly classroom, with the goal of providing students an alternative learning space, surrounded by nature. The design will take on a circular design inspired by the Iron Age, and aims to maximise its sustainability by reusing materials and energy.[8]

‘Maths Park’ to Help Dispel Anxiety

A similar emphasis on the outdoors can be found in Odisha, India, where schoolteacher Subash Chandra Sahu has designed a ‘maths park’ in order to respond to the widespread anxiety felt by students surrounding their ability to do maths. Rocks, benches, trees and walls within this park exhibit some kind of mathematical concept – geometry, mathematical symbols and explanations of various theories. Students from schools around the area visit and find an interactive ad engaging method for learning maths.[9]

While re-thinking and re-designing learning spaces can be enormously expensive, it’s important than schools and school leaders have it on their radar. We simply cannot expect educators and students to be future-focused if our classrooms are stuck in the past.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that ‘Learning is an engagement of the mind that changes the mind.’[10] While good education has always changed the minds of those being educated, the years ahead will require teachers to not simply deliver content but to draw out and foster the capabilities required to flourish in a time of rapid change.

[1] Bellanca, J. & Brandt, R. 2010, 21st Century Skills, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, p. 120.

[2] Doucet, A. et al. 2018, Teaching In The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Routledge, New York, p. 190.

[3] Bellanca, J. 2015, Deeper Learning – Beyond 21 st Century Skills, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, p. 142.

[4] McCrindle, M. 2009. The ABC of XYZ, UNSW Press, Sydney, p. 119.

[5] Bellanca, J & Brandt, R. 2010, 21 st Century Skills, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, pp. 154, 155.

[6] McWilliam, E. 2008, The Creative Workforce, UNSW Press, Sydney, p. 155.

[7] Bellanca, J & Brandt, R. 2010, 21 st Century Skills, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, p. 129.

[8] Roberts, H 2022, ‘Reading school raises over £135k to build eco-friendly therapy classroom inspired by Iron Age huts’, BerkshireLive, 25 April.

[9] Chaudhary, S 2022, ‘First-Of-Its-Kind: Odisha Teacher Forms ‘Maths Park’ To Curb Mathematical Anxiety Among Children’, The Logical Indian, 25 April.

[10] Jacobs, H. 2010, Curriculum 21, ACSD, Alexandria, p. 224.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by M. Monk on Unsplash  

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