HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Remove this Word from Your Vocabulary! 21st Century Learning Needs 21st Century Learning Spaces

by Prakash Nair and Catherine Roberts-Martin Issue: Rising Ed Trends

An international authority in school design, himself a day school parent, explains the philosophy of contemporary educational spaces and illustrates steps schools can take to expand and inspire learning.

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Most every time we read any education article or news column online these days, a particular word pops out that makes us cringe. It’s an innocent looking word, not obscene or controversial, and most people wouldn’t even blink to see it in print or hear it spoken. Yet to us it’s a word that’s holding this country back from achieving our educational goals in the 21st century, a word first used around 1811 and reflecting the education of that time. So what is this terrible word?


“Classroom” is used routinely as a metaphor not just for schools, but also for education in the broadest terms. However it shouldn’t, it must not anymore, or our students won’t be able to compete in this current and future world of rapid, endless change. It’s a word that’s simply too limiting when technology can immediately expand a student’s mind and experiences beyond a room with four walls.

Here’s an enlightening experiment: fire up your web browser if you aren’t reading this online, and Google the word “classroom.” Now, look at the images that come up on that first page. What do you see? Whether the image is from today or from the historical society, there are certain shared characteristics in it: uniform desks in rows, teacher at the front, students either sitting there or raising their hands. Now, Google the words “Google office” and compare these images to those of the classroom. If you have a kid handy, ask them where they’d rather be.

Our firm’s work planning and designing schools around the world provides us with a vast experience of 21st century learning best practices. This work is “cutting-edge,” but only because most people are not doing it. In the world of education, even safe, well established ideas backed by years of research are considered “experiments” simply because they are not familiar. Compare that to the world outside school where without risk-taking, companies today will never outperform the ones willing to push the boundaries of the possible. And these new best practices in all their variety have one thing in common: the need for new kinds of spaces to support them. The offices of innovative companies like Google, Apple and Skype should be the role models for our schools, not a space derived from a word put into use in the early 19th century.

Education Design Principles for Today and Tomorrow

Environmental scientists have published dozens of studies that show a close correlation between human productivity and space design. This research clearly demonstrates that students and teachers do better when they have variety, flexibility and comfort in their environment—the very qualities that classrooms lack. Those Google images of classrooms illustrate the problem because they show one basic learning modality, teacher lecture, with all knowledge passing through one source in one way. There’s little variety, flexibility or comfort visible, and each student is expected to learn the same thing in the same way. While it’s true that technology is becoming integrated into learning today, we can tell you that each school we visit has a different level of participation, and in very few places can students comfortably access smartphones, tablets or a laptop for learning, so they work on the floor in corridors. But before we get to the spaces they need, let’s define some basic principles for 21st century learning.

Our firm specializes in change agency, and one of the first steps we take with school clients is to ask them to list some universal design principles that most appropriately represent their own ethos and aspirations. Here are some that tend to rise to the top when schools define 21st century learning: (1) personalized; (2) safe and secure; (3) inquiry-based; (4) student-directed; (5) collaborative; (6) interdisciplinary; (7) rigorous and hands-on; (8) embodying a culture of excellence and high expectations; (9) environmentally conscious; (10) offering strong connections to the local community and business; (11) globally networked; and (12) setting the stage for lifelong learning.

Designing a school today also means designing it for tomorrow, and the key to that is agility, the ability of a space to transition quickly and easily between different modes of learning. Whether the spaces lie within a school or some other facility that students access during the day, we know that teachers may need to work in teams, parents and community volunteers who come in to help must be accommodated, businesses may have the resources to offer off-site training and community organizations could permit the use of their recreational, cultural and sporting facilities. Very few of these kinds of spaces that make teaching and learning better and richer look like a traditional classroom.

A school community might even conclude that it makes no sense to break down the school day into fixed “periods,” and that state standards can be better met via interdisciplinary and real-world projects, not teaching to the test. So how can we build flexible options into new school spaces? How can we even refurbish current spaces cost effectively? And what do these spaces look like?

Picturing 21st Century Learning Spaces

The following is a comprehensive, summer-fix case study that illustrates the way a traditional classroom-centric school can evolve into a 21st century “learning community” (explained below), and the benefits to learning that can arise from a low-budget, cost-effective renovation.

Hillel Academy is a private Jewish community day school in the Tampa Bay area, accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools, and a RAVSAK member. By doing a sequence of renovations, the school was able to transition to 21st century learning spaces incrementally, leading to great success. The first project involved simply opening up the early learning center to the outdoors. The second project was a rehab of the elementary school building, which opened up a traditional row of classrooms along a central corridor and turned it into a Learning community with a large Learning Commons. The third project was a redesign of the middle school, but this case study focuses on the elementary school.

Better Words Define New Ways of Learning

Many new words that can replace “classroom” as the metaphor for education today: learning community, mercaz or school commons, outdoor learning spaces. What they all have in common is that they expand outside of four walls, one teacher, twenty students. This expansion should continue well beyond school grounds to involve parents, community members, even the world at large to become a part of school life.

From a design standpoint, the key to change is to move away from a classroom-based school to a learning community-based school. A “learning community” looks beyond individual classrooms and classroom pairs; it defines a larger group of up to 150 students and around 6 to 8 teachers as an operational unit where “everyone knows your name.” They become an integrated community, in contrast to the classroom model with discrete groups of 25 students and separate teachers. A grouping of this size immediately breaks down the anonymity of large, impersonal and institutional schools. As with Hillel Academy, a learning community can be easily created within one wing of a traditional school building, and a whole school can be broken down into a series of learning communities.

A string of classrooms provides no learning advantage to individual students beyond what they would get from a single classroom. However, when the space occupied by the same group of classrooms along with the hallway that serves them is transformed into a learning community, the opportunities to personalize learning and increase the number of teaching and learning activities increases dramatically, as the Hillel Academy case study demonstrates.

School spaces should respond to current best practices, not those of the past. Students must be prepared to be lifelong learners, part of the global community and contributors solving the complex problems we face now and in the future. The school building is the most visible metaphor for what we think education itself should be.

One of the parents at Hillel noted a change in her son, who was an indifferent student who couldn’t wait to leave school at the end of the day, before a Learning community replaced his classroom. His mom came to pick him up at his renovated school, but he wasn’t waiting eagerly by the entrance, and she was surprised that she had to go look for him. After a short search, she found her son in a nook in the colorful, welcoming mercaz, sprawled on a soft cushion next to some of his buddies. He wasn’t ready to leave yet.

He was too busy reading.

Prakash Nair is the president of Fielding Nair International, an architecture and education firm that specializes in the design of innovative schools; he is a futurist, a visionary planner, architect and one of the world’s leading change agents in education and school design. prakash@fieldingnair.com

Catherine Roberts-Martin is FNI’s media coordinator and chief editor of DesignShare.com, one of the world’s largest forums for innovative school design. cathy@fieldingnair.com

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