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What Does a Modern Classroom Look Like?

Posted by: Frank Sherman

Early in 2016, a client asked us “What does a 21st century classroom look like?” It’s a question we hear more and more. As experienced planners and designers of school facilities our clients look to us for guidance on a myriad of issues ranging from building operations and maintenance, to security, to planning and design. But what a modern classroom looks like is an intriguing question.

Education has changed a lot since the 1950s. Surprisingly, the classroom has not. Look in the door of most classrooms and you still see students sitting at individual desks facing the same direction with a teacher at the front of the classroom providing the same instruction to all students. This is an enduring paradigm that many educators and administrators are reluctant to let go of. Even more confounding are parents’ attitudes towards the traditional classroom (if it was good enough for us…) which seem to contradict the desire for their children to be educated for success in 21st century society. Some things change while others don’t; the classroom is a stubborn holdover of an earlier time.

Most people see the classroom as the physical space represented by what you view when you look in the door. Architects tend to define the classroom in these terms as well; a physical space designed and fitted out to efficiently hold a certain number of occupants in which certain activities take place regularly over the course of the day. There is a simplicity to this view that reduces the complexity of the space down to a neat module that can be efficiently replicated; much the same way that traditional educational can be efficiently replicated. This in a nutshell is what our 1950s educational system was based on.

Education is not like that anymore. Education is now messy, individualized, dynamic and oftentimes chaotic. Education today is more experiential and less regimented. What students learn and how they learn have changed in response to advances in science and technology, culture and environment; all things that shape workplace and society. Education today must prepare students for a fundamentally different world than that of past generations. Teaching is not so simple anymore.

Ask an educator what a modern classroom looks like and they do not focus on the space, they focus on what takes place. Where takes a backseat to what and how they are teaching. Learning happens everywhere. Teachers and textbooks are no longer the sole source of information. Information comes from multiple sources through multiple channels. Good teachers today don’t just deliver information; they manage the torrent of information deluging students 24/7. Good teachers are teaching students the skills to critically process all this information swirling around them, which is why the modern classroom feels so active and dynamic – life is dynamic and the workplace is dynamic as well.

How educators teach is transforming based on better understanding of how students learn (multi-modal) and what students need to learn for future success (skills such as critical thinking, communications, collaboration, and creativity). This is not your parent’s classroom anymore. The best educators are facilitating learning, not teaching. The best classrooms support facilitated learning which does not take place in neat rows.

What does this mean for classroom design? It means that neat, efficient, room modules are no longer the best spaces for learning that is dynamic, individualized and active. The modern classroom wants to be loose-fit, flexible and adaptive; much like the learning that will take place there. These spaces need to be supportive programmatically and environmentally because we now have a much better understanding of how the environment (light, air, acoustics, thermal comfort and technology) supports learning outcomes. What we have come to learn is that like students themselves, a single approach does not fit all.

Where do we start when thinking about the modern classroom? We start by asking questions about our clients’ educational approach and how they teach. Mostly we listen. We use our best skills to think critically and creatively about what our clients need and desire. Our role is to provide a physical framework for the “what” and “how”. If we do our job well, the “where” supports the desired educational outcome.

Make no bones about it, this is not easy. Like today’s teachers we serve as facilitators and a resource to help educators and administrators make good critical decisions about their schools. This invariably is a balancing act between existing assets, constrained budgets, traditional mindsets, and progressive goals. What does 21st century education look like? It’s a messy, complicated process. It still raises more questions than answers. The point though is to keep asking and learning from what we discover. 

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