Monday, April 15, 2013

4 Principles for Designing 21st Century Learning Spaces

“School buildings must change because instruction must change. We need creative new designs that will support 21st century learning.” Frank S. Kelly, Ted McCain, and Ian Jukes, Teaching the Digital Generation: No More Cookie-Cutter High Schools
A great deal of the reform talk that we engage in focuses on changing how teaching and learning should change to better fit the needs of 21st century learners, but how much of that talk focuses on how we can better redesign our schools so that they better facilitate 21st century learning? Kelly, McCain, and Jukes point out one really sad fact about school construction in the 21st century:
“We are currently spending millions of dollars building new high schools that will last 40 years or more that are designed on ideas that date back to the early 1900s.”
In other words, the high schools we currently build are monuments to obsolescence, and instead of asking ourselves the critical questions about what should a high school in the 21st century should look like, we just keep building them the same way we always have. Then, we shake our heads with wonder when we can’t reform the kinds of teaching and learning that occurs in those schools. As Kelly, McCain, and Jukes so aptly point out, “We are victims of TTWWADI, or That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

What are some principles to guide us in designing 21st century learning spaces? Borrowing from Kelly, McCain, and Jukes, here’s some to consider.
  • Instruction should drive construction. Instead of automatically assuming we need classrooms separated into subject-area departments, perhaps we need to ask what kinds of instruction and learning will be happening in those spaces. Too often, the people designing our schools are totally disconnected from those designing 21st century instructional and learning models. We need to design learning spaces that facilitate 21st century learning, not try to fit 21st century learning into 20th century Industrial Age learning spaces.
  • Question everything. No preconceived notions about instruction and learning spaces are sacred. For example, do we have to have classrooms that place teachers front and center? Does learning have to even take place in classrooms? Do these learning places have to have the capacity to hold 25-30 students? Can they be larger or smaller, or do we need both? Does learning have to fall within a 9-month school calendar and during a 4-period, block-scheduled school day? In designing true 21st century learning spaces, we must question all of our preconceived notions about what these spaces should look like and how they are organized.
  • Design learning spaces that capitalize on technology. Instead of fitting technology into existing classroom and school designs, how can we design classrooms and schools that capitalize on technology’s strengths? In other words, let's fit our schools to the technologies. For example, how does the potential for global connections and collaboration fit into high school design? Maybe we need a conference room with global video-conferencing capabilities. Designing learning spaces that fit the technologies means rethinking those spaces to capitalize on technology.
  • Think about designing a school to fit the needs of 21st century learners rather than fitting 21st century learners into existing school designs. We know a great deal about how this digital generation learns and wants to learn, so why not incorporate those into our school designs? Don’t build lecture halls or classrooms with row after row of desks. Instead, build both places where students can engage in collaborative projects and places where they can explore and learn individually. Learning spaces should be designed to fit the needs of today's digital learners.
As Kelly, McCain and Jukes, point out, “What is currently lacking from the school design process is a way to set aside old assumptions about teaching and learning in order to allow people to develop new visions of the future.” School leaders are still designing and building schools not fundamentally different from schools designed and built in the Industrial Age; yet, we expect students to engage in Information Age activities. If we truly want instruction to change, we need schools and learning places designed for 21st century learning.


  1. I totally agree about school construction. I would love to see an architectural plan. Do you know of any?

  2. I haven't seen specific blueprints, but Kelly, McCain, and Jukes' book I quote above, Teaching the Digital Generation, has some interesting diagrams of different school models.