Evolving Classrooms for 21st Century Learning


by Eli R. Ochoa, PE, AIA

Students entering kindergarten in the fall of 2013 will become the future graduating

Class of 2026.  For these students to succeed in the coming decades, 21st century learning is essential.  They must master the skills of creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration.

Achieving a positive outcome for 21st century learning involves adapting teaching methods and designing schools for the future.  The environment in which most children learn remains the same: a typical classroom setting with tables and chairs facing a teacher.  There is a new generation of learners among us, and that typical classroom configuration no longer works.  The design of a 21st century learning environment includes, but is not limited to, open flexible spaces, single and/or group gathering locations, and plenty of natural daylighting.

Creating a comfortable environment where students feel free to foster their learning can be achieved.  We’ve all heard the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.”  In the context of school, it takes understanding, planning, and a commitment from students, parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, architects, and engineers to transform schools into 21st century learning environments.

There are certain metaphors that can help explain what a 21st century learning environment looks like.  If you walk through a shopping mall, take a look at the school-aged children actively engaged in conversation.  The mall is a place for social gathering, window shopping, eating, and retail.

The shopping mall experience is replicated in the design of 21st century schools with common areas outfitted with movable and adjustable furniture where students can interact with their peers or with teachers.  Having a one-on-one conversation with a teacher in an open setting versus a stifled classroom builds positive relationships and communication.

Learning shouldn’t be confined to a classroom; it can take place anywhere, including the halls of a school or outdoors.  A 21st century learning environment incorporates collaborative spaces for group problem solving or quiet spaces for individual reflective learning.

Look at another example – the mall’s food court, or better yet, your family’s kitchen and dining area.  These spaces offer a large, open, centralized location, much like a school’s cafetorium, for interaction.  The cafetorium in the 21st century has cyber cafes, a variety of eating options, and has multiple uses and seating arrangements that can accommodate school ceremonies or shared space for community-based programs or social settings, such as for the local Boys and Girls Club.

A change in physical environment encourages creativity and innovation.  Stepping out of the classroom into the outdoors is not only beneficial to the student, but to the teachers as well.  Teachers have new opportunities and have a chance to flex their own creative muscles in an organic and seasonal environment.

Outdoor learning spaces introduce new stimuli for students’ senses that in turn spark creativity.  Natural daylight has so many positive effects on humans.  It improves the mood, lowers fatigue, and stimulates essential biological functions in the brain that increases creativity and alertness.

The sandbox is another metaphor that can be used for the design of 21st century learning environments as well.  Children playing in a sandbox can teach us a lot about the way humans teach and learn.  In the sandbox, children can be playing in a large group or small groups of maybe two or three; children can even be found playing by themselves.  Sometimes there is one child who will demonstrate how to load sand onto a toy dump truck while one carves out a road and the others attentively watch, listen, and take turns doing it themselves.  They are allowed to be as creative as possible, while not being punished for getting dirty.  There is limitless freedom to how they interact with their surroundings.  Creative learning with flexible spaces and furniture can produce academic achievement. 

Conventional ideas about classroom design have been adapted for our new generation of learners, sometimes referred to as digital learners, and 21st century learning principles.  The future design of learning environments should inspire wonder, enable creative play, promote critical thinking, and be equipped for our technologically-advanced youth.  As we promote 21st century teaching and learning, we will continue to invest in our youth and prepare them to succeed in work and life.

For more information about 21st century school design, visit ERO Architects

on facebook.com/EROArcitects.com, or www.GoERO.com.