21st century classroom

New and Improved

The movement to change education is here. Everything from Smart Boards to Techbooks are taking over the traditional classroom.

But chairs? And desks? Windows? Those are changing too?

That’s right.

Technology may be taking over. Yet, the other nuances that often go unnoticed are quickly becoming the center of attention.

Here is where we step into 21st Century Classroom Design.

We are stepping away from teacher-centered classrooms and moving toward student-directed learning. This requires us to make a space that is amicable to student interaction and Project Based Learning.

Over the next few chapters we will cover essential concepts in 21st Century Classroom Design:

  • What makes a 21st Century Learning Space?
  • Why does it directly influence how the brain learns?
  • How can we can redesign our classrooms on a budget?

Step Into the 21st Century Classroom

Imagine for a moment walking through the door of your new classroom.

The first thing you notice is the bright sunlight streaming in from the extra large windows surrounding the perimeter. You almost wonder if the entire room is made of glass.

collaborative learningTo the right is the teacher’s lift desk, which lifts and lowers to easily change from a sitting to standing position. The students’ wing desks are in the shape of a wing to accommodate single student or multi-student use. These are bunched into collaborative group workspaces throughout the classroom. The lime green student chairs sport flexible backs and roll around on casters.

Two Smart Boards are placed strategically around the classroom. A mobile storage unit (with the back doubling as a pegboard of ideas) houses iPads and totes. This keeps the classroom free of clutter and assures perfect mobility.

All four corners of the classroom act as independent work stations, equipped with bookshelves and a laptop for independent study. There is one long Makerspace complete with a 3D printer that occupies the farthest wall.

Rightfully so, the 21st century classroom looks rather different than the classroom you grew up in. In fact, the 21st century school looks much different in general. As technology evolves and our understanding of how we learn improves with each new study, our students deserve to have education evolve along with it.

Characteristics of the New Learning Space

“Balanced with high content knowledge, the learning environment is one of the most important determinants of high quality teaching-learning exchanges.” (Mind Brain and Education Science 220).

A 21st century learning space is characterized by the smart use of space, integration of technology, collaborative stations, and student mobility.

  • Smart Use of Space:
    • Spaces are clean and inviting.
    • Colors are bright.
    • Natural sunlight is a key feature.
  • Integration of Technology:
    • Laptops/iPads allow for independent research.
    • Smart Boards provide an easy exchange of information.
  • Collaborative Stations:
    • Makerspaces encourage active Project Based Learning.
    • Desk grouping allows for social learning.
  • Student Mobility:
    • Mobile desks and chairs encourage students to design their own workspace.
    • Storage cabinets allow for free space to move around.

A study completed in 2015, The Impact of Classroom Design on Pupils’ Learning, shows that the physical school environment has a great impact on student learning. Indeed, school design had a 16% overall impact on the learning rate of 3,766 students in the study.

Why is this?

Social & Active Learners

We know from research that people are social learners. 21st century curricula are fast embracing that notion. We see this as current educational leaders advocate for problem-based learningcooperative learning, and reciprocal (peer) teaching.

makerspaceWe also know that learning is a constructivist process. Learning is an active exercise, where students are directors of their own knowledge. They build upon past knowledge and experience. Hence, curricula that embraces small-group collaboration and project-based activities nurture our natural way of learning.

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, a leader in the field of MBE Science, describes the brain as “a social organ.” She argues that small-group learning practices acknowledge five main principles that we understand about how the brain learns best:

  1. The search for meaning happens during pattern recognition.
  2. Emotions are critical to decision-making, pattern detection, and learning.
  3. The brain remembers when facts are embedded in real world contexts.
  4. We learn through self-correction.
  5. The brain responds to challenge, but it is inhibited by threat.

Learning that is situated within a social setting allows for a comfortable exchange of ideas. This helps to relieve emotional pressure. In addition, problem-based activities and collaborative learning allow students to recognize patterns, apply knowledge to real life contexts, and learn through self-correction. It also provides a forum where students can choose to work on a part of the project that is challenging enough for them, but not threatening or overwhelming.

Furniture that accommodates social and active learning is a necessary part of the 21st century classroom. Think chairs on casters, multi-seating/semicircular seating, Makerspaces, laptops/iPads, and interactive boards.

Independent Space

It is important to keep in mind that there are aspects of learning that call for quiet and independent study, as well. There are times that call for reflection and processing of information. There are also learners who need more quiet time and space to assimilate their newly formed knowledge.

independent learningThis time and space should also be built into our curricula and our classrooms. We can make room for independent study in our classrooms by building nooks in the corners of rooms with bookshelves and laptops/iPads for independent research and reflection.

It should be a safe space where students can go at necessary times. Creating this space acknowledges the importance of emotions, which are directly involved in the learning process. It also recognizes that learning involves both conscious and unconscious processes.

As such, this space could also be a place where learners can go to “take a break” from the problem at hand. Even so, their brain continues to work unconsciously at finding a solution and assimilating their newly gained information. See the section on “Diffuse Mode Thinking” in the article “The Science of Decision Making” for more information.


In The Impact of Classroom Design on Pupils’ Learning we learn that–believe it or not–natural sunlight has the highest influence on learning, when compared to other design parameters. In addition, both the quality and quantity of electrical lighting affects student progress.

The study also found that rooms with a balance of light colors and bright colors can positively impact learning. However, the key to enriching the learning environment through color is to make sure to have the proper balance.


What does color and light have to do with the brain or the way that we learn for that matter?

Well, findings report that color affects the cortex, nervous system, and hormones. This in turn affects our level of alertness and productivity, as well as our emotional state.

Other factors such as air quality, proper temperature, and noise level also have an impact.

Design Parameters

chairjpgHow can we use our physical classroom design to make student-directed and collaborative learning accessible to our students? Especially since, as teachers, we are usually on a rather tight budget.

There are small steps that we can take that could help bring our classroom into the 21st century. That is, of course, before 21st century classroom design becomes mandatory on a local or national level.

Before we cover which steps to take, let’s review the necessary things to keep in mind during our design process.

  1. We must design a space that is friendly both to independent study and social learning modes.
  2. This space should include a good balance of bright and light colors.
  3. It would maximize natural light.
  4. Technology will be incorporated as a classroom tool.
  5. We should equip furniture for mobility.
  6. Our learning space will be organized and free from clutter.

On a Teacher’s Budget

Here are some quick tips that you can use to reinvent your students’ learning environment:

  • Students can use their own personal technology as part of their learning environment.
    • First, make sure you have the permission and support of your supervisor.
    • You can create independent work stations, where students bring their own iPads as the tool for their self-directed research.
    • Look at Thinc Academy, the school that encourages students to bring their own technology to class in support of their learning.
  • Create a Makerspace using simple materials in a matter of minutes.
    • Check out this handy guide to bringing the ideas of the Makerspace to your classroom without the need for 3D printers.
  • Make natural sunlight your morning ritual.
    • While you won’t be replacing your classroom windows any time soon, you can still make a habit of opening the blinds as soon as you come into your classroom.
    • Buy “daylight” LED’s or fluorescent lighting for floor lamps to be placed in independent work stations.
  • Open up collaboration in your classroom with these mobility tips.
    • You can use hooks like these on your wall, or even hooks attached underneath desks, to get backpacks off the floor.
    • Add casters to the bottom of chairs or, if that is too difficult, use furniture gliders for quick mobility.
    • Group desks into small groups and semicircles for collaboration.
  • Have students create a bright and light colored space.
    • Use student artwork on the walls to bring personality to the classroom.
    • Hang up white butcher paper or bright cork boards as a graffiti board. Don’t forget to give each student a different color marker to brighten up their ideas!

You should now have all the tools necessary to begin the process of bringing your classroom into the 21st century.

Happy designing!

The Science of Classroom Design


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