This article was originally published by the National Education Association on February 21, 2017.
A new generation of school buildings is being designed to accommodate a new generation of students. Working with educators, many of today’s architects and interior designers are replacing last century’s staid school buildings and box-like classrooms with architecturally bold designs that are affordable, aesthetic, and energy-efficient.
Gone for good in many districts are rigid rows of heavy steel-framed desks with students facing a lecturer at the front of a neutral-colored classroom white chalk in hand.
“My classroom doesn’t have a front,” says Lauren Rudman, a teacher at Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Va. “It’s flexible.”
Increasingly, new school interiors include seminar-style rooms with round tables, dry erase whiteboards in hallways, Scrabble and LEGO walls. To create extra space when needed for large internal and external group meetings, new schools usually contain retractable garage doors, foldable partitions, and stackable furniture.
Rudman’s fourth-graders are based in a studio classroom with a glass wall on the corridor intentionally placed across a technology commons area. Within a normal 45-minute class period, Rudman can find herself monitoring three sets of students with some sitting on the window box against the glass wall or on a stool in the commons area while others study at their tables.
“I can interact with one group of students at a small table in my classroom and still keep an eye on students on the other side of the glass,” she says.
Most of Discovery’s classrooms feature flexible furniture including height-adjustable tables, upholstered chairs, beanbags, and carpeted reading steps that provide students with flexibility.
“An appropriate amount of visual openness in a school promotes a culture of collaboration,” says Wyck Knox, lead architect on Discovery’s design team. “Everyone learns in unique ways, in their own preferred environment.”
Knox says there is no wrong way or place to learn although many of today’s architects are challenging the traditional definition of a learning space as defined by four walls.
“Each learning space should be allowed the opportunity to be something greater than its box,” he says. “Creativity is showcased in spaces that are joyful, bright, and honor the learner and educator.”