Transforming Classrooms and Schools for 21st Century Learners by Design

By Bob Pearlman

December 1, 2014, Volume 1, Issue 9, Number 16

[Originally published by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, December 01, 2014 at http://www.p21.org/news-events/p21blog/1551-pearlman-transforming-classrooms-and-schools-for-schools-for-21st-century-learners-by-design]

Driving Question: How can we design new learning environments that support 21st century learners?

“We Make Makers” says the 18,000 student Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) in Central Virginia. ACPS wants teachers who will “join the most innovative engineering and cross-curricular program in the nation’s public schools” and asks “Will you be part of the transformational education happening in Albemarle County, Virginia?”

Maker Movement Reinvents Education (Newsweek, September 8, 2014) quotes ACPS Superintendent Pam Moran: “The superintendent … “says many of her students are beginning to “see themselves as designers, makers.” She says they’re now “constantly looking at the world in terms of problems that they can solve.” …Moran says her district’s goal is to create experiences for its students that “make learning so powerful and memorable” that they’ll seek out those types of experiences post-graduation.”

Across the Country.

Across the country, public district, charter, and independent schools are transforming classrooms and libraries into innovation labs, makerspaces, and learning commons.

In the past few years Shattuck-St. Mary’s School (MN) opened the weCREATE Center. The Ross School (NY) and the Nueva School (CA) opened Innovation Labs. Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (GA) launched the I. Design Lab.

Newton Public Schools ( MA) and Da Vinci High School (CA) launched Innovation Labs, MC² STEM High School (OH) opened its FABLAB, Gunn High School’s (CA) Library launched The Idea Lab, and Albemarle County’s Monticello High School transformed its library into a Learning Commons.

Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) will open its first i.d.Lab in Spring 2015 for students to “Imagine, Invent, and Innovate”. The school plans i.d. Lab spaces across the campus in classrooms and even in dormitories in the next few years.

Design Thinking In Action

Many of these new learning environments draw inspiration from Design Thinking leaders like Harvard’s Project Zero, the Stanford d. school, and the Maker Movement. In 21st century schools, students become makers and learners, teachers become facilitators and activators, and classrooms become learning studios and learning commons.

Schools supporting 21st century learners realize that new pedagogies — project-based learning and active student use of technology and making tools – are what enables and activates these learners. Existing classrooms inhibit “makers” from “making” and learners from collaborating. New learning environments linking the new pedagogies and space are needed to support 21st century learners.

Designing 21st century schools and new learning environments starts with asking “What knowledge and skills do students need for the 21st century?” But real design needs to go much further and address the following questions as well:

  • What pedagogy, curricula, activities, and experiences foster 21st century learning?
  • What assessments for learning, both school-based and national, foster student learning of the outcomes, student engagement, and self-direction?
  • How can technology support the pedagogy, curricula, and assessments of a 21st century collaborative learning environment?
  • And lastly, what physical learning environments (classroom, school, and real world) foster 21st century student learning?

Knowledge & Skills -> Pedagogy & Curricula -> Assessments -> Technology -> Learning Environments

The new book by Prakash Nair, Blueprint for Tomorrow: Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning, (Harvard Education Press, 2014), addresses all these issues. Nair advocates for aligning the design of places in which we teach and learn with these 21st Century learning goals and provides a plethora of ideas for adapting or redesigning school spaces to support student-centered learning.

New Design Modes

Today we see two ways that 21st century schools are transforming classrooms and libraries into learning studios and learning commons:

Mode 1: One or more Innovation Labs or special learning spaces across the campus

Through its Design 2015 Request for Proposals (RFP) Albemarle County Public Schools invites project teams from its 3 high schools, 5 middle schools, and 16 elementary schools to propose new learning environments for student makers “grounded in interdisciplinary learning.” The RFP asks school-site teacher and administrator teams to “create learning spaces that inspire, encourage and compel students to become designers, developers, producers and creators who participate in the learning process in ways that ensure the engagement of higher-order thinking.” Grant categories include: 1. Single classroom impact; 2. School and organizational impact; 3. Division and organizational impact. Choate Rosemary Hall’s plan to spread i.d. Lab spaces across the campus in classrooms and even in dormitories exemplifies this strategy.

At Innovation labs, Makerspaces, and Learning Commons, I profile some 20 innovative schools that are pioneering with these innovative spaces.

Wooranna Park Primary School in Melbourne, Australia, takes a different approach in developing new learning environments. The school is a pioneer innovator in creating Stimulating Learning Platforms (SLPs) for children, structures that establish a context for learning while, says principal Ray Trotter, ” using young children’s imagination to create life-like experiences. The learning involved is highly experiential and interdisciplinary and often involves students from other year levels.”

The school first developed the “Dragon Boat” for its Year 2 Learning Unit and then the “Spaceship” for its Year 3 Learning Unit (see the video: Channel Seven news report (December 23, 2011) of the Dragon Boat). In 2013-2014 it launched the Enigma Portal, based on the ideas of David Thornburg.

Mode 2: The Transformed 21st Century School

Five schools in the United States and the United Kingdom exemplify the best of the new learning environments across the whole school or campus. These schools are profiled in my 2010 chapter Designing New Learning Environments to Support 21st Century Skills (PDF, downloadable), in the book, 21st Century Skills:Rethinking How Students Learn, (edited by James A. Bellanca and Ron Brandt, Solution Tree, 2010). Each school is original in its design and features:

• Columbus Signature Academy, Columbus, Indiana – features double-sized integrated learning studios, presentation room, multipurpose common areas, breakout areas, and specialty labs

• New Tech High @ Coppell, Coppell, Texas – features double-sized dual subject matter learning environments, large multigroup collaboration zones, project planning rooms, and an open-access digital media library

• The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, Providence, Rhode Island – features advisory and project rooms, common areas, and fabrication labs.

• High Tech High, San Diego, California – features flexible classrooms clustered around a common area studio, small and large conference rooms, and specialty labs for biotech, engineering, art, music, and digital arts

• New Line Learning Academy, South Maidstone Federation, Maidstone, Kent, England – features quadruple size Learning Plazas, “watering holes” and “caves” for small group collaboration and individual work, specialty labs, and mobile-lecture-style amphitheater seating for use in the Learning Plazas.

Community Collaboration

When educators and their local communities collaborate to envision their next generation school they often develop whole school transformations such as these. This past summer, UK-based education visionary Stephen Heppell led a terrific communitywide consultation for the Lindfield School of the Future (New South Wales, Australia). In October the Albemarle County School Board began work sessions on the High School of the Future.

These classroom and library transformations are not just happening in K-12. Higher Education is also piloting new learning environments in campuses across the country (see SCALE-UP: Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies).

bob pearlman


Bob Pearlman is a 21st Century School and District Consultant and Senior Education Consultant to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and to Fielding Nair International, Architects and Change Agents for Education Design. Pearlman was formerly Director of Strategic Planning for the New Technology Foundation (now the New Tech Network), President of the Autodesk Foundation, Coordinator of Education Reform Initiatives for the Boston Teachers Union, and a high school teacher for 27 years. Learn more about Bob’s work at http://www.bobpearlman.org and @bobpearlman.

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