Redesigning Learning Spaces for Twenty-First Century Students


It’s the year 2015, so why are we still talking about innovating for the twenty-first century? I mean, it’s been fifteen years already. Maybe it’s because we are still teaching in rooms built for the industrial model approach to education. Desks are still mostly in rows. The teacher mostly talks for way too long and usually from the front of the room. Students spend too much time listening or pretending to listen before they muddle through a worksheet. I am not saying I am above this because I am not. My classroom often looks just as I describe here. In fact, I still have student desks where the chair connects to the table. The desks actually trap students in as if they are on a really boring roller coaster ride that won’t let them off.  My student desks also have bolts in the back which regularly rip chunks of hair off of girls’ heads. I am not kidding.

What’s my point? I want to change. I think we all need to consider how the physical design of our classrooms must change in order to promote active learning. I hesitate to use that term because it is one of the educator-only phrases that is both overused and underutilized. Here’s what I mean by active learning: Students are involved with authentic learning experiences or projects that support the skills and knowledge they will need for real life, not for standardized tests. Students are collaborating when it helps and working independently when they need to. There is freedom of movement. Supplies are readily available—all classrooms can be makerspaces—and for that students need to have access to materials. Finally, the teacher is not always in the front of the room. Sometimes, the class meets as a whole group for the teacher to give directions or go over essential skills. For the majority of class time, the teacher is circulating, meeting with individuals and small groups, offering advice and encouragement when necessary.

I am a long way away from that idealized description, but I truly believe I need to head in that direction if I want my teaching to stay relevant to today’s students.

I just finished writing a short discussion post about the redesigned learning spaces trend as part of my teacher librarian program at San Jose State.  Our professor had us read The Horizon Report 2015This is an amazing resource which outlines long term and short term trends in educational technology. I highly recommend this report for anyone who is interested in how technology is changing the face of education today.  Of course, one current trend is the one I’m talking about here: the redesign of classroom spaces in order to promote active learning and problem solving. There is also a section on makerspaces, which simply means providing the tools and space students need in order to create. Of course, my dream classroom will also hold a makerspace, but…Where? How? With what money? Those questions still need to be solved, but that doesn’t make the goal any less desirable.

For now, I will work with space I have but with an eye for the future.

Changes I’ve Already Made

  1. No more teacher desk.  I put the computer on my overhead cart so I can stand when I am projecting something for the class to see. I also have a small flat table for the document camera. All of my teacher supplies are in file cabinets.
  2. No more paper files. At the end of last year, I tossed all of my paper files. What a relief! Now I only keep paper copies of student projects. This gives me more space in my classroom because the one file cabinet I kept holds supplies like whiteboard pens and staples.
  3. No more standard rows of desks: My room is arranged in a modified group format. The student desks (see above rant) are not ideal for groups because the chairs are attached to the desktop, but I still place them side by side to facilitate partner work. The students don’t love being crowded together in that way, but they also get used to it fairly quickly. The partners are arranged in pods of four, and I’ve trained them to move into groups, facing each other, when they need to. Not an ideal solution but it works within the constraints of my current room. Also, it is important to note that putting the desks in pods of four makes it much easier for the teacher to circulate. When the desks are in rows, student backpacks block the aisle, making it impossible to get anywhere quickly.
  4. No more classroom walls. Well, not really, but I can occasionally send small groups of students to work in the hallway in front of my room. My neighbor teacher and I have an agreement that our students may do this as long as they are working and not disturbing the other class. When you have thirty-six students in a small classroom, this option is invaluable. Otherwise the noise level, even when students are trying to use “inside voices,” makes it really hard for group members to hear each other.

Short Term Goals

  1. Create a lounge-style space in one corner. For this I need a small carpet and a couple of comfy chairs or beanbags. I imagine this being a space for students to read or write quietly.
  2. Find a short wooden stool for use in teacher-student conferences In the Middle author Nancie Atwell describes how she uses a short stool to perch on next to student desks, particularly for writing conferences. This is helpful so that the teacher and student can maintain a whispered conversation without disturbing others. Also, it will save time because I won’t have to ask students to walk up to my desk while I wait.
  3. Identify procedures and strategies for use of students’ personal devices. Most, but not all, of my students have smart phones with them on a daily basis. Instead of waiting for the school to implement a one-to-one plan for student technology, I want to start using the technology students already have. Right now, most students are not used to using their phone for academic purposes and this seems like a huge waste.

Long Term Goals

  1. New Furniture. Students need desks that promote collaboration and independent study. For a writing class, this means tables big enough to hold writing materials and separate chairs that can be moved when it is time to work in groups. For now, I am imagining two-person tables with chairs and then training students how to move into groups of four.
  2. Access to Technology. We are at the point where all students need daily access to Internet-connected devices. It is not enough for the teacher to checkout the iPad cart every other week or so. If I want my students to fully realize the power of what it means to be a digital writer and digital creator, they need to have the ease of use which comes from daily experience.
  3. Project-Based Learning. One of my goals is to fully implement a project-based approach to English language arts. I am feeling inspired by educator Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s blog ( and her work on Edutopia about Project-Based Learning. Also, reading Nancie Atwell’s third edition of In the Middle made me think about how her writer’s workshop approach is a form of project-based learning in that students are constantly working on their own writing, not the standard teacher-assigned writing, but writing based off of their own interests and creative impulses. And the class is paced according to student needs instead of a teacher-mandated timetable.

Will any of this ever happen? It better. We simply can’t keep teaching the old way because the world is changing too quickly. For now, I’ll just start with one small step at a time.

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