Learning and Design: “The classroom is obsolete”

The classroom is obsolete: it’s time for something new – said Prakash Nair in Education Week. last July. And that’s not just his opinion he says.  “It’s established science.”

The classroom is a relic, left over from the Industrial Revolution, which required a large workforce with very basic skills. …As the primary place for student learning, the classroom does not withstand the scrutiny of scientific research. Each student “constructs” knowledge based on his or her own past experiences. Because of this, the research demands a personalized education model to maximize individual student achievement. Classrooms, on the other hand, are based on the erroneous assumption that efficient delivery of content is the same as effective learning.

Environmental scientists have published dozens of studies that show a close correlation between human productivity and space design. This research clearly demonstrates that students and teachers do better when they have variety, flexibility, and comfort in their environment—the very qualities that classrooms lack.

MSLC Floor Plan

Middle School Learning Community

As most people around PDS now know we are about to take a strip of rather gloomy but good-sized classrooms, capture  a sun-filled corridor and extend the space into the outdoors as part of a redesigned learning community for grades 6 through 8.

Prakash Nair is a founder of Fielding Nair International, an award winning school design company.  Last year FNI consultants worked with trustees,, faculty and administration to help design this new space. You can see some of the preliminary drawings and ideas here.

Whenever I begin describing this people usually get both excited and concerned. Excited because the project sounds wonderfully freeing, shiny and new. Worried because invariably someone has a personal memory of a failed open classroom experiment from an earlier decade.

While this project is about breaking down walls it is primarily about  creating spaces that enable and enhance rather than control and inhibit options for learning.

I’ve started a collection of photographs on Pinterest about how and where and with whom and what children at PDS learn. Yes they learn sitting at a desk in a classroom listening to a teacher but that “information delivery system” is just a small part of the picture.

This design expands the amount of available learning space by incorporating the “dead” space of the sunny corridor through creating rooms that can be opened up and from where children can spill as the learning needs dictate. (Rather in the way the Chapman Room is often used now by classes and groups.)

Our design for learning has always been a constructivist. Children start from what they know and through action, interaction and engagement  with ideas and objects they build new understandings and skills.

We need  space that allows for the kinds of work our teachers and learners already do. In the middle school children learn in large groups,

Algebra Study Group

small groups and by themselves. They learn in places that are full of buzz and humming with activity and they learn where quiet allows for contemplation and reflection. They learn at desks, on the floor, curled up, stretched out, on the move and sitting down. They learn from books, at screens,  from teachers and with each other. They use text books, modelling clay, laptops, pencils, interactive white boards, paper, paint and potting soil. They learn by listening, talking, trying, playing, moving,  tinkering, debating, struggling, performing, failing, memorizing, watching, writing, creating, rehearsing and becoming themselves

They learn science, history, language, poetry, geography, art, music, robotics, design, self expression, appreciation, ethics, empathy and all the infinite variety that goes into what it means to be human and to learn, to laugh, to live and to care. They learn to belong and to be part of a community at school and the world.

If that is what middle schoolers do, then we need the best possible spaces where it can happen. We need form to follow function and to do so in ways that stimulate the imagination, stir curiosity and allow for children to do the work they need to do.

Prakash Nair thinks effective learning environments should support an education that is:

(1) personalized;

(2) safe and secure;

(3) inquiry-based;

(4) student-directed;

(5) collaborative;

(6) interdisciplinary;

(7) rigorous and hands-on;

(8) embodying a culture of excellence and high expectations;

(9) environmentally conscious;

(10) offering strong connections to the local community and business;

(11) globally networked;

and (12) setting the stage for lifelong learning.

What do you think?

From the very start back in 1934 PDS has defined the purpose of education as more than standardized test scores. It saw then, and we see now, the need to provide a quality of learning life that will enable children to grow as educated citizens with the aptitudes, attitudes and skills to navigate a fast-changing world. Such an education is possible inside traditional classrooms. But how wonderful to imagine spaces where what we do and want to accomplish are supported rather than confined by design.

You can read the whole article – plus access all kinds of other school design resources at FNI.

And please come to the meeting on Thursday April 12th at 7pm in the Chapman Room. We want to hear your ideas and share more of ours on both the Middle School learning Community and the expansion and improvement  of the outdoor athletics fields.


  1. pam moran:

    While design think is a critical element of shifting from teaching places to learning spaces, it can also be done through simple conversation and immediate almost “trading spaces” kind of investments in changing up the space. I also think that the critical element in the shift is in supporting teachers to understand it’s not about the physical redesign, it’s about setting up entry points for different pathways to learning, a shift from simply revising 20th c models to new contemporary learning models. As we’ve begun that work across 26 schools, it’s apparent that the biggest challenge is in rethinking pedagogy as a part of the process. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Josie:

    Agreed @Pam. While changing the design matters – and we should do it when we can – it is not the most critical aspect. The biggest hurdle/ challenge is breaking out out the mental boxes within which we have operated. Rethinking pedagogy has to come first. It’s all too easy to take the best thought-out and creatively flexible space and try to turn it into what we have always known (grumbling all the while about the inconvenience.)

    One of the first questions we asked was: What kinds of learning is currently happening? And how does the current space support, inhibit, preclude what you are doing and would like to do? Then: What are the learning commitments? What are the crucial elements about learning that you are committed to? What kinds of learning and operating should any space make possible and support?

    What we found was that teachers were finding all kinds of ways to get around and through the walls to do the work with kids that they wanted to do.

    Without a doubt it is the mindset that matters most and the mental grip of what we have always done can be powerful and enduring.

    Sounds like great work that’s happening in your schools.

    And now: For some errant and irrelevant reason my mind has gone to that well-known early 20th century objection to proving decent plumbing in British homes: “If you put in a bathtub they will only keep coal in it.”

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