Modern Classrooms and Design Tools
Architecture allows you to make designs that change the world in ways we can’t possibly imagine. Even though the big decisions, the fundamental conceptual approaches, were made a century ago, architects and planners of the day continue to affect everyday learning for billions.
A detailed illustration of today’s classroom in Van Doren Black’s 1914 book, The Triangle Stores and Architectural Magazines of Modern America, illustrates the relationship between planning and design: the structures were angled to maximize flow; they were “rounded,” with large and small elements overlapping; they had squares to limit the length of interior openings; they were built to adapt to changing conditions.
Compare those with 21st century plans for the new middle school in Wyoming that render the one-room schoolhouse disappear, and with bookshelves standing tall to leave more classrooms on two sides. Instead of visualizing interior spaces as walls, we are focusing on how to get desks and tables out of the way and see interior spaces as more than visual spaces. Instead of using volume to condense the spaces in which learning takes place, we now leverage structural details to maximize each classroom space, maximizing learning across the entire room.
What different strategies guided the design of the modern classroom? And how are they relevant today?
Design decisions are informed by a variety of factors that come from experience and use. Think about the age-old question of how a garden affects plants: Plants would follow the path of least resistance, while the many species of plants at the botanical garden choose where to grow because they tend to gravitate toward many sites within a set of habitats. Today’s curriculum also takes advantage of the environment to engage, inspire, and connect students to all the different fields, which are born from previous practices. Think about the classroom interrelationships shown in the illustration. Little circles reflect the current interrelationships in the world. Go to schools in New York City and the tiny squares represent neighborhoods with diverse constituents. Geographic location, neighborhood culture, and different expectations are a part of class schedules.
The lines in the diagram reflect a different research approach. We see lines not just as tangents in a forest of information, but as the lines between large gaps of information. Between statistics and black box symbols, design concepts like “information density” seem counterintuitive, but they allow us to make the lines from small to large.
An iconic nook, called the movie room, is another trend in modern classrooms. Movie rooms were like classrooms before classrooms were rooms: theaters were rooms meant to house the big screens and great sound that we see in movies today. Today, the space is often a closed off area behind glass in which space for learning, collaboration, and personalization are prioritized. Over time, classroom models change as we learn more about how we learn.
This graphic design technique draws on a game pattern concept pioneered by architect Daniel Burnham. The move toward a more mixed-use design borrows the most important design features of his work, but reflects the unique needs of class rooms—both large and small, class sizes and classrooms that facilitate learning without ending in a learning void.
A lot has changed since 1916. New ideas, systems, and students require fresh thinking. The key to any educational innovation: don’t look back. It’s more important than ever to get an edge in the learning marketplace and work with students to innovate the new curriculum. Stay ahead of the curve: stay on schedule; stay rich.
Anya Kamenetz is Co-Founder and CEO of Teach Plus, an education technology company for which she was a 2015 Top Young Leader and Teach Plus was recently selected as one of the best 100 companies in America by Inc.