Publish at November 26 2017 Updated September 29 2022

Designing 21st Century Classrooms

How can the school modernize its classrooms so that it offers students essential skills today?

Something strange hasn't happened in school evolution. Teachers have seen their toolboxes filled with items that help convey knowledge, from fixed boards to mobile devices, a whole array has been deployed. Yet, as this post on Educavox rightly reminds us, for 800 years school architecture has had no real evolution other than the addition of desks and chairs.

How can this be explained? And in a world that is changing so much, isn't it time for a little revolution in classroom design?

Anachronistic classroom?

For despite the lack of interest in school architecture, it does have an impact. Many architects believe that the success of Scandinavian countries in education has to do with the emphasis they place on school design. As this former engineer who has taken an interest in the subject explains, architecture reflects the educational designs in place.

So narrower hallways will unconsciously lead to friction between learners. The idea of the master in front of a series of desks also has significance. He is the lighthouse that young people look to in order to get their knowledge. And so far, there was nothing wrong with this conception.


Except that if one goal of school is to prepare youth for their potential careers, the traditional model seems less and less appropriate. Because the workplace, especially in the innovative fields where startups are growing, is changing. The economy of tomorrow demands flexibility, autonomy and a strong creative spirit. Many companies are now offering open, innovation-oriented workplaces that sacrifice, in some cases, pyramidal hierarchies for models where employees have a say in the company's projects and future. This hardly fits with the school architectural approach putting the master at the center of everything.

Modernizing the school through design

A 21stcentury classroom would encourage creativity, facilitate teamwork, and be more open. Thus, the adoption of flexible seating with these multiple ways of sitting and working seems to be inevitable. Classrooms become more like a series of islands where children work on their various projects. For example, this Denver school brought in a designer to create nooks of various colors and styles of furniture that are all assigned to various tasks and subjects.

This is in line with what Mary Wade describes. A 21stcentury classroom will be divided into zones, each with its own specificity. The classroom should offer a place or places where creativity can be exercised, displayed and encouraged. A "makerspace" in a corner, a place with cushions to study comfortably, a station where technological devices that learners can use, etc. Because inevitably, this type of arrangement also requires the use of mobile machines such as tablets or laptops. Ms. Wade even suggested in her text applications that will allow young people to create, research, organize or practice in subjects.

The pedagogy that accompanies it

This necessarily requires a new pedagogical approach. As reminds us on this page explaining, among other things, the 12 rules of this type of class, this teaching method leaves more freedom to the student, who must take charge of his or her education. The teacher no longer does all the work by dictating knowledge; he or she is a companion, a guide and the one who sets up the rules of the class. However, his relationship with the learners is more centered on respect than on authority. Moreover, for Mary Wade, this is one of the central points of this type of class.

Such a change also requires breaking myths, especially the one that describes this extra freedom as equating to chaos in the classroom and incessant noise. Not necessarily. Of course, there is a period of adjustment. For example, in Windsor, Ontario, a collaborative, digital classroom has been implemented in a high school. A room that takes on more of a hipster café feel with communal tables and tablets. The teacher said in a Radio-Canada report that in the early days, it was true that kids chatted more than they worked. But this trend was reversed in just a few weeks. And when asked about this new type of class, the key stakeholders are thrilled. Finally, the classroom feels airier, brighter and, consequently, more motivating.

In a fast-paced world, it's not easy to find a way to get the most out of a classroom.

In a changing world, it seems strange that school design is not doing the same. It must be said that we are still in the early stages of these 21stcentury classrooms, and few studies have been done on the subject.

They're not really a good idea.

Do they really have a positive impact on learning? It is difficult to make a strong claim. However, the movement, which is still marginal in North America, seems to bring a sense of excitement and motivation to the classrooms where it is taking shape. Will this feeling last? And will the architects who design schools in the future have this modern approach to classrooms in mind? The topic of school architecture is likely to gain interest in the years to come.

Illustration : fabola San Francisco French School via photopin (license)


Brassard, Dominic. "Rethinking The Architecture Of Schools." Last updated December 12, 2016.

Brousseau, Josianne. "#Windsor - A Digital And Collaborative Classroom Signed #Idéllo." Be Radiant. Last updated May 4, 2017.

"Designing School Spaces For The Well-Being And Success Of All." UNSA Education. Last updated April 24, 2017.

Crémieu-Alcan, Philippe. "Student Success, A Question Of Architecture?" Last updated November 13, 2016.

Estabrook, Rachel. "How Changing Classroom Design Could Change Learning In Denver." Colorado Public Radio. Last updated: 1er December 2016.

Lefèvre, Marine. "Bienvenue Dans La Salle De Classe De Demain." Last updated May 5, 2017.

"The Secrets of 21st Century Classroom Design." Schools Feed. Last updated July 16, 2017.

Wade, Mary. "Visualizing 21st-Century Classroom Design." Edutopia. Last updated March 29, 2016.

"What Does a 21st Century Classroom Look, Sound, and Feel Like?" Education Rickshaw. Last updated August 2, 2017.

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