EdTech & Design, Promising Practices, Well at Work

21st Century Learning, 20th Century Classroom

It’s time to match classroom and school design with our changing philosophies and teaching practices

There is a clear disconnect between the new approaches to teaching and learning that are considered “best practices” for 21st century learning, promoted in PD and supported by research, and the old classroom or school design that in many ways works against them.

In almost every country that values literacy for all its citizens, recognition has grown that students learn in different ways and at different paces, and as information and tools have become more accessible and equitable, we welcome and support a variety of media and strategies. Our professional development teaches us how to differentiate learning and teaching and why Universal Design is essential – that what is good for one learner may be good for others. Learning communities and PD focus on the need to allow students to experience learning themselves through inquiry and guided projects. We are bringing back the “Maker Movement” (I say “bringing back” because as a student myself I experienced a great deal of “making” in my Shop and Home Economics classes) because we understand that our future generations need to experience hands-on learning focused on the principles of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Our schools and districts are also recognizing that health and nutrition play a vital role in students’ ability to learn.

But are we connecting these practices with how we design the space for learning? More often than not, our school infrastructure and classroom design is similar to 20th-century schools. Rarely does the physical space and classroom make-up (e.g. how we group students) connect to the pedagogies encouraged during professional development sessions. It’s time we thought about how our physical space, schedules and classroom make-up support or constrain the type of learning taking place.

As an itinerant teacher and faculty member at Brock University, I have toured hundreds of classrooms and schools, and can, with confidence, make the following generalizations:

  • Students (and teachers) generally sit in chairs and at desks – regardless of research that indicates that this is not healthy for the body. Shouldn’t there be more opportunity to stand while working?
  • Classrooms are generally isolated from one another and learning occurs primarily in the classroom, away from hallways and other common areas. Couldn’t hallways provide an incredible area to post historical timelines, maps and data for students to analyze, dissect and share, not to mention a space away from the larger group for students who need to think or take a break from the classroom?
  • Students continue to be clumped into age-specific groups and curriculum continues to be grade-specific (in Grade 5 students learn about government, In Grade 6, flight and space, etc.). There is generally one teacher in the classroom and the learning criteria for each lesson or activity is usually based on the entire class, rather than the individual learner.

What if students could attend learning sessions based on their individual interests or needs, similar to the EdCamp model or MOOCs (massive open online courses) that allow choice and interest-based learning?

Shouldn’t the classroom and school design match our changing philosophies of education and the evolution of 21st-century learning and teaching practices? How do we, as a system, begin to rethink school and classroom design in a way that meets the learning needs of all students and that allows for more exploration, more freedom of learning, more opportunity for self-driven inquiry?

In this article, I want to share how, despite some systemic barriers, teachers and schools can make small changes to their classroom set-up and routine. I also want to use these examples to encourage system leaders to honour a variety of physical spaces within their schools and consider thinking outside the box when it comes to school schedules.

What does a 21st century classroom look like? 

In my blog, I once asked, “What is the Ultimate Learning Space?”1 I shared some key learnings from my job as Faculty Advisor at Brock University, where I visited many classrooms. I saw many cases where the learning environment directly impacted the students’ level of engagement, their focus, their interest and how much or little they contributed. What I noticed most was that when spaces were designed with explicit thought about inquiry, creativity and opportunity for hands-on learning, the students seemed happy. Content. While most classrooms that I visited were quite traditional, the following examples were those that made me think differently about school design:

  • In a Grade 2/3 class, Smartboards were set up in the corner of the room (instead of the front) and were not affixed, but could easily be moved and used anywhere in the class for explicit instruction (e.g. with students sitting on the carpet) and for small group, individual and guided lessons. There was no “front” of the room.
  • In a Grade 7 class, I saw students working on couches, on the floor, or using the counter for a stand-up workstation. (One student even used the old sink as a desk).
  • In a secondary Math class, the walls were covered in “Idea Paint.” Students worked collaboratively, displaying and sharing problems. There were no desks.

What I found frustrating was that these were all individual classroom examples rather than district-led initiatives. One shining exception was Talbot Trail School in the Greater Essex County District School Board. This theme-based school encouraged learning in every space of the school. The hallways had interactive maps, 3D cityscapes, and flexible learning spaces (including laptop carts and movable interactive whiteboards). Learning was encouraged in the stairwell (where models of aircraft hung) and landings (equipped with hanging globes). The library was more of a learning commons; its inviting open-concept design featured natural light, beanbag chairs, carpeted areas, laptop carts and interactive whiteboards, and a book display that was out of this world.

The Enrichment and Innovation Centre

Throughout the 2014/15 School Year, my team had the opportunity to gather examples from a variety of schools and create a learning space – the Enrichment and Innovation Centre – that models these changing teaching and learning pedagogies. We used the school year to document and research the outcomes, successes and big learnings from this project.

While we were touring schools and districts searching for ideas for the Centre, the best examples that we found were Kindergarten classrooms. In almost every case, these classrooms were designed in a way that allowed students to explore. The rooms had hubs or centres that were based on context themes (that related to the interest of the students). The tools and activities allowed students to build and design. And since abilities vary so dramatically in this age group, the activities were always differentiated and open-ended, so that regardless of the developmental stage of the child, the student felt success and could use feedback and support to improve or go to the next “level.” The learning looked like play: at a given moment, some students were on the carpet with blocks, some used hammer and nails to build, some were painting, while others explored sand or solved math problems.

Our challenge was to design a space for students of all ages and abilities that followed the Kindergarten model. When our first visitor – a secondary school principal – commented, “I hope you don’t take offence to this, but your room resembles, sort of, a Kindergarten room,” our faces beamed with smiles.

A space for today’s learning

For the Enrichment and Innovation Centre, we designed a room without rows, groups or even an explicit “front.” Instead, there are areas or hubs differentiated by topic, skill or interest:

  • MakerSpace:
    A large part of the room is dedicated to a MakerSpace where students can build, engineer robots, take apart machines and co-create their own computers or devices.
  • Laptops:
    One side of the room is reserved for group laptops, iPads and an Apple TV for sharing.
  • Design and Engineering:
    There is a 3D Makerbot printer along with tablets and computers allocated specifically for design and engineering.
  • Math and Science:
    There are two hubs – one for Science and one for Math exploration – with a shared Interactive Smartboard for small group activities.
  • Health and Fitness:
    Here you will find a small herb garden and literature dedicated to healthy living, as well as a worm composter.
  • Social Justice and Critical Literacy:
    There is a strong emphasis on Critical Literacy. Inquiry questions and Big Ideas provide the focus for exploration of Millennium Goals/United Nations Sustainable Goals and for both guided and self-directed learning.
  • Literacy:
    A writing centre provides resources such as Livescribe Pens, Journals (for co-written topics) and a variety of choices for students to write and share at their level and interest.
  • Arts:
    There is a ceiling-to-floor Green Screen for filming, along with a puppet display for drama. The piano and guitar are rarely quiet. Even during group inquiry time, students use self-directed breaks to paint or draw or listen to music.
  • Quiet Space:
    The room design recognizes the need for quiet when learning. There is a small and separated space for reading that resembles a cozy living room, with lamp, curtains, carpet, couch and books.
  • Gathering Spot:
    In the centre of the room, there is a small gathering table we call the “Kitchen Table” with a teapot and teacups. This is the conversation space that connects the students’ learning back to the family, to heritage, to self.

The Enrichment and Innovation Centre can be used as a demonstration for educators seeking ways to enrich their own program through inquiry and project-based learning spaces. The Centre connects the ideologies that are being advocated (inquiry, design thinking, integrative thinking) to the learning environment itself. Admittedly, the opportunities, resources and tools available to us here are atypical of a regular classroom. However, a committed educator with a growth mindset can adapt and change a “standard” learning space to allow modern learners to fully engage in self-directed, choice-driven and personal endeavor activities. For example, when I taught a self-contained gifted class a few years ago, I put my entire photocopy budget toward laptop purchases.

Over the past year, we have had over 500 students, some parents, and many volunteers visit the Enrichment Centre. We invite you in, too.

Learning and Enrichment Centre FAQ 

Visiting educators often ask us two questions:

Q: How do you teach curriculum or facilitate student inquiry when students are working in so many different areas of the classroom, engaged in such a variety of tasks?

A: Students are not always working at the different hubs or centres without explicit guidance. Further, the theme for each centre/hub, whether it be Design/Engineering, Literacy or Arts, is usually facilitated with a Big Idea Question that provides a common ground to the work.


Q: How do you assess student learning in this type of learning environment?”

A: There is a lot of self and peer assessment. When students set, edit and evaluate their own learning goals they also become fluent at reflecting on their successes and failures. Students have become familiar with sharing their goals and their questions at the start of the day, using a shared online document, and they also record their results/conclusions at the end of the day.


1 http://pipedreams-education.ca/2011/04/30/618/


For more blog entries on school design:

http://pipedreams-education.ca/2012/09/04/my-top-10-learning-spaces-a-universal-design-in-a-gifted-classroom/#.VfGAeJ3BzGc ; http://pipedreams-education.ca/2011/02/02/educon-conversation-learning-spaces-of-tomorrow/

Meet the Expert(s)

Zoe Branigan-Pipe

Zoe Branigan-Pipe

Teacher, Hamilton-Wentworth District

Zoe Branigan-Pipe is an educator, blogger, speaker and edtech leader. She is currently an itinerant teacher for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) Gifted Program, where she co-facilitates the Innovation and Enrichment Centre, and a part-time instructor for Brock University, Continuing Education and Pre-Service Teacher Education Program. http://pipedreams-education.ca;  @zbpipe

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