When the time to renovate an old school or build a new one, many teachers have a simple wish list.

They just want buildings that work. They’re thinking about windows that are operable, good air handling systems, enough classrooms to fit everyone in — the building blocks of a basic, functional school.

But learning has changed, says Stephen, and it’s time for educators to seize the chance “to think beyond the traditional school blocks that they’re accustomed to.” So how can educators help design 21st-century learning spaces?

Usable Knowledge asked Stephen to share some advice. We also asked Daniel Wilson, the educational chair at Harvard’s Learning Environments for Tomorrow Institute, and Grace O’Shea, an eighth-grade teacher in New York City and a member of room2learnat the Harvard Innovation Lab, to share their thoughts.


Changes in technology and in teaching methods are making it possible to think of school buildings in far more dynamic terms, says Stephen. Schools no longer have to be “collections of classrooms, administrative spaces, and a gym, auditorium, and cafeteria. They can be high-performance work environments that promote the 21st-century soft skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

“Schools are becoming interconnected ecosystems — less compartmentalized and departmentalized. Classrooms and the spaces between them, as well as shared amenities such as the cafeterias and media labs, are becoming more flexible and agile.”

What does this look like in practice? A focus on project-based learning might mean that workspaces are more flexible — desks can move and stack easily against the walls or connect to form large, flat working surfaces. An emphasis on high-quality learning might mean that classrooms are more physically transparent, so that passersby can see students working in a robotics lab or an art studio. A fully wired school might mean that learning can take place anywhere, so hallways become extended-learning areas.


But an architect designing a new school can’t construct these changes on his own. To work in a space that supports their goals and sense of innovation, educators need to be prepared to describe precisely what kind of learning environment they want to create. Wilson, the Director of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, thinks the conversation between educators and architects should cover four broad points:

  1. Visions and goals. Educators should be ready to share a broad vision of the school’s mission and what teachers are trying to achieve, such as “We want students to be global citizens” or “We want students to be collaborators and creators.”
  2. Illustrations of those goals. Once educators have articulated their general goals, they need to share examples of what success might look like in daily practice. If a principal wants students actively engaged in current events, then the school might need gathering spaces where students can watch and discuss the news during free periods. If teachers want students regularly working in groups, then classrooms might need easily maneuverable desks.
  3. Current obstacles. Educators can use this chance to consider some of the biggest challenges they face in their current setting. Are they lacking storage for project materials? Are they missing common spaces for bringing together multiple classes of students?
  4. Supporting teacher learning. A new school is an opportunity for teachers to consider the ways they learn and grow at work. They should think about how they collaborate best with colleagues or generate lesson plans, and recognize that a new building is a chance to help them on their path of professional development.