Design a 21st-century clasroom

Design a 21st-century fifth-grade classroom — one that Laura Ingalls Wilder wouldn’t recognize instantly – as part of Slate’s “Hive.”  The deadline is Oct. 29.  The winning design may be built as a model classroom in a new charter school.  

The “open classroom” of the 1970s — no walls, lots of noise — made school redesign look bad, concedes Linda Perlstein.  “Teachers taught as they always had, just with far more noise to shout over. The lesson was obvious: Education reform must start with educators, not architects.”

The 21st-century imperative is to closely monitor students’ individual progress and teach them accordingly. Teachers are supposed to work together to analyze data and coordinate their approaches. Most classes include at least some traditional instruction: one teacher up front, addressing 20 or 30 students. But it is also common for students to work on projects in small groups, for aides to conduct “interventions” with a few kids around a table, and for teachers to assess children one at a time. Where the space has not been modified accordingly–which is to say, most everywhere–you see lots of kids sprawling on cold tile floors and huddling in converted closets.

Many top-performing schools are getting the job done in rectangular rooms filled with desks, Perlstein writes.  “Classrooms in South Korea, which is kicking our ass in international rankings, look like ours do, just with far more kids packed in.”

If you want to shoot a movie set in a 1950s’ school, go to a Catholic school.  Many teach very well in old-fashioned buildings.

New school buildings usually feature at least one soaring atrium, and a lot of skylights and windows, Perlstein writes. “Some experts think sunlight helps learning. (Then again, there are architects are designing schools without eye-level windows, for security’s sake.)”

 Hallways are bigger, and when you see students hanging out there during class, they’re not cutting. They’re working. There are more carpets, fewer lockers. Some schools are LEED-certified. They have started to embrace technology, albeit haphazardly: interactive whiteboards, laptops, Wi-Fi, more convenient electrical outlets.

The emerging new model of classroom design should take advantage of changes in the way schools teach. In places where schools have moved away from the idea of teachers as sole practitioners, away from the science-then-reading-then-math-then-social-studies way of breaking up the day, and away from treating students as a mass toward treating them as individuals, some innovative classrooms have emerged. Architects have begun to toss out the usual set of spaces–classroom, cafeteria, auditorium, gym, hallway–for more flexible layouts.

  Read Slate’s terms and conditions, then submit a written description, and preferably a sketch, of your fifth-grade classoom of tomorrow. Entries already are coming in.  You can comment on entries and vote for your favorites.

About Joanne


  1. tim-10-ber says:

    What am I missing? At the end of the day it isn’t the design of the classroom that makes education “better”. It is still the quality and ability of the teacher at the head of the room, the administrators, parents sending kids to school prepared to learn and students engaged in their own education. Right? All the rest is fluff…nice to have type stuff but do not improve the quality of education…

    Again…what am I missing?

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    Again…what am I missing?

    You left out “curriculum.” 🙂

    But in any event, the physical classroom (once some fairly straightforward basics have been met) won’t be that important.

    -Mark Roulo

  3. Don’t miss the discussion on this topic over at Slashdot, “News for Nerds”.

  4. Only 2 (somewhat) modern technologies really make sense to me. 1. Movies/videos — to take children to a different world in geography/social studies/science classes. Not Disney movies, not time fillers. World-expanders. And, 2. computer technologies that help teachers to individualize instruction. We are starting to realize that children learn better and faster if they are learning in their zones of proximal development, which can only be done in a classroom of 25 K-3 children if their practice is automated at some level.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    Mark — thank you!! Yes, a great curriculum is very important!!