Reimagining the Modern Classroom

The seats, space, and stuff that idyllic learning environments are made of

A green chalkboard with a sketch of an old-fashioned schoolhouse as well as chalk and an eraser
Guillermo del Olmo / PinkPueblo / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

This is the fifth installment in our series about school in a perfect world. Read previous entries on calendars, content, homework, and teachers.

We asked prominent voices in education—from policy makers and teachers to activists and parents—to look beyond laws, politics, and funding and imagine a utopian system of learning. They went back to the drawing board—and the chalkboard—to build an educational Garden of Eden. We’re publishing their answers to one question each day this week. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Today’s assignment: The Space. Describe the perfect classroom.

Rita Pin Ahrens, the director of education policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center

Students need to be in classrooms that inspire them—spaces that are light, airy, and filled with examples of work that they aspire to do. Each school will have a variety of spacious classroom settings. Some will be more traditional in the way that we envision classrooms now, but others might be set up outside or within an atrium or amphitheater. There might be desks, cushions, or benches arranged in rows or circles—however the teachers want them, as not every classroom will follow a template. Each classroom will be set up based on what is necessary to meet learning objectives. But schools will prioritize configuring classes to inspire learning first and foremost, and, where appropriate, reflect the diversity of environments that students are exposed to outside a school setting. Students will have beautiful spaces that make them feel good to be at school—with art, living plants, music where appropriate, comfortable seating, and fast internet access.

Nicholson Baker, the author of Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids

Windows that open are a nice feature, as are clean bathrooms and individual desks that can be rearranged. Smaller schools and smaller rooms seem to work better than larger schools and larger rooms.

Teachers enjoy decorating their classes; the walls of the rooms in which I substituted often held a polychrome profusion of STUFF—posters and charts, and rules and exhortations, and cartoon characters and keyword lists. Sometimes the decor works wonderfully, sometimes it doesn't. Less is more, in general. If you are forced to go to a place you hate going every day, any sentence on the wall can become an irritant.

Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education

My experience as a high-school principal taught me to never spend too much time worrying about the “small stuff.” I put the arrangement of desks in a room in that category. Students and teachers need clean, roomy, well-ventilated, and well-lit spaces for teaching and learning. Every school will have air-conditioning, and there should be sufficient heat in classrooms when it’s cold, but there should not be over-heating.

Hallways should be quiet, and classrooms should be as sound proof as possible. Desks or tables should be comfortable, and they should be configured in the room as the teacher sees fit, depending on the lesson. Everything about the physical space should be designed so that there is little to distract from teaching and learning.

I have seen movable walls come and go, and I have witnessed the debates over blackboards and whiteboards, and desks in a circle versus desks in a row. Yet in the end, we seem to come back to designs that are pretty traditional. I think that happens because those designs serve our students and teachers pretty well.

Catherine Cushinberry, the executive director of Parents for Public Schools

In general, there will be different types of movable desks varying in size and capacity—individual, long, and round. Chairs will be movable and will not have an attached desk. There will be large pillows near the windows. Students will be able to find a place that is comfortable for them. Standing will also be allowed, even when students are using computers. There will be a large open space that will serve as a community gathering spot. The classroom will have big windows to let a lot of natural light shine through. The room will be colorful without being obnoxious—colors will be blues, greens, whites, and yellows. There will be multimedia equipment in the room, along with the latest computers. There will be areas where students can post ideas to help make the learning environment more engaging and fun. The classroom will also be tailored to the topic, but all will have interactive stations where hands-on learning can be experienced by all students.

Michael Horn, the co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute

In the future, we won’t have “classrooms.” The enemy of the future of the classroom has arguably been that phrase: “the future of the classroom.” It locks us into a model of believing students will be sorted by age and sit in a room together with one teacher in the front.

Students will learn in student-centered environments—perhaps we’ll call them learning studios—where each student’s learning is personalized to meet his or her precise needs. It will be critical to rearrange the physical space and furniture to align with the principles of student agency, flexibility, and choice that are the core of new learning models. Because these models will leverage multiple modes of learning, they will need spaces built for different activities, which can occur individually through digital media or in small interactive groups. As Larry Kearns, an architect at Wheeler Kearns Architects who recently designed a cutting-edge school space in Chicago, told me, “Ideally, spaces for all of these modes of learning can be located in the same physical space, interlocked to minimize disturbances between them. [The] combination of learning spaces [will be] inherently decentralized since it focuses on the students. The teacher’s desk, if there is one, is pushed to the margins.”

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation

Form will follow function, and if one of the key principles of public education is to instill an appreciation for democracy, then classrooms will be arranged so that students are equals with one another (not some in the front, others in the back), and so that students are active participants in learning, not passive recipients of teachers’ knowledge. Whereas the traditional lecture hall connotes hierarchy, placing desks in a circle suggests students should be learning to debate and become decision makers. Within the circle, desks will also be clustered in small groups of four to encourage collaboration among students.

These classrooms will feature student artwork and projects but never publicly show grades or test-score results that might humiliate struggling students. The most important feature of the physical classroom is that the students seated in the desks come from a variety of backgrounds—rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Asian.  Integrated schools are important because they teach children how to get along with classmates from different backgrounds and underline the democratic message that in America, we are all social equals. Low-income students attending mixed-income schools are as much as two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools, so we must ensure not only that the arrangement of the desks is equitable but also that the backgrounds of the students occupying those desks are diverse.

Michelle Rhee, the founder of StudentsFirst and the former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools

Classrooms at the elementary-, middle-, and high-school levels will look very different. Elementary classrooms will have work stations that can be easily moved throughout the room so students can begin fostering relationships with each other. Also included will be the beloved “story space,” a communal seating area with soft fabrics and warm colors, where the full class can gather for announcements, reading, and celebrations.

Middle-school classrooms begin to mature with the students, incorporating informal seating areas like window seats and benches with collaborating worktables. This will allow students to become comfortable working in teams and also to seek out space for personal reflection and work.

High-school classrooms will be designed by students themselves, providing breakout space for group work and more private areas for individual work and studying. High-school classrooms will reflect the transition that students are facing, allowing for independence but also providing a nurturing environment for curiosity. Classrooms at all levels will have interactive technology, books, and e-readers, and as much natural light as possible. Further, all schools will think about non-traditional learning spaces such as gardens, kitchens, and places off campus.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers

The idea of prescribing what a classroom should look like is laughable. In New York, I negotiated a contract that said the arrangement of furniture should be up to the teacher and based on the needs of the class.

Every classroom will be properly apportioned for its purpose. A science lab needs scientific equipment. A music room needs instruments. All classrooms need enough desks for the students and enough books for every child. And teachers will arrange the room in the best possible way for their students’ learning.

It’s also important to look at the appropriate role of technology in the classroom. Technology can be a powerful tool, but it must be implemented with the intention of enhancing educator-facilitated learning, not replacing it. It must also be paired with real professional development for educators, not a “just add water” program of handing students a device and expecting positive results.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment in this series.