George Lucas Educational Foundation
Learning Environments

Rebooting Industrial Era Seating

Two educators present ideas for transforming our classrooms to meet the challenges of the future in this excerpt from their new book.
Neat rows of desks fill a classroom.
Neat rows of desks fill a classroom.
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While driving the back roads of Pennsylvania one summer, I (Tom) came across a carefully laid-out cemetery. It grabbed my attention, so I pulled over for a closer look. As I perused the scenery, I noticed that all of the tombstones were equidistant from one another. The rows were impeccably aligned; each faced the same direction. Outlined by a stone wall, the plot of land was a perfect rectangle. With the exception of some updated landscaping, the space had remained seemingly untouched for a number of decades.

My heart sank when I thought about how this space—a cemetery—resembled the classroom space I designed for my very first class of fourth graders. The learning space I created early on as a teacher would have looked almost identical to this cemetery if drawn as a map. Add an oversized wooden desk in the corner and an interactive whiteboard and a U.S. flag on the front wall, and you have not only the first classroom environment I created but also an environment that resembles many of today’s learning spaces.

These classrooms are suffering from what we’ll coin the “Cemetery Effect.” Side-by-side images of classrooms from the early 1900s and ones from today yield eerie similarities, even after more than 100 years of research and innovation. During the industrial era, when students were essentially trained to work in factories, “career readiness” meant preparing for jobs in which a worker would spend hours a day performing the same routine task, often even spending his or her entire career at the same company. In the one-size-fits-all, sit-and-get instructional model, an ability to regurgitate information was the key to success and a sufficient paradigm for that world of work.

But that world of work no longer exists in the United States.

The need to redesign our students’ learning environments is not simply an idea from the latest Pinterest board; it’s one of necessity. There are certainly times when students should work independently and quietly in their own spaces. However, for far too long, that’s been the main model of instruction in many classrooms. Schools and classrooms must transform from an industrial era model to one that is learner-centered, is personalized, and leverages the power of technology.

Designing Learner-Centered Spaces

Today’s educational paradigm is no longer one of knowledge transfer but one of knowledge creation and curation. The “cells and bells” model has been prevalent for more than a century, but it is no longer relevant for today’s learners. As educators work to shift to instructional pedagogies that are relational, authentic, dynamic, and—at times—chaotic in their schools, learning spaces must be reevaluated and adapted as necessary. Pedagogical innovation requires an innovation in the space where learning takes place. Simply put, if the space doesn’t match the desired learning pedagogy, then it will hinder student learning outcomes.

Designing for Collaboration

If we are truly going to ensure that students become college and career ready or—more importantly—life ready, then we must help develop students who can work together, engage in respectful discourse, problem solve, and collaborate in both physical and virtual spaces. Learning spaces designed for collaboration have flexible seating arrangements, boast comfortable furniture, and are agile enough to be reworked in a short time period. Collaborative groups may go from only a handful of students to larger groups in a short time period. These types of spaces also harness the collaborative nature of technology.

Designing for Self-Directed Learning

Although collaboration is key, there are undoubtedly times when students will want—and need—to work independently and in their own space. Whether they are plugged in wearing headphones or taking a deep dive into literature in a quiet place, the opportunity and choice to work independently is important. Having various learning spaces for different types of learning maximizes student opportunity and choice.

Designing for Inquiry, Exploration, and Creation

Learning spaces designed for inquiry do not emphasize a demarcation between teacher and student spaces, have no set “front of the room,” create makerspace-type areas for students to create, tinker, and design, and employ instructional pedagogies that push students to ask questions and seek understanding—not listen to information and regurgitate. The problems of tomorrow will be solved by those students who have such opportunities today.

Designing for Active Learning

The traditional sit-and-get mindset and educational model in which pedagogy is driven by teachers passing on their knowledge to students—not by students gaining knowledge through experience—yields learning spaces with little movement and minimal active learning. All too often, we erroneously assume that a weekly physical education class or (ever-diminishing) recess time satisfies the human need for movement. We know there’s a connection between motor movement and brain development, yet traditional learning spaces often aren’t designed for motor skill–development activities. Students need to be able to move, jump, and shake during activities; stretch or run in place for a short period of time; or dance for expression. Doing so yields brain-based learning experiences that get blood flowing and provide additional oxygen to the brain—thus enabling higher levels of learning.

Designing for Relationship Building

Learning spaces that promote socially catalytic interactions, where students can engage in social skills and relationship building, connect classroom spaces to common areas where students and staff can meet informally. During a class period, these spaces may be used for small-group instruction and interactions. Before school, between classes, and after school, these spaces provide areas where class discussions continue, social skills are built, and informal interactions occur.

If we are to shift our instructional pedagogy to a more personal approach for students, we must simultaneously shift the spaces in which our students learn. Redesigning learning spaces is not about developing Pinterest-inspired, highly decorated classrooms. It’s about better meeting the needs of today’s modern learners so that they can be given every opportunity in tomorrow’s world.

This is an excerpt from Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today by Eric C. Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray. Read the whole book for their ideas on transforming physical spaces, pedagogy, professional development, technology, and more.

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Nathan Rice's picture
Nathan Rice
Founder of Free The Numbum

Hi Eric and Thomas,

Just wanted to thank you for sharing your wisdom here. Very encouraging for young teachers who are looking to connect with their students in a new way. Would love to hear your resource suggestions for getting older students physically active in the classroom.

Take care,

Anne Shaw's picture
Anne Shaw
Director, 21st Century Schools

It is possible to totally re-create the physical learning environment with very little money. Even if you are the only teacher on your campus who wants to escape the "cemetery method", and you are trapped in a factory-model building, you can create an oasis in the desert! Please see this article on how it can be done - no matter the grade level or the financial constraints:

MrsStoica's picture

I can understand how one may want to draw attention by using powerful metaphors. I get we need to have a serious discussion about education that best prepares students for tomorrow's jobs. Also as a mother of a dead child, as a daughter of a dead father, as a niece of a dead uncle, as a witness to 5 family deaths in the span of 5 years, as a witness to a revolution that lead to thousands dead or tortured, as an educator the comparison of a classroom to a cemetery is inappropriate. I get that classrooms can be perceived as places that are dull. I am not debating the validity of the subject, as there is always room for improvement. I am merely drawing attention to the fact that for many children and teachers, classrooms are places of wonders, while cemeteries are places of sorrow and grief. Being reminded that our schools are causing a cemetery effect can cause anguish and sadness, where there should be none.

People in cemeteries are DEAD not BORED. This is a BIG DIFFERENCE.

Sue Feller's picture

Just remember flexible means flexible. Sometimes facing forward is the best :-)

Don Williams's picture

Tom and Eric,
Thanks for posting this excerpt from your new book. I think many of us need to keep raising our voices in our buildings, districts, and states so that these changes can actually come about. You've made some good points about the future of our children and how they will interact in their careers. I agree that their career work spaces will look vastly different from the industrial factories of the early 1900's.
I would love to get some advice on how to take what I have in my classroom today (standard desks, chairs, a couple tables, 4 bouncy ball chairs, a standing desk, and bookshelves) and adapt them into your collaborative design. I do my best to give students space to move and interact, but I feel limited. Do I need to get my district to purchase new furniture or remodel the building? Or, can I transition my own classroom so it works better for my students right now?
I guess I'll need to read your book.

Daniel Kuczynski's picture

interesting....but also frustrating. Limited space when packing up to 35 students into one small classroom space. This article would be much more useful if it included sample diagrams

Stephen DeBoer's picture
Stephen DeBoer
Follower of Christ, husband of one, father of three, high school science and music teacher, pianist, avid reader, passionate about the Kingdom of Heaven

I agree Daniel, it can be frustrating.... I too have similar space constraints.... I think we need to learn to get creative with our classrooms.

Also, for more information, check out this research I (and others) put together as part of an M.Ed. project recently -


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