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Visualizing 21st-Century Classroom Design

Mary Wade

Teacher passionate about edtech, inquiry, IB PYP, 5th grade, educational blogging, & family time
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Problem-based learning, makerspaces, flipped learning, student blogging -- these are becoming perceived staples of 21st-century learning. With such ambitious practices taking the spotlight for how people regard modern classrooms, it's not surprising that a murmur of impracticality or skepticism is still a frequent response when they're first introduced.

So how do we encourage teachers everywhere to believe that great changes can happen in their classrooms? By helping them envision small, practical steps that will lead them there. Here are five elements of 21st-century classrooms, along with concrete suggestions that teachers can visualize and implement today.

Element #1: Zones

21st-Century Learning Principle

Instead of requiring students to learn, work, and think in one place all day, consider how your space might become more flexible.

Practical Steps

  • Designate a whole-group special gathering zone (class meetings, wrap-ups, mini-lessons) by laying a second-hand rug or taping down a perimeter -- even for older students!
  • Maximize space by having your desk do double-duty with the kidney desk, but maintain office space with shelves on the wall behind you.
  • Get creative with the student workspace zone by providing spaces for working as individuals, pairs, and groups.
  • Request donations for beanbags and oversized pillows, and check thrift shops.
  • Add casters to chairs, and top individual desks with plywood for flexible group tables.
  • Arrange furniture to create nooks.

Element #2: Accessibility

21st-Century Learning Principle

To walk the talk of a real classroom community, we must ask ourselves if all of our resources are designed and arranged for the convenience of all learners.

Practical Steps

  • Ask your students for feedback on how they use and would like to use classroom resources.
  • Ask your administration's permission to have the custodian adjust the height of bulletin boards, whiteboards, hooks, and anything else that isn't as functional as it could be.

Element #3: Mobility

21st-Century Learning Principle

We need to be sure that we're not catering to just one type of learner. Be mindful of your introverts, extroverts, collaborators, solo thinkers, writers, dreamers, and fidgeters -- and design a flexible environment that can meet everyone's needs.

Practical Steps

Create a tech station to allow students more choices in how to research, practice, and present learning. Don't have 1:1 or even 30:1? Start today by submitting a DonorsChoose project requesting a tablet or laptop. Chromebooks are under $200 and iPad Minis under $300. Then, immediately install an arsenal of apps or Chrome apps to help preclude the all-too-common "what do I do with these devices?" dilemma.

Blogging apps:

Math practice apps:

Research help apps:

Publishing/creating apps:

Fun fast-finisher apps:

Classroom organization apps:

Examine low-tech options:

The abovementioned casters will help your students easily roll their chairs away if they need to work solo for a bit, or to collaborate with multiple people around the classroom. Add a clipboard, and voila -- a budget-friendly version of the Node chair.

Element #4: Inspiration

21st-Century Learning Principle

We often expect students to passively wait until we present opportunities to create, and then we expect them to turn on that creativity like a faucet. We should find ways to foster ongoing inspiration and creativity.

Practical Steps

  • Set aside a creation/inspiration zone that's open to students as often as possible (Genius Bar, Wonder Shelf, makerspace, etc.)
  • Explicitly teach and emphasize process over product, growth mindset, and metacognition. We cannot cultivate risk taking, failing, and perseverance -- all essential characteristics of creativity -- if we repeatedly demonstrate to students how all that really matters is neatly filling out our worksheets.

Element #5: Respect

21st-Century Learning Principle

Consider our students who don't do school very well. You know the ones -- the kid who rarely earns stars and class bucks, the kid who never brings homework, the kid whose name is called far more frequently than others (but usually for remonstration). For them, traditional school quickly becomes a game of "me vs. the teacher." For their sake, we must find ways to dissolve this mindset, replacing it with the real reason why we're all at school -- genuine learning and growth.

Practical Steps

  • Carefully examine your reward systems and ask yourself: "Do they perpetuate or lessen the perceived game of student vs. teacher?" Take steps to minimize extrinsic rewards that often do nothing but reinforce to struggling students the futility of their efforts.
  • Focus on your one-on-one relationship with each student. Greet them at the door, ask them about their interests, and listen.
  • Fiercely safeguard time for end-of-lesson wrap-ups and reflections. Those moments are the perfect opportunity to highlight the conversation of ownership. After all, this is about student learning. Model and let them learn from others how individuals make learning personal and genuinely apply it to their lives.

What small changes can you visualize in your room today? Comment below to share your practical strategies.

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Mary Wade

Teacher passionate about edtech, inquiry, IB PYP, 5th grade, educational blogging, & family time

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Eduardo Libreros's picture
Eduardo Libreros
High school teacher/Reading and writing facilitator

I'm new in this community and this is my very first comment. I have a little experience in teaching and I found this article really usefull for my student's context. Here in Mexico we don't have many opportunities to transform our classroom but your article gave me some ideas to increase the movility to adjust the learning process to all the members of my class. Please keep sharing your ideas with the community, and greetings from Mexico.

Mary Wade's picture
Mary Wade
Teacher passionate about edtech, inquiry, IB PYP, 5th grade, educational blogging, & family time

I'm so glad you have found it to be helpful, Eduardo!

mlnwht's picture

Hello! We are going to be transitioning to a new building in about three years. We're starting to do work to envision what our new classes will look like. I'd also like to try some of these ideas sooner.

Here's my dilemma: I teach 7th grade and most of my classes are around 25 students, but I always seem to have one class of 32, and this year it looks like I have one class of 34. Does anyone have experience making a flexible space that feels homey for a group that will be between 20-34 students? I hate the feeling of all of the underused space with 10 unused desks in a class, but I need them 45 minutes each day. Also keep in mind that in some cases, these are adult or nearly adult sized bodies.


Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

mtlnwht, we asked our Facebook community to share pictures of their flexible seating classrooms earlier this year. You might find the responses interesting:

We're using the results to write an article about flexible seating that will be published later this month. You'll want to keep an eye out for that as well. It'll provide examples from various grade levels, including middle school.

Mary Wade's picture
Mary Wade
Teacher passionate about edtech, inquiry, IB PYP, 5th grade, educational blogging, & family time

This makes me SO happy!! Thanks for sharing!

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

mtlnwht, I totally understand the underutilized space concern. Keep in mind even adults like flexible seats like sitting on ball chairs, sitting on the floor/carpet/pillow, or a gaming rocker type chair. Ten years ago I had the idea for flexible seating while I was in my graduate courses and when we broke out to work in class adults spread out throughout the school into nooks, benches, floor, standing, etc. I would guess out of 34 students a good portion would enjoy not sitting at a traditional seat. The flexible seating mix I prefer is to have a portion of stand up desks, traditional desk/table with some flexible seating options like ball chairs, wobble stools, etc) and some options for sitting low to the ground (gaming rocker, pillows, Crazy Creek type camp chairs that sit on the ground, bungee chairs, etc.) The nice thing about most of these is the seating options are easily moved, folded up, stacks, etc. Bungee and Crazy Creek type seats can fold up, ball chairs can be used at a table, alone, or put up high in a wall PVC pipe rack out of the way, and gaming rockers can sometimes be stacked upside down in a large appliance box. They also make some nice folding work tables which could be used if more table space is needed or for the larger class but fold up and go against a wall if not needed. Steel Case makes Node desks on wheels and are great for collaborative group work or for clearing out a work area if needed. I hope this helps. The best part of flexible seating is the more you and your students work with it, the better the space becomes homey and personalized for each learner. BTW- my favorite way to make a classroom learning space homy is to get some of those 5 light bulb flower type floor lamps and occasionally turn those on to create a fantastic learning atmosphere. My principal bought three for my classroom and instead of turning off all the lights I switch to those occasionally to change the atmosphere dramatically. The older students that visit my room are super jealous of my lights. :)

GaryGruber's picture
Educator, lifelong learner, professional change agent

Good content but the illustration is misleading with chairs all in a row facing the same direction. Remember too well working in a place where students had to line up under the lights according to height. Never did like looking at the back of someone else's head. Not very inspiring. Keys are flexibility, adaptability, variety, creativity, innovation and impact on learning. Keep up the good work!


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