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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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Fran Siracusa's picture
Fran Siracusa
Educational Technologist and Consultant

Sure, I would enjoy that! Please email it to me at: I have some relevant pictures you might like to see about spaces we have transformed or teachers we have influenced when it comes to learning space design. Also, have you read the book, "The Third Teacher," which is a little old now, but still awesome. Additionally, I would love to invite you to our learning spaces workshop at ISTE, if you are attending this year. Looking forward to getting your future input! Take care! - Fran

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

janssen4 -- Our district piloted new furniture last year before getting new furniture for all classrooms this year. Since I piloted a variety of kinds of furniture, my students and I talked about it a lot. I surveyed them on the different kinds to see what they thought, and I explained a lot of times how I was using the furniture to improve their work spaces. I teach middle school, and my kids were very receptive to it all -- they definitely had strong opinions about what worked and what didn't! And lots of teachers are letting their students do the brainstorming and planning for classroom design -- they spend so much of their days there, you can bet they've got opinions! I agree that it would be a great conversation for high schoolers. Here's a post you might like from a teacher who asked her students to help with their classroom redesign:

DFischerEdu's picture

I have struggled with where to go next on how to make my classroom more 21st century. Thank you for laying out the pieces step by step. I teach first grade, so I often have to modify many of the ideas I find online, but I feel like these steps are really applicable to all grade levels. Are there any other primary grade teachers out there who have tried some of these steps?

tanveer's picture

Excellent classroom design. I will use these elements when I will setup my class room.
Thanks for sharing.

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

I'm so glad you find these ideas so applicable--that was definitely my goal in writing this! The whole idea for this article started when I was enthusiastically sharing the idea of MakerSpaces in the teacher's lounge and was met with, "It seems like the kind of thing that SOUNDS cool but that's just another impractical trend." I wanted help inspire people to lift themselves out of the "what we've always done" rut to see that amazing things can happen if we shift our mindset on what is possible to change in our classrooms.

I worked on implementing almost every one of these ideas with my 5th graders (on a very typical budget, small class size, and limited time), and I wrote the rest keeping in mind all those practical limitations in mind, too (and plan on applying them once I return to the classroom)! I would love to hear about how these strategies pan out for you with your 1st graders!

Collaborative genius's picture
Collaborative genius
Rachel Thomas and Steven Lamb: Cross Classroom Digital Collaboration, also known as Virtual Team Teaching, is where two geographically separated classrooms collaborate using a digital platform.

We love the set up. Please look at our TEDx talk to see how we also envision the 21st century classroom. its not a physical set-up, but it is related. We would love to hear what you think.;search%3A...

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!


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