The classroom has always been a reflection of a society’s views regarding the goals of education. Education in the past (pre-1970s) primarily served the purpose of providing a basic foundation of commonly-held beliefs and understandings to prepare students for a reality that currently existed (i.e. learning a trade/career, going to college, etc). Conversely, education since the 1970s has increasingly been focused on providing a basic understanding of universal principles to inspire students to create a reality that doesn’t yet exist. In other words, instead of pulling students to established results and known expectations, education now serves more to push students toward an as yet unknown future!
This shift in the purpose of education can be observed through time, as classrooms have slowly evolved to meet the demands of the day, causing expectations of outcomes to shift as well. For example, the fact that pencil and paper weren’t widely used in classrooms until around 1900 may seem like an interesting bit of trivia, but think of what that meant for students before this time - no essays and no lecture notes! Now, before you suddenly yearn for the days of Little House on the Prairie, realize that this meant everything had to instead be committed to memory. This would naturally put a limit on the expectations of what students were to learn and retain.
Thus, as the educational opportunities for students continue to increase, so do the expectations for what these students will one day be able to accomplish. In preparing students for the future, we want to set the bar high, but still make sure every student has an opportunity to clear it. In this respect, interactive technology and flexible learning spaces are incomparably up to the task, as they serve to both raise the bar as well as help students get over it!
The History of Classroom Design
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the general expectation for students was to learn enough to be self-sufficient, well-mannered, informed, and of benefit to the community. This is evident in the smaller scope of subjects taught to students, as well as the primary focus on the “Three Rs” of education - Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic. Lessons in manners and morality were daily occurrences as well. Educational reformer Horace Mann came up with a simple design for the one-room schoolhouse -the “Common School”- that was used widely throughout the continent. As the Industrial Revolution rolled on, new laws regarding education and child labor meant larger school enrollment, thus creating a need for a more standardized, utilitarian, and efficient classroom design. Floor space was maximized, with instructors now lecturing from a raised platform to students sitting in fixed desks many rows deep. Bells signaled the beginning and end of learning periods. Again, expectation determined the layout, as much was structured to prepare students for jobs working in factories.
When we come to the early to mid-twentieth century we note a distinct change in classroom design, as well as the first glimmer of the notion to shift learning from teacher to student-centered*. Despite the fact that the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, there was a fair amount of school building accomplished in the 1930s due to President Roosevelt’s New Deal and government-funded initiatives. In terms of classroom design, education reformers suggested more windows (more light and better views!), desks arranged in groups, outdoor learning, and more open spaces. These new schools would come to be known as “open air schools,” and they are noted for their timelessness and student-centered flexibility, with many schools still in use today. Unfortunately, this era would be short-lived, as the post-World War II baby boom forced educators to react quickly. With student populations rising by the millions in the decades after the war, over $20 billion was spent on new educational facilities around the country. While school architects still retained some of the student-friendly designs of the pre-war era, educators - struggling to meet the needs of their exploding classroom populations - reverted to some of the older teaching tactics and classroom layouts characteristic of the turn of the century. Once more, students were guided by their education to fulfill certain expectations within American society.
The Rise of the Student-Centered Classroom
The 1970s through the end of the century are marked by their gradual, yet determined evolution from the teacher-centered, passive learning characteristic of much of the twentieth century to the student-centered, outcome-based, collaborative, and active learning that is now so commonplace two decades into the twenty-first century. For starters, new research in the 1970s demonstrated that student learning was significantly affected by the layout of school facilities, and the open air classrooms of the 1930s were slowly being recognized for their impact on students’ behavior and attitudes, though there was very little headway in reintroducing them. The post-war building boom made building new schools all but unnecessary, especially in light of the nationwide enrollment drop in the Eighties. But this gave educators time for reflection. With the tremendous technological advances in the Eighties and Nineties, the job market began to change. As technology began to make its way into the classroom, educators realized that they were preparing their students for a future that was actually unknown to both teachers and students. Therefore a change in approach was no longer optional, but necessary - a change of focus from the teacher to the student.
This brings us to where we are today and the unknown of where we may be tomorrow. The concept of student-centered learning has so permeated the educational landscape that step into just about any twenty-first century classroom today and the goal will be (whether in theory or in practice) to give students more autonomy in their learning. To promote this autonomous learning, educators around the country have recognized the need for flexible learning spaces that meet the varied needs of students. An article from The Atlantic titled “Reimagining the Modern Classroom” asked prominent voices in education to describe the perfect classroom. Here are some of their responses:
“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 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”
“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 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.”
“It will be critical to rearrange the physical space and furniture to align with the principles of student agency, flexibility, and choice... Because these models will leverage multiple modes of learning, they will need spaces [for] different activities”
It was stated at the beginning of this article that as the educational opportunities for students increase, so do the expectations. A schoolmarm in 1870, with just chalk and a chalkboard, knew in essence the kind of life she was preparing her students for and set her expectations for them to meet that future. A teacher in 1960, with projectors, copiers, and even television, demanded more from his students, though there was still a clear future in sight. Today, students have personal devices, internet access, online classes, and educational spaces designed to meet their needs in order to foster learning and creativity. Through the use of interactive technology and flexible learning spaces, educators have in many respects put a child’s education both literally and figuratively into his or her own two hands. They have given students more opportunity as well as more responsibility; because though the future is not as clear or certain as it once was, it certainly seems brighter and filled with great possibility.
So the question we must be asking now is… are we giving students the tools and environments they need to not just enter into this unknown future, but to play a part in shaping it as well?
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* Student-centered learning is an approach to learning in which learners choose not only what to study but also how and why. At the heart of the learning environment are learner responsibility and activity, in contrast to the emphasis on instructor control and coverage of academic content found in conventional, didactic teaching.