The 21 -Century Classroom
American classrooms are outdated. Slate seeks your great ideas for how to
By Linda PerlsteinUpdated Monday, Oct. 11, 2010, at 6:46 AM ET
While going about my day, I sometimes engage in a mental exercise I call the Laura Ingalls Test.
What would Laura Ingalls, prairie girl, make of this freeway interchange? This Target? This cell phone?
Some modern institutions would probably be unrecognizable at first glance to a visitor from the 19th
century: a hospital, an Apple store, a yoga studio. But take Laura Ingalls to the nearest fifth-grade
classroom, and she wouldn’t hesitate to say, "Oh! A school!"
Very little about the American classroom has changed since Laura Ingalls sat in one more than a
century ago. In her school, children sat in a rectangular room at rows of desks, a teacher up front. At
most American schools, they still do.
Slate wants to change that, and we need your help. Today Slate launches a crowdsourcing project on
the 21st-century classroom. In this "Hive," we’re seeking to collect your best ideas for transforming
the American school. We’re asking you to describe or even design the classroom for today, a fifth-
grade classroom that takes advantage of all that we have learned since Laura Ingalls’ day about
teaching, learning, and technology--and what you think we have yet to learn. We will publish all your
ideas on Slate; your fellow readers will vote and comment on their favorites; expert judges will select
the ideas they like best, and, in about a month, we will pick a winner. That top design may be built as
a model classroom in a new charter school. We know from our previous Hive projects that Slate’s
millions of readers—some of you architects or educators or designers, most of you amateurs—have
amazing ideas, and we’re confident that you’ll come up with exciting new ways to reconceive the most
important space for American children. Speaking of children: We encourage you to have them enter
ideas too. See the bottom of the article for more details about how to submit your proposal. "
This, of course, isn’t the first effort to remake archaic school buildings. The most famous example was
the "open classroom" movement of the 1970s. Walls were removed, so where you once had, say, four
classrooms of 20 students each, you now had one room of 80. It was never clear what teachers were
supposed to make of these new spaces. They were instructed to teach children in small sections, or
maybe monitor them as they moved among hands-on activity stations, or maybe to do away with age-
based groupings and teach each child at his or her level. The goals were rarely clear, and even more
rarely met. Teachers taught as they always had, just with far more noise to shout over. The lesson
was obvious: Education reform must begin with educators, not architects.
But in other American institutions, architects and designers did change buildings to follow function.
Take the museum. As the purpose of museum-going evolved—people needed not just to see but to
interact, experience, feel—buildings were designed differently. So while we now have the Holocaust
Museum in Washington, the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and marvelous children’s museums in
many cities, schools have remained cold, rigid boxes.
As Barbara Worth of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International puts it, "We more or less
say, ‘Welcome to prison: We dare you to learn.’ "
Student photographers have captured the best and worst physical spaces in American
schools. View a gallery of student images of what they love--and hate--about their
Education has changed even if the room has not, and if you go into most schools, you are likely to see
teachers and students chafing against the rectangle. The 21st-century imperative is to closely monitor
students’ individual progress and teach them accordingly. Teachers are supposed to work together to
analyze data and coordinate their approaches. Most classes include at least some traditional
instruction: one teacher up front, addressing 20 or 30 students. But it is also common for students to
work on projects in small groups, for aides to conduct "interventions" with a few kids around a table,
and for teachers to assess children one at a time. Where the space has not been modified accordingly-
-which is to say, most everywhere--you see lots of kids sprawling on cold tile floors and huddling in
converted closets. Why haven’t schools evolved the way museums and playgrounds and supermarkets
One key reason is money. Large commercial buildings are usually constructed with a sturdy shell that
allows for the innards to be modified liberally. That’s expensive, so schools are built instead with fixed
beams and walls. Capital decisions lie with school boards, notoriously change-resistant entities. This
isn’t to say some districts haven’t kicked in for extravagant construction; the recent $578 million
public school building in Los Angeles, a basically broke school district, is a jaw-dropping example.
Another reason is that no one has yet proved that better spaces mean better education. No matter
how enthusiastically Cheryl Hines touts the test scores after her upcoming NBC show, School Pride,
made over a Compton, Calif., elementary school, no solid research proves that student achievement is
affected by physical surroundings. Many of our nation’s top-performing schools are getting the job
done in rectangles filled with desks. Classrooms in South Korea, which is kicking our ass in
international rankings, look like ours do, just with far more kids packed in.
Schools built around experiential learning often have unusual spaces. For the high schoolers at the
School of Environmental Studies, workspaces are individual office cubicles and the grounds of the
Minnesota Zoo. Waldorf classrooms have the uncluttered, woodlands-chic feel of a modern design
blog. Montessori classrooms lack desks; students select activities from open shelves and do their work
at little tables and on rugs. Sometimes just one piece of furniture forces a different way of doing
business, as at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where conversational, small-group
seminars take place at the oval Harkness Table in each classroom. And school buildings themselves
have undergone something of a makeover. It’s nearly impossible to find a school built in the last
decade without at least one soaring atrium, and there are usually a lot of skylights and windows,
because some experts think sunlight helps learning. (Then again, there are architects are designing
schools without eye-level windows, for security’s sake.) Hallways are bigger, and when you see
students hanging out there during class, they’re not cutting. They’re working. There are more carpets,
fewer lockers. Some schools are LEED-certified. They have started to embrace technology, albeit
haphazardly: interactive whiteboards, laptops, Wi-Fi, more convenient electrical outlets.
The emerging new model of classroom design should take advantage of changes in the way schools
teach. In places where schools have moved away from the idea of teachers as sole practitioners, away
from the science-then-reading-then-math-then-social-studies way of breaking up the day, and away
from treating students as a mass toward treating them as individuals, some innovative classrooms
have emerged. Architects have begun to toss out the usual set of spaces--classroom, cafeteria,
auditorium, gym, hallway--for more flexible layouts.
As a model of the new design, architects point to the the award-winning building for the Denver
School of Science and Technology, a small public charter high school. The design touches are groovy
and homey: carpeting and comfy couches and sunny, upholstered window seats. The ceilings are
breathtakingly high, and the beams and ventilation system are exposed, a living engineering lesson.
The core of the design aims for flexibility: There are rooms of all sizes, with drapes to pull across in
order to fashion smaller learning spaces, and a "pod" that accommodates all students, for assemblies
that look more like be-ins. Each classroom has a door to the outside. (When students are asked to
design a dream school, their fantasies nearly always involve the outdoors.)
It’s nice to see that some change is in the air, but there are great ideas that have not yet made it past
a school district’s capital budget. That’s where you come in. We’re inviting you to envision, and
design, a new American classroom. For consistency’s sake, we are asking that you design for fifth
graders. You might be designing a room for the study of math, or language arts, or science, or
everything. You might keep in mind a variety of students, including those special needs: students with
disabilities, students who don’t speak English. Consider that we are dealing with children, who must be
visible and safe.
Your entries can be shovel-ready or fanciful. All entries must have a written description, and we
strongly encourage submitting a sketch or a plan, so fellow readers can help visualize your ideas. Your
proposal can emphasize the shape of the room, the furniture in it, the technology available, the
materials—whatever you believe will make a real difference for students. You may submit actual
designs you have proposed to school boards. (You may even submit an already built classroom you
designed, though you must indicate in your submission that it has been built, so voters and judges
can take that into account.) We ask that you send us the design for one room only, though that room
may represent a comprehensive rethinking of school, which we encourage you to explain. You don’t
have to consider budget; you should, however, consider how you think students should be taught and
motivated. Effective school design, after all, "isn’t about making pretty," says Ronald Bogle, the
president of the American Architectural Foundation, although pretty is welcome. "It’s about the space
performing very particular functions."
You can submit your design between now and Friday, Oct. 29. You can vote and comment on the
ideas below. In early November, our expert judges and readers will choose a dozen finalists, and we’ll
select a winner in mid-November. Read our terms and conditions, then please enter your great idea