What Is a Classroom?

Spring 2019

By Ben Pell

Among the many changes that are reshaping the education landscape, physical space is an obvious but critical factor in any discussion. Master planning and facility design for schools today face a wide range of external factors that directly impact learning environments. From shifts in pedagogical practices to emerging technologies, today’s education spaces need to be open to appropriation and responsive to change.

But as school leaders, administrators, educators, and architects think through a new paradigm of flexibility in the design of schools, an interesting question surfaces: Has the classroom itself become outmoded? Do the very walls and doors of the classroom as a room disqualify it from participating in the current teaching milieu of ever-larger, ever-more open, ever-more flexible learning spaces? And how might school leaders think about the relationship among today’s varied learning spaces in ways that promote not just flexibility, but also adaptability to changes in educational thinking and practice in the future?

Revisiting the Classroom

These questions provided the framework for a recent upper level architecture studio that I taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, entitled “Education Space in the Expanded Field.” As the centerpiece of most college-level architecture programs, the design studio is an immersive and intensive course that serves as the testing ground for ideas, both practical and theoretical. In this case, the project brief that I provided asked students to propose a school design for Providence’s Southside neighborhood. I chose this particular neighborhood because there are currently few schools in the area. The Southside is a neighborhood in economic crisis, which prompted the students to think about how the school could serve this community. The intention was to explore how educational environments could directly reflect the notions of flexibility associated with the collaborative, project-based learning taking place in many schools today.
My students were in a unique position to consider these questions from personal experience. All in their 20s, most of them had been educated in school buildings characterized by a familiar setting: classrooms separated by subject, with desks essentially fixed in place and facing the front of the room, where content was delivered by the teacher standing at the blackboard—learning environments where roles and boundaries, both educational and architectural, were clearly defined.
By this point in their education, however, these students had also experienced two to three years of architecture school, an environment characterized by an open-studio atmosphere, where active discussion, collaboration, and interdisciplinary work take place at all hours of the day and night. These activities elicit critical thinking through an iterative process of research, design, presentation, and feedback, and, not surprisingly, have led educational innovators to consider the architecture studio as a potent model for education at all grade levels.
Equipped with both perspectives on learning environments, the students began familiarizing themselves with concepts that educators and students are putting into practice today. First, the students researched and discussed in seminars the history of educational movements and philosophies, including Horace Mann’s Common School, Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia, and they looked closely at historical and contemporary examples of school design. They also watched the documentary Most Likely to Succeed to get a sense of how the relationship between teacher and student has changed, and to familiarize themselves with educational terms and concepts. They talked about the synthesis of multiple subject areas through project-based assignments and the pursuit of workspaces that accommodate collaboration and enable learning to happen in variable configurations. This trend toward flexibility has begun to break down traditionally fixed boundaries—between content areas, spaces, and learners—supported by environments that promote openness, visibility, and connection.
But in a present-day context where the fluidity of spaces and the mobility of furniture often dominate the design conversation, the students struggled with the relevance of the classroom itself. In this new paradigm of flexibility, is the fixed nature of the room contrary to the openness of a dynamic learning environment? Is the classroom simply an architectural vestige of a now-out-of-touch approach to teaching, and, worse, do the lingering images of docile pupils sitting at neat rows of desks forever taint the classroom as a space of discipline rather than a place of authentic learning?

A Whole Learning Environment

Those images that many of us conjure at the mention of the word classroom represent instructional and architectural attitudes that date back to the birth of common education and the institutional school building in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. And as the most irreducible unit of that educational model, the classroom has perhaps the most uncertain fate in the current trend away from such highly structured learning spaces.
However, as the practice of teaching has evolved from the one-way delivery of content to the facilitation of student-led work, today’s classroom has become an important piece of a larger, sophisticated ecosystem of learning spaces. No longer characterized by the spatial or pedagogical dynamics of rows of desks and a single blackboard, passive students, and a “sage on the stage,” today’s classrooms provide multiple points of focus, as well as surfaces and furnishings for collaborative work—spaces where students are active participants in
the creation and sharing of content, and where teachers facilitate this work by giving it varying degrees of structure and guidance. Four walls and a door provide enclosure that enables focused group and individual work, ownership and identity connected to a defined space, and practical separation for especially loud, quiet, or light-sensitive work or presentations. While there is far greater flexibility within those four walls than ever before, the enclosed space of the classroom is a unique asset.
In meeting with educators and visiting mainly private schools in Providence and Boston, my students observed classrooms that were both varied and variable: content-rich surroundings, moveable seating and tables configured to support both small group and individual work, and vertical and horizontal writable surfaces throughout. Whereas repetition and uniformity once defined these spaces (rows of desks in each room, rows of rooms on either side of the corridor), the classrooms my students visited were sometimes situated as oases in the middle of a flexible work area. Rather than zoning different types of learning into separate parts of the building, these environments recognize that educational experience often benefits from alternating between shared, open work and focused, enclosed work. In this context, my students came to understand that classrooms are indeed essential to the functioning and flourishing of today’s schools—that in the expanded field of learning, the classroom continues to play a critical role as one of many necessary types of instructional space that collectively make up the whole learning environment.

Mapping the Field

While the space of the classroom might be more clearly defined and its physical enclosure more fixed than other boundaries within a school, those qualifications position the classroom within a spectrum that we can map along two different axes: flexible versus fixed and open versus closed.
To give my students a clear means of organizing their design proposals, I developed a diagram to chart some of the differences in space and use that we had observed (see “The Matrix” below).

For instance, we might locate today’s multifunction, collaborative spaces in the quadrant where open and flexible overlap. These might be areas of collective use, production, or presentation, such as the cafeteria, open work spaces, or student work galleries—physical spaces that are often open and fluid, with tremendous variability in how they can be reconfigured to accommodate a wide range of activities. In these environments, acoustical separation is often less critical, and flexible furnishings can work to differentiate between zones of collaborative and individual work space.
In contrast, art studios and libraries with physical collections, or science labs with dedicated equipment, might reside in spaces that are minimally enclosed but may require more fixed infrastructure kept in one place—such as sinks, storage, and bookshelves: open and fixed. Similarly, makerspaces, music rooms, and classrooms require relative amounts of dedicated resources that may be difficult to move (power, equipment, materials, and instrument storage), but may need a greater degree of acoustical enclosure: closed and fixed. Lastly, uses which are defined by their inherent flexibility—such as performance spaces and recreation areas—that also require a clearly defined, controllable area might be characterized as being closed and flexible.

Beyond the Classroom

Understanding the shared qualities and relative differences among various types of learning spaces can greatly inform the conversation between educators and designers who are thinking about the future of their schools. While the matrix students used to help guide their proposals represents only two subsets of qualities that characterize today’s learning spaces, it can serve as an instrument to explore potential remappings of these relationships. For instance, what would it mean to the culture and life of a school if the library was moved into the flexible end of the y-axis? Or if a performance space was relocated to the open end of the spectrum? Thinking in these terms can help a school community understand how to optimize its current spaces, but also speculate about how the design and organization of their physical environment can better support next-generation practices. The variables in the diagram are easily swapped out for others and just as readily applied to questions of facilities management (e.g., long- versus short-term needs; maintenance versus growth) or at the scale of master planning (e.g., indoor versus outdoor spaces; community versus school programming).
Applied to the design of a school for the Southside, this diagram revealed to my students that flexibility is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Situating instructional and other school spaces along these axes enabled them to see opportunities where boundaries might be dissolved due to common space needs—perhaps combining dining and exhibition spaces, or art and library spaces. And finally to see that, far from irrelevant, today’s classroom occupies one of many coordinates within a necessarily varied and diversified learning environment.

Ben Pell

Ben Pell is an architect and a principal of PellOverton Architects based in New York City and Providence, Rhode Island. PellOverton specializes in design for innovative learning environments and recently completed award-winning projects with Blue School (NY), Brooklyn Heights Montessori School (NY), and the Kennedy Children’s Center (NY).