Designing Classrooms of the Future Now!, pp. 3 of 11

Is it the 21st Century Yet? The Need to Redesign Classrooms

The term 21st century learning has become a cliché, with many books, videos, articles and conferences addressing the need for fundamental changes in the way we prepare students for new social, economic, political, and environmental conditions. The basic argument is often that we are in the midst of globalizing processes and an information explosion where our knowledge base is increasing at an exponential rate and old methods of knowledge acquisition and retention are no longer sufficient. These ideas are well expressed by groups such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the Metiri Group, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU). These organizations tend to call for new literacies, a range of critical and creative thinking skills, and particular habits of mind or dispositions that will empower young people for new forms of work and the types of citizenship necessary to understand and address a range of increasingly complex and interconnected issues. As Erica McWilliam (2010) notes, the call is for a particular “epistemological agility” which requires the ability to cross domains, explore alternatives, and manage knowledge that is often uncertain, fluid, and constantly changing. This agility also requires risk-taking dispositions, rather than dispositions for routine thinking, and capacities “to select, reshuffle, combine, or synthesize already existing facts, ideas, faculties and skills in original ways” (p. 291). Why, then, do we see few classrooms that seemingly support these abilities, capacities, and dispositions?

If we are sincere in our efforts to move away from the 19th or 20th century factory models of schooling, we have to re-consider the purposes of schooling in the 21st century and think more deeply about the cultures of learning that we hope to foster. And we need to consider how classroom environments can better support a new culture of teaching and learning that might more directly support important 21st century educational outcomes. In their book, The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools, architects Prakash Nair and Randall Fielding (2005) call for a common design vocabulary and design patterns that can help educators think more about spatial quality, key psychological and physiological processes central to learning, and community connections in a more holistic manner. They highlight that classrooms are the most visible signs of educational philosophy. If this is the case, there is a clear disconnect between the philosophies that most schools claim to believe in to prepare students for the 21st century and the kinds of classroom environments they provide. This requires us to think how school and classroom environments might be restructured to better support the philosophies, aims, and goals we claim to hold dear.

As students, teachers and human beings, we are shaped and influenced by each other and by our environment. Our environment includes both the physical settings that we work, study and live in as well as the technology and media that permeates these settings. However, we can no longer view classroom environment, pedagogy, curriculum, and technology as separate entities. Rather, they should be viewed as embedded in each other and as potentially enabling or constraining the other elements that make up educational spaces (Segall & Landauer-Menchik, 2007). Instead, the pedagogical relations between environment, curriculum, technology and teacher-student interactions can be seen as a third space (McWilliam, 2010) that makes consideration of learning environment key since it tends to structure, constrain, inhibit or open up new possibilities for teaching and learning.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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