Designing for High-Impact Learning Spaces


Renowned theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Today, it seems school officials and educators are finally catching on to Einstein’s wisdom by reconsidering the effectiveness of the environments in which students learn.

In fact, leaders are completely rethinking the design of learning facilities of the past, which were essentially intended for controlling students, restricting learning to a predetermined curriculum delivered by those in authority. In stark contrast to that outdated model, schools are now looking at their roles through a new lens; they have a vision of education that is freeing, unfolding, and discovering who we are, and our purpose as we live and work together.

As a result, the education paradigm is being disrupted by shifting student demographics, research focused on the science of learning, and the impact of new technologies on student performance. New teaching approaches demand new kinds of learning spaces to prepare today’s students for the future. As content becomes more dynamic, flexible, and accessible to a large number of students, schools and universities are looking at how that content is currently delivered and what types of changes need to be made in the design of physical learning spaces.

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interiors+sources Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through the pages of the magazine. Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this issue’s article. To receive one hour of continuing education credit (0.1 CEU) as approved by IDCEC, read the article, then log in to take the corresponding exam or to earn 1 learning unit (LU) as approved by AIA, read the article, then log in to take the corresponding exam.

After reading this article, you should be able to:

  • Define the forces that are driving changes to today’s learning spaces.
  • Discuss how learning spaces are evolving to address these forces.
  • Identify how technology considerations need to be included in space design decisions for the digital literacy age.
  • Discuss new types of learning spaces that are emerging and suggested design elements for these classrooms of tomorrow.

This CEU will explore in greater detail the drivers that are imposing change in today’s schools, the evolution of learning spaces, and how technology and new types of learning environments will literally reshape the space design of classrooms for greater impact in the age of digital literacy.


If it were possible to rewind the clock back 100 years to 1917, we might be surprised at how vastly different the world looked then compared to the present day. For starters, the average life expectancy for men was merely 48 years, as opposed to 77 years today. In 1917, the average U.S. household earned just $800 per year, versus $73,000 in 2014 (the latest year with complete data). According to The Atlantic, the workplace looked far bleaker in the early 20th century for both men and women as well:

[W]ork for men was more widespread, more dangerous, worse paid, and well, just more annoying. According to the 1920 census, 85 percent of men over 14 were in the labor force, compared with just 69 percent for men over 16 today. It was the dawn of scientific management, with factory workers introduced to a brand new office colleague, the time clock. Manufacturing workers averaged 55 hours at work per week, 10 percent more than self-reported averages today. And the jobs were more dangerous: With a fatality rate of 61 deaths per 100,000 workers, the workplace was about 30 times more dangerous than it is today.

Women were much less likely to work, and a century ago, many were finding employment at elementary and high schools. The reason for women’s early entry into education in the U.S., however, is a little depressing. School boards preferred female teachers not only because they were seen as more loving, but also because they would do what male principals told them while accepting less than a man’s wage.

A few more notable statistics from the pre-1920 era add even greater contrast to the differences between life then and now:

  • Half of all families lived in rural areas or in towns with populations less than 2,500. In 1917, the population of Las Vegas was merely 800 people; in 2016, that number was 630,000.
  • There were about four times as many renters as homeowners, whereas today, the homeownership rate is above 60 percent. 
  • There were just 2 million cars on the roads, versus 255 million registered vehicles today.
  • Only 28 percent of American youths between the ages of 14 and 17 attended high school. 

It’s safe to say that things have changed tremendously over the course of a century, but sadly, our classrooms still look remarkably the same. In most schools across the country, the typical classroom layout is nearly identical to that of one from 1917 (see accompanying illustration). In fact, today’s classrooms in many ways reflect the workforce of the early 1900s. Back then, classrooms were designed to mirror the work being performed in factories during the Industrial Revolution. Just as workers stood at assembly lines producing Model T automobiles, children sat in rows facing forward toward the teacher, who was the sole source of knowledge.

But today’s students require more advanced skills to succeed in life, and as such, the educational system is experiencing a major disruption in the status quo. In today’s world, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. We need to embrace innovation and create a variety of educational opportunities to meet the diversity of students of all ages. To that end, a number of factors are driving the disruption to the educational paradigm, including:

  • Student Expectations: Students want educational opportunities to fit their lifestyles. They want a new system of learning—online and offline—traditional and the real world, inside and outside walled classrooms. They want a blend of online materials and hands-on experiences. They prefer learning environments that empower them to learn anytime, anyplace, and at any pace, both in school and beyond.
  • Faculty/Teacher Expectations: Shifting from lecture-based approaches to more collaborative work calls for new teaching methods. Research suggests that we must move from faculty-centered to student-centered teaching and learning environments. In fact, one North Carolina University case study established a highly collaborative, hands-on, computer-rich, interactive learning environment in large-enrollment physics courses, resulting in significantly improved performance in problem solving, increased conceptual understanding, improved attitude, and much higher success rates for females and minorities.
  • Employer Expectations: Employers are placing high importance on the mastery of competencies beyond basic content knowledge. Todays’ jobs require skills like innovation, communication, and digital literacy to name a few. A recent report titled, “Future Work Skills 2020,” concluded that to be successful in the next decade, “individuals will need to demonstrate foresight in navigating a rapidly shifting landscape of organizational forms and skill requirements. They will increasingly be called upon to continually reassess the skills they need, and quickly put together the right resources to develop and update these. Workers in the future will need to be adaptable lifelong learners.”
  • Competitiveness: Campuses and schools are feeling pressure to break down academic silos and create collaborative communities of innovative problem solvers in order to attract and retain students. Smart institutions are designing to support peer-to-peer, collaborative, experiential, and service-oriented pedagogies. (“Pedagogy” is a term used to define the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept.)

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