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Throughout history, the learning structures put in place and their associated physical spaces have been a reflection of the needs in society at large. And even before there were schools, there was the master and apprentice model. Ironically, this method of learning actually meets the objectives toward which many school are moving today. The master recognized that each child was unique and had different strengths and weaknesses. They adapted their pace and skills being taught to each child’s individual needs. Next came the one room schoolhouse, which was a result of the culture and priorities during the industrial era. Its simple layout with rows of desks and a teacher at the front of the classroom, or “sage on a stage,” was meant to encourage discipline, uniformity, and productivity. There was little opportunity for differentiation or creativity in these types of classrooms.

Coming after the one room schoolhouse are the early modern learning spaces. Most of our current schools are still in this style, which is more of a factory model consisting of classrooms and corridors. Although these schools differ in design from the industrial model, their purpose was not much different from their predecessors. These highly controlled environments were meant to ready students for careers in the service sector and administration and did not provide many opportunities for creative thought or collaboration.

While this school design may still be the norm, many designers and school stakeholders are beginning to recognize the need for more personal, learner-centered spaces. The understanding that the design of a space affects learning is causing a new way of thinking about learning environments. Shared learning spaces that offer areas for collaboration, individual work, and allow for students to easily move from area to another are becoming more common. These types of spaces resemble a coffee shop or an open plan workplace, such as Hootsuite, and share the same goals of fostering creativity and community.

As opposed to industrial era classrooms that limited free thinking and encouraged uniformity, these flexible and collaborative learning environments allow creative thoughts to flow and encourage the development of problem solving skills that are so essential to success in 21st century careers. Ironically, the 20th century educator, Maria Montessori, understood these needs better than many do today. She states, “Education is a natural process spontaneously carried out…acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.” Student centered schools can more readily meet their different needs and enable them to fully engage in the learning process. In essence, the environment needs to becomes an active player in the learning process.

Regardless of a school’s design shell, its interior learning spaces must be able to evolve with changing pedagogies, priorities, and the needs of students. Creating flexible, student-centered environments will ensure that today’s schools meet the needs of tomorrow’s learners.