21st Century Learning Spaces


Before my parents move out of my childhood home in Newton, Massachusetts, I take one last drive around the neighborhood.

I remember restaurants and stores come and gone, replaced by fancy new outdoor shopping areas. I stop by the local Dunkin Donuts, which over my 29 years of life has received several facelifts. Driving around, I also pay attention to new homes with modern designs, blending in perfectly to this gorgeous New England town.

But a dark, luminous cloud hovers over my elementary school, a structure that time seems to have forgotten. As far as I can tell, the building looks entirely unchanged, with exterior yellow bricks and large green entrance doors still oozing that same intimidation and fear. I don’t venture inside, but I would be scared to do so even if the principal escorted me. The property feels cold, uninviting, and downright creepy.

I can only imagine how young children feel. If teachers aim to inspire a love of learning and a commitment to making this world a better place, then we must design and construct exciting, cutting-edge 21st-century schools that resemble learning centers more than prisons.

It seems strange to me that even with an increased emphasis on creativity and ingenuity, many of our school buildings represent neither. Recently, I did some research into how much thought schools are giving to creating innovative learning spaces. I’m pleased that the discussion is alive and well, and I read a number of great articles about this topic.

“Lecture halls with sloped floors and fixed seats and classrooms with immovable podiums and tablet-arm chairs are going the way of the mimeograph as colleges and universities redesign learning spaces to accommodate new instructional models, driven by a generation of students who grew up in the digital age and who now expect interactive, learner-centered instruction,” writes EdTech Magazine reporter Raechelle T. Clemmons in Technology, Instruction and the 21st Century Classroom.

I find solace that America has reporters like Clemmons, pushing teachers and administrators to embrace this new dynamic. But I’m even more impressed by Lene Jensby Lange, founder and project manager of Autens, a Denmark-based company that specializes in creating innovative learning spaces.

“Why do classrooms have 25 similar desks for 25 different people? Why are schools a compilation of similar rooms? Why is the clock the most influential element as to what goes on? Most rooms in most schools all over the world communicate a story from the past,” Lange writes on her Autens company site. “We need new solutions for an entirely different, global and interacting world.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I recently reached out to Lange for more insight.

“You communicate through the furniture and through the whole interior design,” she says. “That you’re meant to sit down and be quiet and listen to the teacher because that’s where all the knowledge comes from. That’s not what we want to happen in schools today. We want kids to be active. We want them to produce knowledge. We want them to interact.”

I love how Lange designs comfortable, innovative space, where students seem to feel extremely comfortable learning and expressing ideas. It’s also refreshing to see such great open room, allowing students and teachers to interact more freely. Recently, a friend and colleague of mine said that school should feel like a second home. Clearly, Lange helps schools accomplish this goal.

I imagine that Lange’s designs also encourage risk-taking. When I feel comfortable by my immediate surroundings, without question I’m much more likely to do new things. We need bold pioneers who aren’t’ afraid of failing and learning from their mistakes.

I’m curious to learn more about how Lange goes about designing, and I ask what factors she considers before delving into a project.

“You always have to carefully think about what it is that you need. In some rooms, you’d need to be able to rearrange it like a Swiss army knife,” she says. “You could take whatever knife you need for the purpose. And other spaces you might need more fixed structures to support other things. It’s really a matter of your vision of learning and how you organize learning.”

Beyond the warm look and feel of her classrooms, more than anything else Lange is excited about how her designs improve the teaching and learning process.

During one project, Lange says, a teacher felt uneasy about doing away with a traditional classroom design:

She didn’t believe it at first that it would actually change what she did. It actually made a huge difference to her. She told me she became a much more creative teacher because she could have an idea and she’s in touch with the students during class.  She could feel, ‘Wow. This is not working. Let us rearrange the whole thing. Let’s create a lot of floor space and do it in a different way.’ She could rearrange things in a minute and change the strategy. I was a huge help for her and made her, as she said, much more creative. I think that’s really ‘wow.’

I hope it’s just a matter of time before somebody smart invites Lange over to America, where she would love to help build some exciting 21st-century school buildings.

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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