Why does a school have to look like a school?

The first question we ask people, when designing a learning space for them, is ‘what do you want the kids to do in the space?’ If the answer is “behave like robots” then your average sit-in-rows, face-the-front-and-keep-quiet classroom is doing a bang-up job, no change required.


If, however, you want a space that nurtures their creativity, encourages collaboration and enables them to learn how to deal with ambiguity, a traditional classroom layout simply isn’t going to deliver.

One head teacher, when designing a new school, asked his architects to bring him pictures not of schools but of hotels and shopping centres. His idea was to create a place people actually want to be in. Few of us get to redesign a whole school, but the idea of allowing beauty and creativity into our learning environments is one we should grasp with both hands. Just because it’s a public sector institution doesn’t mean it has to look like one (and even independent schools are prone to thinking ‘inside the box’ when it comes to classrooms).

Same old, same old

Budget restrictions, time constraints and fear of change are all valid and common reasons for simply replacing like with like when old classroom furniture is worn out. While times have changed, classrooms largely haven’t.

New technology, the demands of an ever-changing curriculum and the requirement to instil in pupils 21st century skills, should be forcing change. Surely by now our classrooms should be havens of learner-led activity, flipped learning and technology-enabled creativity? In some schools this is exactly what you’ll find. In the vast majority students still languish all day in chairs, in rows, facing the front.


One step at a time

So, in the face of fear of the unknown and all the other restrictions to unbridled creativity, what can you do to switch your learning spaces up a gear? One solution is the agile classroom. Tables you can move around so when you need them in rows facing the front (which is sometimes necessary) you can do that, then you can break into small groups, large groups or even pairs depending on the task in hand. Most teachers roll their eyes at the thought of 30 students moving furniture but, after the initial novelty has worn off, the ability to take ownership of their learning environment means they invariably step up and behave responsibly.

Alternatively you could take one room and transform that into a special place for project-based learning, intervention groups or a specific subject area.

So, when it comes to thinking about kitting out your learning spaces, just allow yourself to dream a little. You don’t have to do what you’ve always done and get what you’ve always got.