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  • Writer's pictureToby A. Travis, EdD

7 Disciplines of Classroom Design

by Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.

Chad P. Wick, president and CEO of the KnowledgeWorks Foundation states, “You can’t expect children to learn 21st-century skills in schools built for the 1950s. We need schools designed for 21st-century success.”

Some would argue the meaning and function of the learning environment is minimal, as related to the traditional brick-and-mortar school. Projects such as the widely successful Hole-in-the-wall Project, where students accomplish amazing levels of learning in far-from-ideal surroundings, suggest that students learn in any setting – and to a certain extent that is quite true.

​Surroundings do matter and there is a great deal of research behind that conclusion. An overwhelming amount of research also shows the best learning environments are not traditional lecture halls and factory-style rooms with rows and rows of desks. During the 1990s, the rise of constructivism and its associated theories in psychology and education represented a paradigm shift for educators and instructional designers to a view of learning that is necessarily more social, conversational, and constructive than traditional transmissive views of learning. These contemporary learning theories are based on substantively different ontologies and epistemologies than were traditional transmissive views of learning. (Jonassen and Lund, 2012) The most meaningful and functional learning environments today foster and support students in the process of constructing their own learning. Students are not empty vessels awaiting knowledge and wisdom transmitted from the teacher. They are active learners. Learning environments contribute to the school’s objectives when they are student rather than teacher-centered. Unfortunately, despite what research has shown for years, and although a vast majority of educators would readily agree with student-centered school plant design, the transmissive style of instruction by a teacher is still the predominant form of instruction in the majority of schools and universities today. A fundamental and informed philosophy of education affirms that learners construct knowledge. Information may be transferred through the traditional lecture or broadcast method, but knowledge is built by the individual learner.

Learning is primarily a social process. Students are social creatures needing feedback to validate their beliefs. The environments that support the greatest amount of learning are those encouraging and supporting social communication. Rather than invest in traditional classroom settings, which were designed for monologs, trusted school leaders design school environments for dialogs. How significant is this? The simplest way to help someone understand the significance of a learning environment that supports relationships, is to ask the question, “How significant is your house or apartment?” Anyone can instantly answer the question. Everyone recognizes the high importance and value of living in a clean and healthy home environment – functional to meet the living standards we desire and that reflects our values. The same holds true with school buildings and campus facilities. Schools are home environments for students, faculty, and staff a large part of their waking hours. Yet, “planning and managing school facilities remains one of the most neglected areas of school administration” (Kowalski, 2002). The lack of planning and management often results in tremendous levels of teacher distraction; drawing their focus away from teaching. Many school leaders have never completed a course on the essential topics of school plant design and management. This should concern school owners, boards, and all stakeholders in light of other realities such as:

  • School buildings are multimillion-dollar investments

  • Administrators are expected to have the requisite knowledge and skills to facilitate planning and manage buildings once constructed

  • Many existing buildings are inadequate in light of changing curricula, instructional methods, and building codes

  • Decades of neglect, poor planning, cost-cutting, and deferred maintenance have contributed to the current crisis

  • Improperly planned schools could become obsolete well before their intended life spans

Trusted school leaders understand the potential distractions inherent within a school campus and protect teachers from them. These leaders understand the significance of the entire school campus as a learning environment, which supports the work of learning – rather than detracting from it. They are familiar with the research on this subject; especially in educational psychology and sociology. That research conclusively shows the direct connection between learning environment and learning. Intentional classroom design is core to supporting a vibrant and effective learning environment. “Learning theorists and researchers have come to understand that we don’t so much teach as we create an environment in which people can learn. Learning facilitators design experiences and activities allowing people to grasp new concepts, learn required knowledge, and gain needed skills” (Lombardozzi, 2015). The foundational framework to the many facets of classroom design, supporting the greatest level of actual learning, is that schools must be student-centered; rather than teacher or even technology-centered.

Building on the framework of student-centered learning environments, trusted school leaders exercise the following: 7 Disciplines of Classroom Design:

  1. Supporting and fostering healthy relational connections between students and teachers.

  2. Facilitating opportunities for frequent practice and active learning (i.e. students engaged in learning activities as opposed to passive instruction).

  3. Supporting both project-based and problem-based learning, where students directly apply their learning to real life.

  4. Supporting self-regulated learning that recognizes students as individuals developing at varying paces.

  5. Encouraging and developing learning communities, where students support each other.

  6. Inviting and attractive entrance and exit areas, fluid circulation, lighting and color.

  7. Seating that is age appropriate and supports learning activities and engagement.

If done well, many of these elements are invisible to the casual observer and perhaps even the learner – but each facet of classroom design that receives intentional consideration and facilitation contributes to greater student engagement and higher levels of learning. School leaders who also focus on the continual development of environments that support learning also increase their level of trust. Authored by Toby A. Travis, Ed,D,

© by SchoolRIGHT, LLC., unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved.​ ​---------------------------------------------------------- Recommended Reading:

  • Anthony H. Normore, “Socializing school administrators to meet leadership challenges that doom all but the most heroic and talented leaders to failure,” International Journal of Leadership in Education 7, no. 2 (2004).

  • Barry J. Zimmerman, “Self-Regulated Learning and Academic Achievement: An Overview,” Educational Psychologist 25, no. 1 (1990).

  • Caroline A. Guardino and Elizabeth Fullerton, “Changing behaviors by changing the classroom environment,” Teaching Exceptional Children 42, no. 6 (2010).

  • C. Lambert, “Twilight of the Lecture,” Harvard Magazine (1990).

  • Catherine Lombardozzi, Learning Environments by Design (Danvers, MA: ATD Press, 2015).

  • David Jonassen and Susan Land, Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2012).

  • Hannele Niemi, “Active learning—a cultural change needed in teacher education and schools,” Teaching and Teacher Education 18, no. 7 (2002).

  • Hole-In-The-Wall Education Project, accessed 23 June 2016,

  • Jane L. David, “Project-Based Learning,” Educational Leadership 65, no. 5 (2008).

  • Lina Zane, Pedagogy and Space: Design Inspirations for Early Childhood Classrooms (St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 2015).

  • O’Donnel Wiklund Pigozzi and Bruce Mau, The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning (New York: Abrams, 2010).

  • Pamela Woolner, The Design of Learning Spaces (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010).

  • Rachel Wannarka and Kathy Ruhl, “Seating arrangements that promote positive academic and behavioral outcomes: A review of empirical research,” Support for Learning 23, no. 2 (2008).

  • Robert C. Pianta, Megan W. Stuhlman, and Bridget K. Hamre, “How schools can do better: fostering stronger connections between teachers and students,” New Directions for Youth Development 93, (2002).

  • Susan M. Land and Michael J. Hannafin, “Student-Centered Learning Environments,” Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments (2000).

  • Theodore Kowalski, Planning and Managing School Facilities (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2002).

  • Vincent Tinto, “Learning better together: The impact of learning communities on student success,” Higher Education Monograph Series 1, (2003).


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