The physical aspects that define a successful classroom continue to evolve as new technologies and instructional methods are introduced. As architects of educational facilities, we continuously ask ourselves, how do we design today for the unpredictable future? The COVID-19 pandemic gave us some useful insights into educational delivery going forward, serving as a case study for a variety of things that worked well, as well as several things that did not. Many districts were forced into a virtual-only educational delivery model for an extended duration. This model did not necessarily work well for all age groups, or all individuals within those age groups, and highlighted the need for a dedicated classroom environment and in-person instruction. Conversely, it showed the great depth of resources that digital tools can make available to education — from virtual learning curriculum supporting personalized learning, to virtual conferencing and field trips, and enhanced collaboration and presentation capabilities.
The general academic classroom of the future must be designed to be more versatile, connected, and dynamic. No longer can the classroom address only the need for a teacher to provide direct instruction to their students, but also the need for students to present, collaborate, digitally connect, study, and create. These needs, and other lessons learned as we focus on health and student performance, demand a more deliberately designed physical environment than those of the past.
Expectations have changed and robust presentation capabilities in elementary classrooms are becoming essential — where educators can present information, conduct virtual field trips, and invite guest presenters into their classroom (physically or virtually). Students are now able to explore the art collection of the Louvre Museum, the Great Pyramids of Giza, or numerous other exceptional places halfway across the globe without needing to leave the classroom. Instructing a segment on social studies/history?… Why not invite a military veteran to share his story with your classroom virtually? This presentation focus will require large display panels mounted onto the wall surface(s) or alternatively movable around the classroom via carts. Display panels are more capable of presenting in varying light conditions than even the latest generation of projectors used by many. Touch enabled display panels are also available and allow for robust interaction with digital content and collaboration. More than a good display is needed though, the classroom will need a robust data connection, audio speakers dispersed throughout the space, and a quality webcam/microphone to allow for virtual interaction.
Classrooms at the elementary level are exploring more robust connections to the outdoors to maximize daylighting, expand the learning environment, and foster a connection to the natural world. Studies continue to prove that daylight and views of nature enhance student performance and learning outcomes. The desire to blur the line between interior and exterior spaces, using daylight and natural finishes, does require creative and thoughtful design to reduce glare. Strategies to bring in daylight while controlling glare can include window tinting — either static or dynamic (electrochromic) — exterior shading devices, interior light shelves, or simple window blinds/curtains. Each has its pros and cons as it relates to cost, durability, and longevity which should be reviewed by your architect. Enhanced product offerings for openings, like thermally insulated glass overhead doors, can allow for expansive connections to an outdoor patio, providing an expanded learning environment that connects to nature, while also providing daylight and views for the classroom. Creating these types of outdoors spaces and connections will require further consideration of site security, control, visibility, and privacy – interior courtyards can be an ideal solution. Creating integrated, planted, windowsills are another great option to enhance the natural connection within your space.
As we consider general academic classrooms at the middle and high school levels, further consideration needs to be given to personalized learning, collaboration, creation, and integration of diverse subjects. Many subjects will benefit from specialized spaces, and some learning may be able to be delivered virtually, in whole or part, to these age groups. Addressing specialized educational needs and hybrid learning potentials will drive schools to consider the creation of classrooms of varying sizes, not just your typical ±900 square-foot classroom. Learning environments must not only accommodate whole classroom presentations by an educator or student as noted at the elementary level, but also must strongly support group work and interaction, providing scattered locations for groups to internally present and share their work, conduct research, and otherwise collaborate. The classroom will need to be given further acoustic consideration as there will now be many potential individuals and groups conversing at the same time. Incorporation of higher noise reduction coefficient (NRC) ceiling tiles, acoustic clouds, and acoustic panels / wall applications will all need to be considered.
As students are given more freedom to collaborate, self-study, and receive coaching versus direct instruction, supervision becomes more difficult and the visual connection between spaces will want to be heavily considered. Spaces should be designed for learning to occur not just inside the classroom but in other places people can gather, including seating (learning) stairs, hallways, commons, media centers, etc. Learning opportunities could become much less formal for those times when students are able to receive the curriculum digitally. Ultimately students will still need coaching, mentoring, and interpersonal interaction to reach their full potential. This is best accomplished in a centralized learning environment like a school. The school is not going away!