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A National View of 21st Century Learning

Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Written by: Regina Leone, Associate IIDA - Interior Design

We've seen what 21st century, student-centered learning means to our immediate surroundings of NE Ohio, but what does it mean to those beyond that footprint? On a recent trip hosted by VS America, I had the opportunity to experience two schools in Charlotte, North Carolina that utilize design elements reminiscent of 21st century design - maybe even pushing the boundary into what we can expect for the upcoming century. Along with touring schools, I had the pleasure of chatting with teachers, administrators, and designers from Indiana, Georgia, and North Carolina to gain insight into how they view the delivery and receival of education.

The first school to touch on is a STEM school that is part of a three building campus housing K-12. Built in 2006, the STEM building looks beyond the traditional double loaded corridor with classroom's full of metal book box desks and rigid chairs. Instead, there is a refreshing feel with a translucent panel façade that allows diffused natural light to flood through the space. Each room has an overhead door that opens to the exterior to allow the classroom to spill out into nature. The desks are no longer bulky metal, but rather a light, mobile table with various styles and heights of seating. What would be a traditional corridor is actually an enlarged learning space with raw concrete floors, whiteboard walls and various work zones to give it a true "Maker Space" feel. Students can use this extension of the classroom for small group work or class size demonstrations - even going as far as using the staircase as an egg drop challenge area. With a non-traditional approach, students have the potential to thrive in a learning environment geared for interaction and experimentation in the STEM world. 

The next school, a Charter school, is a model of how 21st century furniture can transform a space into any type of environment needed for learning. The new school occupies what were four separate buildings - office spaces, a yoga studio, and an architectural firm. The original interior layouts of the buildings remain, inherently breaking the bounds of a traditional school design. To accommodate the unusual architectural layout, appropriate mobile furniture is used to define classroom space. Being mobile, everything can be transformed for whatever purpose the school needs. The furniture facilitates active learning and flexibility of space without being limited within built walls. While there, I saw teachers team-teaching a lesson and then transition to a focused learning by pulling mobile storage units over to create an "enclosed" space. Students were sitting in chairs, bean bags, lounge seats, and even some were lying right on the carpeted floor for a more informal break-out with friends. Students were learning at a pace that suited their individual need in a way they found most comfortable. The combination of architecture and 21st century furniture takes this school to another level of learning that breaks the mold of what most are accustomed to, opening the door for numerous possibilities.

21st century learning is gaining momentum in all areas of the country, not just our little corner of NE Ohio. There are many overlapping characteristics that were seen in the schools I visited and some others that are not so similar, but have a place for each community nonetheless. Overall, my take-away of both NE Ohio design and design in North Carolina is that a mixture of learning environments along with student/teacher choice creates a strong atmosphere for exceptional potential that can take our students to the next level of learning.

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