The End of Traditional Classrooms

At home, every room is designed to help us perform a specific task. Think about your kitchen, your bedroom, and your bathroom, and what key activity each of these spaces enables you to do. Consider the physical form of a kitchen – what function is it supporting? Kitchens are outfitted with tools to help us cook. Bedrooms are made quiet and comfortable so we can sleep. And bathrooms are full of gadgets to help us wash. Each room is designed around an activity – a verb – that you have determined is important for your life at home.

Take the bedroom, for example. We may not even realize it, but a bedroom is designed for sleeping. Maybe there’s a white noise machine to mask disruptive sounds or blackout shades to create a dark, cave-like atmosphere (since that’s where we learned to sleep thousands of years ago). Selecting a comfortable bed ensures we’re not tossing and turning all night, and placing a night stand nearby gives easy access to the books we might read before falling asleep. Everything from furniture to the room’s layout supports its function.
At Kurani, we recently extended this logic of “microenvironments” into the education world when New York City asked us to design campuses for its new EPIC High Schools. The school’s founders envisioned an experience unlike the standardized curriculum so many students are used to. EPIC focuses instead on early college exposure, social responsibility and critical thinking, connecting students to industry, and one-on-one mentoring.

Our designers worked closely with school leaders on a campus prototype that could make this educational program possible. The focus was on the many different activities, or verbs, that needed to happen at an EPIC school – make, debate, connect, mentor, etc. There was one immediate challenge: the city was planning to house these new schools inside outdated 1960s facilities which consisted of many generic 28-foot classrooms. Bound by this structural constraint, our team had to creatively transform each box into a unique microenvironment.

In the new design, each space has the tools and atmosphere needed to support a key activity or learning experience. Teachers would no longer be locked to their singular space; teachers become guides who travel with students across campus to whichever space is best for the task at hand.

Here are a few of the microenvironments designed for EPIC Schools:

  1. Build Barn — This “messy” space is designed for making, doing, and prototyping solutions for the real world. The room has a basic machine-shop setup, as well as paneled walls that can be easily and cheaply replaced once they get beat up. The epoxy-coated concrete floor makes for easy cleanup and resists stains and scratching while students build things.
  2. The Pit — It’s the perfect place for debates and discussions that build social awareness and critical thinking. At the center of this simple room is a sunken “pit” filled with foam cubes that can be arranged into infinite seating options, from a campfire to an amphitheater. Other than dry erase walls, the room has been stripped down to minimize distractions and emphasize interpersonal exchanges.
  3. Learning Partner Incubator — We’ve dedicated a space for connecting students to industry experts on a daily basis. Each year, one innovative company is invited to serve as an on-campus learning partner. The incubator provides office space for running a business while its open work room offers a place where students can learn from professionals right on campus.

Just as our homes enable us to do many things, shouldn’t our schools give students many opportunities and possibilities. Whether you’re in a primary or secondary school or even higher ed, ask yourself: “What do I wish students and teachers could do on campus?” With such a variety of activities it no longer makes sense for schools and their architects to spend so much time planning the campus layout and external appearance, but so little time designing the classrooms themselves.

Which spaces at your school are optimized to support collaborating? What about designing and presenting? There’s usually an opportunity to re-design for microenvironments that can better support your specific needs. As you think about your school’s goals, consider what better spaces could mean for your educational program.