What images first come to mind when thinking of a traditional classroom? A standard square-shaped room with rows of desks, a whiteboard (or chalkboard, depending on how old you are) at the front and a desk or lectern for the teacher?

While this has been the standard model for schools and other educational spaces for decades, current best practice dictates that we abandon the traditional double-loaded corridors and closed rectangular box style of design. By embracing the philosophies of various innovative teaching pedagogies over the years, we have cultivated a knack for infusing our designs with the flexibility and freedom required to serve 21st Century learners.

The right design can transform bricks and mortar into a space that truly inspires and excites generations of students. By designing with intent and leveraging the key needs of the teaching strategies employed within—as well as the current and future needs of the students—SHP has been able to create unique spaces that foster self-discovery, collaboration and inclusion. Here are five examples of these types of spaces.


1. The Synnovation Lab at Sycamore High School

Learning happens best in flexible spaces where learners have control over their environment and can make adjustments to meet their needs at any given moment.

Working with the Sycamore Community School District, SHP took an underutilized theatre space and reimagined it to create the Synnovation Lab (a play on Sycamore and Innovation). The result is a unique high school learning environment that affords opportunities for individualized and project-based learning. In it, multiple teachers with a focus on diverse and various subjects are available to coach students as they progress through individually guided lessons. The Synnovation Lab offers students and teachers a choice of personal or group work zones, technology for collaboration or solo study, as well as a variety of unique seating and furniture options.

This open and flexible space gives teachers more freedom to focus on specific content—even specific students—in ways that wouldn’t be possible in a more traditional classroom setting. As for students, they feel more empowered to own their education, work at their own pace and create cross-curricular and interdisciplinary connections amongst their peers.


2. The Clipped Corner Classroom at Mt. Healthy Early Learning Center

When it comes to classrooms, corners are valuable real estate. Traditionally, the corners of a classroom are home to reading nooks, science stations or skills labs. So, you would think it stands to reason that when it comes to the ideal classroom shape, an L-shaped room would be optimal. And in many famous schools, like, for instance, the Crow Island school, you would be right. But, when it comes to early childhood education… the rules are different.

One of the most important directives in designing in the pre-school context is that the space must afford a teacher direct line of sight between themselves and all of the children in their care at all times… meaning our designs ideally should not have any hidden corners.

While designing the Mt. Healthy Early Learning Center, our team of architects and designers played with various prototype classroom shapes, including an L with a transparent center, angled sidewalls and even reflective surfaces, before landing on the concept of a clipped corner classroom. (Say that five times fast!)

We started with a rectangular-shaped classroom, then “sliced” one corner off to create a diagonal wall. We placed the entrance to the classroom in the middle of the newly created diagonal so that one enters in the middle of the space, leaving ALL of the corners of the room available for use as cozy nooks or small group learning zones. This strategy maximizes useable space while still allowing for uninterrupted visibility. See the photo to the left for a great view!


3. Teacher Co-Works at Winton Woods

One of the primary foundations of project-based learning (PBL) is collaboration on group projects among teams of students. Students are expected to work with one another to solve a problem and present their findings to their class. During our educational visioning sessions at the onset of planning and design for the new school in Winton Woods, the students posed a very valid question:

“If we’re expected to collaborate with one another, why aren’t our teachers?”

This question led us to create teacher co-working spaces within a system of shared spatial resources, which we implemented district-wide. Rather than “owning” classrooms, instructors across all grade levels share a “toolbox” of instructional spaces—comprised of a combination of large seminar-style classrooms, smaller studios, project labs and shared collaboration zones—within their respective wings. The co-working spaces consist of assigned desks in centrally located, highly transparent spots, oriented and with appropriate resources to encourage collaboration and interaction.


4. The Learning Stairs and Steeped Courtyard at Dover High School

At Dover High School, one idea that took root during our educational visioning process was the students’ desire to take their learning on the go.

We built on this notion by creating a centrally located commons space—anchored by indoor/outdoor learning stairs—that connects to every major component of the new school: the media center, academic wings, fine arts and athletics. The learning stairs allow the space to support enhanced interactive learning throughout the school day while introducing natural light that floods the surrounding spaces allowing for a greater connection to the community beyond.

Serving as Dover High School’s main entrance, the sunken learning stairs have become the school’s main social hub

Inside, the two-story stairs sit within a glass-enclosed atrium and connect the building’s main floor with the student dining area and media center. Ample seating and storage space make the stairs both practical and tactical.

As the primary pathway from the parking lot to the main gathering points inside the school, the stepped courtyard has quickly emerged as the school’s social vortex. In addition, it offers views of the entire campus and is large enough to accommodate a large number of students.


5. Distributed Dining at Clara J. Peck Expeditionary School

Distributed dining reimagines the square footage of a traditional school cafeteria—typically around 10,000 square feet–as a supplementary, multi-purpose space located throughout the school itself. Meals are still prepared onsite, but the food is brought to the students instead of the other way around. Other than a few cafe booths or standing tables, students have the choice to eat lunch in a variety of communal spaces. After all, who doesn’t remember those first-day-of-school, where-will-I-sit-at-lunch jitters?

This concept was first suggested by the students at Winton Woods, who wondered why they couldn’t enjoy a snack and collaborate on group projects at the same time. In our final design, as you’ll see in the photo to the right, individual workstations and café tables surround the school’s two-story learning stairs. Dining becomes an integral part of the learning experience.

We are excited to refine this idea further at Clara J. Peck, an expeditionary learning school currently in progress in Greensboro, NC.

While eliminating the cafeteria is innovative in and of itself, distributed dining serves the important purpose of providing nutrition to students throughout the day. It recognizes that everyone’s metabolisms and bodies have different needs, and it treats students who may be experiencing food insecurity with dignity. Making food resources available in the moment, as needed—as opposed to only during set lunchtime hours—helps students feel their best throughout the day, which can have a major impact on their ability to learn.


Future Flexible Spaces

When designing any project—whether it be a new build or updates to an existing facility—we, as architects and designers, seek to create a space that will have a long and productive life span. Built into that line of thinking is an understanding that the spaces we’re designing today might not serve the learning needs of students 20 or 30 years from now. So how do we “future-proof” our spaces?

Since it’s impossible to predict these needs in advance, we design our facilities to be future flexible.

We accomplish this by intentionally avoiding the placement of load-bearing supports in key areas. Instead, we leverage new impact-resistant drywall and basic framing studs to create easily modified walls in areas that later may need to be moved or adjusted to create spaces that are conducive to the new way in which education is being delivered. A school may decide to pursue a new educational philosophy which requires different room configurations, or they may be so pleased with their current setup that they choose to expand certain design elements to all areas of the building. As teaching and learning evolve, so too can the associated learning spaces.

Just as students 20 years ago weren’t taught about designing virtual environments in the metaverse, the kindergarteners and students of today may one day be growing hydroponic vegetables on Mars. We just hope the classrooms we’re designing for them today can support their extraterrestrial extracurriculars in the future!