Space matters. Why must high school students endure bland, ugly, boring classrooms?

When I walk into a classroom the physical environment shouts at me. It tells me what is valued, how students learn and where the power is.

What would this tell you?


  • desks in fixed rows
  • teacher’s desk at the front of the room
  • windows covered with black plastic on both sides to stop light (and the view)
  • bare brick walls
  • empty pin boards
  • four walls
  • fluorescent lights
  • accumulating ‘stuff’

Or this one?

Design and Technology learning space at Northern Beaches Christian School
  • variety of furniture
  • no front
  • plenty of natural light
  • colour and design
  • quality lighting
  • open and inviting

Does something happen in the minds of students as they move from primary to high school? Maybe an inviting physical environment won’t be appreciated by the students or is it a distraction to ‘real learning’.

Many classrooms reinforce the survival skills for the industrial era:

  1. Copying from the board
  2. Being fed from the teacher
  3. Maintaining silence
  4. Memorisation for regurgitation
  5. Playing the game
  6. Individual competition
  7. Compliance

In this setting learning is pushed: The teacher decides what needs to be pushed into the minds of the students. The key elements that support this kind of classroom are:

  • Front orientation
  • Teacher’s desk
  • Desks and tables oriented to the front
  • Silence valued
  • Disciplines siloed
  • Teacher is the main authority
  • Walls bare
  • Small and narrow windows

The physical environment is an important factor for my productivity and creativity, so why not for students? Isn’t it time that high school classrooms became places that were comfortable, interesting and aesthetically pleasing. Tony Wagner in his book Global Achievement Gap identified skills that young people need to survive into the future. These skills set up young people to be independent, self-motivated and entrepreneurial.

Survival Skills for the 21stC

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurship
  5. Effective written and oral communication
  6. Accessing and analysing information
  7. Curiosity and imagination

Here, learning is pulled: Students realise what they need to learn and pursue it. The key elements that support this kind of space for learning are:

  • No clear front of the room/space
  • No teacher’s desk
  • Spaces are shared
  • Choice in furniture
  • White noise is busy noise
  • Disciplines are integrated
  • Informal teacher relationship
  • Learning anywhere, anytime

Nothing happens in the minds of students as they move through high school.

Design of places for learning make a difference.

Space matters.

11 thoughts on “Space matters. Why must high school students endure bland, ugly, boring classrooms?

  1. I like your point Anne about how you can see what is valued in a classroom, or school, by looking around – how is the space set up – is this conducive to the development of strong (~human~) connections and relationships? Summer (@Edusum) spoke on this topic today in Adelaide and asked how we can leverage our spaces for better learning. Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙂


  2. I totally agree with the views presented. Classroom are so outdated an totally uninspiring. If we want to encourage creative thinkers and learners, the learning space should be bright and colorful. Students are kinesthetic learners and yet some classrooms are so regimented, sterile and clinical to th epoint that it stifles any opportunity for learning to be fun and exciting.


  3. It is a deeply disturbing vision to stair into a classroom and see the former description you identified. This is the first impression given to students about the type of learning expected in the room.

    And the more education talks about devices, the more I’m concerned we are failing to include and elevate space as a critical piece I that conversation.


  4. Reblogged this on Liam Joseph Dunphy and commented:
    Great article from Anne Knock about learning spaces, using the example of the new Greenway Centre for Design & Technology where I am working with my team to build personalised learning for students in a gamified project based learning curriculum. Thanks Anne 🙂


  5. Anne,

    I could not agree more and I have seen a school recently make decisions that do not help the schools move forward in terms of space. Cell and bells. I think leadership needs to play a role in moving the vision forward, not letting is slip backward. It is so disheartening to see it happen and it can happen in more than just HS. I also do think that in HS depending on the space sharing arrangements that you see a lot of teachers not taking ownership over the space and making theirs. Though I firmly think department offices can help to encourage collaboration and teacher talk about practice, I also think the attention to the learning environment and again it is the role of the leadership to set out clear ideas of what a positive learning environment looks like.

    Great post!


  6. Great points! I like movement and collaboration and the ‘good’ noise that goes with it. Your survival skills for the 21stC and creative thinking needs the flexibility of the ‘classroom’ to inspire collaboration, experimentation, risk taking. One of the most interesting things in an open learning space is watching young people find their space and who chooses what to sit on – if anything. The beanbags are very popular!!


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