Originally published by School Construction News in the Nov/Dec 2019, Volume 22, Number 7 issue
Written by Steve Lang, President & CEO | dancker


The role of education is to prepare students to become active, successful, and contributing members of society. Surprisingly, the prevailing school model practiced today was defined in the mid- to late-1800s in response to a society immersed in the Industrial Revolution. Because most work involved manual labor, rote learning and lecture-style teaching was sufficient.

Today, of course, all of that has changed. As we have transitioned from an industrial to a service-based economy, employers now seek out young professionals who possess an agile mindset which enables them to think strategically. At the same time, today’s students are digital natives who learn and function differently in our technology-rich society.

Unfortunately, the standard education method has not changed sufficiently to teach the broader set of skills that employers now demand to drive innovation. To enable flexibility and adaptability, a 21st century learning model must focus on mastering skills such as analytic reasoning, complex problem-solving, and teamwork. Instead of concentrating on the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic), the emphasis must be on teaching the four Cs: critical thinking; communication; collaboration; and creativity.


To support this 21st century learning model, a shift to project-based learning must take place. Part of that shift involves exposing students to learning in relevant, real-world contexts and allowing them to work with real-world data, tools, and experts. But perhaps just as important, learning environments must be aligned with the standards, curriculum, instruction, and professional development this new model demands.


To that end, the amount of lecture-style teaching in many schools is being greatly reduced to make room for collaborative group work, individual focused learning, and discussion-style activities. To accommodate the frequent changes of learning modes and tasks needed throughout the day, classrooms must incorporate a combination of mobile and tiered furnishings with a variety of seating options – all of which maximize the flow of information and ideas between students and educators.

Large learning environments can host multiple learning styles simultaneously by being divided into designated learning zones. It’s becoming increasingly commonplace for a large space to be broken into areas for quiet focus, group collaboration, teacher-led instruction, and makerspaces. The latter of these provides a range of learning tools that students can manipulate to gain a deeper understanding of the lesson.

To reduce distractions to adjacent zones, a variety of pre-engineered modular walls can be installed anywhere within the space. Featuring acoustic privacy and options for glass, solid, or technology-integrated walls, modular construction minimizes the volume in an area while providing varying levels of visibility into the other zones. Modular partitions can also be reconfigured at a later date as needs evolve.


The integration of technology into flexible spaces helps keep students engaged. When applied properly, technology such as computers, mobile devices, and digital displays can complement the curriculum by assisting students as they gather information, share content, and collaborate with each other.

Utilizing intuitive AV equipment, teachers can take advantage of video and audio conference systems to supplement instruction with recorded lessons and demonstrations. These collaborative tools also facilitate viewing of a specific lesson multiple times or at a later point in time, encouraging students to become self-directed learners. 


While the classroom has evolved from a static physical space into a dynamic learning environment, it’s important to recognize that learning can’t stop at the classroom’s walls.

Libraries, for example, need to become more innovative and technologically accommodating if they are to support the expectations of today’s students. As a result, libraries as we know them are becoming learning commons. A relatively new and evolving design concept, learning commons consist of flexible spaces that support technology, communication, and collaboration to connect learners and help them construct knowledge.

By trimming down print materials so only the items still being circulated remain, stacks can be removed entirely or relocated around the room’s perimeter. This space realignment dramatically opens the floorplan to begin adding active learning tools and lounge or study spaces. To better aid collaboration, technology (particularly collaboration technology featuring large displays that encourage student engagement and enable digital content to be shared) should be integrated into all areas of the learning commons.

And as with classrooms, modular walls can be used to create acoustically private spaces. Unlike traditional drywall construction, modular walls are easier to adapt to changes in technology, can be designed with glass walls to provide visibility throughout the learning commons, and can be reconfigured to adapt to evolving needs.

Even faculty spaces are undergoing a transformation, becoming highly specialized workplaces that support a range of focused thinking modes and work styles. By developing environments that are designed as a holistic, integrated system, institutions can give faculty the space they need to perform their work while cultivating meaningful relationships with students.

To be successful in the 21st century, students need the knowledge and experience of self-directed and project-based learning. They need to effectively collaborate within diverse groups. When academic institutions combine flexibility, technology, and hands-on experiences, a 21st century learning culture can thrive.

Steven Lang


Steve Lang, President & CEO dancker
Connect with Steve on LinkedIn to share your thoughts on creating next-gen learning spaces.