From 1919 to 2019 – The Evolution of Classrooms

Nov 19
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Education was a different experience in the early 1900s.

If you lived in the country at the start of the 20th century, children might have been fortunate enough to have a small, one room schoolhouse on land donated by a local farmer. 

Classrooms were church-like in appearance with wooden benches facing the front, reflecting the strong link between religion and education of the time. 

Both boys and girls received instruction in the basic subjects like reading and writing. Where schools were large enough, classrooms were divided based on sex and girls spent a portion of the day learning to sew, knit and darn ironing. The boys learned geometry, geography and arithmetic. Gender difference was highlighted and enforced.

Upon arriving in the morning the students would be inspected by the teacher, ensuring their faces and hands were clean, hair had been combed and clothes were neat. 

Play was seen as a character building activity because it assisted with discipline and encouraged children to abide by the rules. 

General running and jumping though was not seen to be constructive and games had to be played with purpose. Cricket, for example, was encouraged as a structured activity while marbles was regarded as a nuisance. 

Physical discipline was common, be it by cane or hand. 

Over a century later, education has evolved dramatically – so too should our classrooms. 

The ‘curriculum’ then was simplistic yet rigid, with very few jobs in demand at the time. Women were housewives and mothers in training. Men usually went on to become factory workers, blacksmiths or farriers

Today men and women are equal players in the workforce with a virtually endless scope for careers. 

To create the next Steve Jobs, should we be using the same classrooms we used to create chimney sweeps?

We now understand a lot more about learning styles and that one size does not, in fact, fit all.

When renovating classrooms, schools often swap old furniture for new, colourful, flexible installments. But flexible furniture is only effective when paired with flexible learning and instruction. 

Multi-use learning spaces are on the rise. Education is no longer a passive activity but an experience. 

Increasingly we see the power of built pedagogy – the ability of space to define how one teaches. 

Flexible classrooms are ones which provide students with choice, movement and agility. They create healthy, immersive, exciting learning environments. Most importantly, they create space for creativity, curiosity and collaboration. 

Research indicates that well-designed schools can boost children’s academic performance. The combination of light, temperature, air quality, ownership, flexibility, complexity and colour can achieve a 16% increase in academic progress over a learning year.

Creating multi-purpose learning spaces involves much more than attaching wheels to furniture. There are several elements which should be considered when crafting an environment for learning experiences:

1 Flexibility

Original multi-use spaces were designed with moveable wall partitions. In reality these were rarely moved and weren’t effectively soundproof. Students should be able to transition from listening to a teacher, to working in groups, to working independently. While moveable furniture can facilitate this, classrooms can also be broken up with beanbags, cushions 

2 Sensory stimulation

White walls with overhead lights and linoleum floors create a clinical atmosphere reminiscent of a hospital (or even a morgue). We yearn for colour, natural lighting and interesting room designs. 

3. Technology support

While seeing the teacher wheel in the analogue television once generated excitement and a whispered chorus of “yes!” from the class, the current generation of students expect seamless technology use. While some classrooms are still awaiting fixed projectors, the development of technology is outpacing education’s ability to integrate it. ‘Plug and play’ environments are beginning to take hold, with personal devices and interconnectivity. 

4. Decenteredness

The student enters the classroom and takes their assigned seat, facing the front and waits for the lecture to begin. After the 10th or so time, the process becomes robotic and students (likely also the teacher) perform on autopilot. Multi-purpose learning spaces convey the message of co-learning and co-construction which means avoiding the idea of a ‘front’ or ‘privileged space’.

5. Transparency

Visual interconnectedness is an emerging trend in new school construction. Open layouts and glass partitions offer uninterrupted lines of sight reminiscent of Google and Apple. Opening a line of sight communicates communal learning and creates a public forum for acknowledging and celebrating the work of teachers and students alike. 

It’s important today’s students are exposed to diverse styles of learning to prepare them for equally diverse futures. Do you want to transform your learning spaces but aren’t sure where to start?

The Connecting Pedagogy & School Learning Space Design conference running from 16 – 19 March 2020 in Sydney showcases stand-out learning spaces and the process of creating innovative student-centric spaces. Attendees will leave empowered to make the most of their learning environments.

Submitted by Criterion Content Team

Criterion Content Team

This post has been written by the Criterion Conferences Content Team. Based in Sydney, we are an independent research organisation, producing over 90 conferences a year across a variety of industries. Our events, attended by thousands of senior delegates from the public and private sector, are designed to enrich, inspire and motivate. Our focus is on providing innovative, value adding content via our conferences and blogs like this are extension of that principle. You can view our conferences by visiting our website

2 thoughts on “From 1919 to 2019 – The Evolution of Classrooms

  1. Hi

    The link above ‘ Connecting Pedagogy & School Learning Space Design conference’ does not open. Can you provide more information on this conference in March 2020?

    Many thanks

    Andrea Jackson
    Assistant to the Headmaster
    Blue Mountains Grammar School
    4757 9014

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