Aug 14, 2017

Changing Instruction and Today’s Classrooms

by Travis Dunlap, M.A.

The designs of K-12 classroom are evolving in light of emerging instructional practices and the diverse learning needs of our students. Many people still conceptualize classrooms as square boxes with rows of desks and chairs, cabinets and bookshelves along the walls, and a teacher’s workspace to the side. However, this view of learning environments is changing. The designers and builders of today’s classrooms are interested in creating clean, functional, and flexible learning spaces that accommodate varied instructional activities. Today’s classrooms are a departure from traditional notions of the built learning environment — they are dynamic and created to support an array of instructional practices and to prepare students for the demands of an evolving and globalized economy.  

The designs of classrooms are changing due to new instructional practices. Traditionally, teachers employed direct instruction that centered on the actions of speaking, listening, reading, memorization, and writing. This approach to instruction could be viewed as content-centric with an emphasis on ‘what’ students think. Traditional instructional methods heavily relied on structure, pattern, and predictability. Clear expectations from classroom instruction mirrored the anticipated economy facing learners in the world awaiting them outside the classroom walls. In the traditional view of instruction, classroom design featured the familiar elements of fixed seating, a lectern, and a front board. These elements were necessary to carry out the aims of instruction. However, the traditional models of instruction and classroom design are quickly fading away. 

Today, effective instructional practices are a departure from a traditional view of teaching. Currently, instruction is better understood as process-centric over content-centric, and the emphasis is on ‘how’ students should think as opposed to ‘what’ they should think. Now, instructional priorities center on themes such as deconstructionism, collaboration, effective communication, adaptation to new information, and the promotion of critical thinking skills. The dynamism of the today’s instruction follows from the innovation and unpredictability of a globalized economy. 

The world is changing, fast, and instruction must change to equip students with the physical, cognitive, and interpersonal skills demanded in today’s world.  Instruction is now concerned with skills and techniques such as comparative thinking, design thinking, project-based learning, game-based learning, strength-based learning, personalized learning, collaborative learning, blended learning, kinesthetic learning, and outdoor learning. Consequently, classroom design must change as well to support the emerging instructional practices.  
The changes in instructional priorities are shaping how we conceive of the design of learning spaces.  

In fact, a great deal of today’s instruction is dependent on new kinds of classrooms. For example, many teachers need outdoor classrooms, makerspaces, tech labs, and multipurpose rooms to ensure the successful implementation of instructional strategies. The symbiotic relationship between instruction and space is more crucial now than ever, and classrooms can be designed to maximize the instructional options of teachers. 

For example, teachers today can engage students in the global community — in many classrooms, students can chat with individuals abroad through live video streams. Teachers can also offer students an authentic conversation experience to discuss reading assignments over a hot drink in a learning space with the look and feel of a coffee shop. Additionally, classrooms may be designed to look like a conference room with a large table and swiveling leather chairs to support instructional strategies aimed at business or negotiations. 

Some classrooms may feature an industrial character with wood and metal and serve as an inspiring makerspace. Furthermore, as many instructional trends tend to embrace outdoor learning, we can design outdoor classrooms to be wigwams, tents, yurts, tree houses, greenhouses, or boats for courses in sciences, especially. There are really no limitations in thoughtfully designing learning spaces that support the instructional needs of our teachers and students. 

As we think about what today’s classrooms should look like, we must give a great deal of thought to the changes in instructional sensibilities, goals, and strategies. Teachers today are concerned with providing students experiential learning opportunities that are engaging and differentiated according to their needs.   Classroom designers have a great opportunity to think about and create the kinds of learning spaces that support the changes in instructional priorities and strategies and give students every advantage in their learning.  


Travis R. Dunlap is a research associate for the George Washington University in the Education Facilities Clearinghouse (EFC). After having worked as a foreign language educator, he now researches topics relevant to education facilities and their improvements. For more information about the EFC, visit:

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