Apr 17, 2018

Reimagining 21st Century Learning Environments

by Helen Soulé and David Ross


Perhaps the best way to think of 21st century learning environments is to view them as the support systems that organize the conditions in which humans learn best. These systems accommodate the unique needs of all and enhance the positive relationships so important to effective learning. Learning environments are the social and technical structures that inspire students and educators to attain the knowledge and skills the 21st century demands of us all.

Within today’s 24/7 learning cycle, the cumulative power of relationships among physical spaces, technology, time, culture, human networks, and policy deepen learning in significant ways. When these systems are intentionally integrated into a seamless whole each system reinforces the other.  These support systems are valuable not as ends, but as means to a greater goal — to helping children grow emotionally, socially, physically, and academically. 

P21’s Framework for 21st Century Learning outlines the multiple student outcomes that modern life demands. It was developed with input from teachers, education experts, and business leaders to define and illustrate the skills and knowledge students need to succeed in work, life and citizenship, as well as the support systems necessary to achieve these outcomes.  While the graphic represents each element distinctly for descriptive purposes, all the components should be seen as fully interconnected in the process of 21st century teaching and learning.


The term “learning environment” covers not only place and space (e.g. a school, a classroom, a library, an online learning community, etc.) but also the relationships conducive to every learner’s development. 

In order to produce the outcomes we seek, 21st century learning environments must be reimagined as aligned and synergistic systems that:

1. Are driven by a vision of teaching and learning that supports the development of 21st century skills.
2. Provide flexible architectural designs for group, team, and individual learning.
3. Ensure equitable and ubiquitous access to a robust infrastructure and digital tools for learning.
4. Empower and support the “People Network” in learning environments, such as professional learning communities that enable educators to collaborate, share best practices, and integrate 21st century skills into classroom practice.

Such environments foster anytime, anyplace learning tailored to the needs and wants of individuals. The words “just in time” matter far more than “just in case.”

1. Establish a 21st century learning vision

Step one is to establish a vision of learning that includes 21st century skills. This vision encompasses learning environments that extend beyond brick and mortar buildings to virtual opportunities and beyond school programs. Building the collective vision requires input from all learning stakeholders. Once the vision is in place, policy can be developed and plans can be made to create the structures that support this vision. 

P21’s 21st Century Learning Exemplar Program includes Bate Middle School in Danville, Kentucky, which developed an Innovation Plan that redefined learning on the campus. The redesigned college and career curriculum, coupled with the adoption of project-based learning and performance assessments incorporated critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills into every student’s experience. 

2. Design educational structures for 21st century learning 

Physical learning spaces should be flexible and adaptable, enable collaboration, interaction and information sharing, and should be connected with the larger community that surrounds the school. Perhaps the most fundamental guideline is “design for flexibility.” Since no one can predict how educational technologies and teaching modalities will evolve, learning spaces must adapt to whatever changes the future may hold. To achieve this flexibility, architects are designing classrooms, or “learning studios,” with moveable furniture and walls that can easily be reconfigured for different class sizes and subjects. The school building itself should inspire intellectual curiosity and promote social interactions. 

In West Allis, Wisconsin, Walker Elementary School made creative use of existing space to accommodate personalized learning, facilitated by a 1-to-1 iPad implementation. Staff opened up three rooms to create multi-age classrooms in grades 1-3 and re-designed the cafetorium and library to accommodate the fourth and fifth grades.

 3. Ensure access to a robust infrastructure and digital tools for learning

Students, educators and administrators today need access to the digital tools and media-rich resources that will help them explore analog and virtual worlds, express themselves, analyze and shape data, and communicate across borders and cultures.  A robust infrastructure, designed for flexibility and growth, can facilitate these connections. The essential goal of technology, as it is with all systems for learning, is to support people’s relationships to each other and their work. 

A 21st century learning environment blends physical and digital infrastructures to seamlessly support learning. Melding face-to-face with online learning is essential for schools today, but wise educators know achieving such a goal takes careful planning. Perhaps the greatest challenge of educational technology is not finding time and money to obtain hardware or software, or even in anticipating future needs, but in finding ways to adequately support humans in using these tools. Schools such as New Technology High School in Napa, California, have established student “geek squads” to help provide technical support for their peers, as well as administrators and teachers. Co-ownership of the learning environment is a key feature of successful implementation.

4. Empower the “People Network” in learning environments. 

Now we come to the most essential element of all: the “people network.” This is the community of students, educators, parents, business and civic leaders, and policymakers that constitute the human capital of an educational system. 

Organizations, like individuals, need supports and challenges to thrive and grow — as well as the flexible spaces and opportunities that enable productive learning and shared work/play to happen. Research shows that an educational community imbued with a positive culture is more likely to foster innovation and excellence. There is no single culture that will fit all schools — each school must summon its own blend of teaching talents, instructional approaches, and effective leadership to meet the unique learning needs of its community.

Educational partnerships within the extended community are essential in creating links to the arenas that today’s youth will occupy tomorrow — the domains of higher education institutions, the work place, various cultural spheres, and civic life.  Local businesses and community groups are traditional sources of after-school internships and summer jobs, but they can also be important sources of expertise in areas such as media, the arts, science, and technology. Of course, businesses and NGOs can provide resources — financial, physical, and human — to help school stretch their always-limited budgets.   


Many schools today still reflect their Industrial Age origins with rigid schedules, inflexible facilities, and fixed boundaries between grades, disciplines, classrooms, and functional roles. The 21st century, though, requires a new conception of education — one that breaks through the silos that separated schools from the real world, educators from each other, and policymakers from the communities they are meant to serve.

The modern world demands learning environments that embrace the diverse world of people, places, and ideas, and are flexible in their arrangements of space, time, technology, and people. These connections will foster healthy cultures of mutual respect and support among students, educators, families, and neighborhoods, serving their lifelong learning and recreational needs, and uniting learners around the world in addressing global challenges and opportunities.

Helen Soulé is Executive Director at the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. At P21 Dr. Soulé has led the organization’s state recruitment and support effort, the Exemplars of 21st Century Learning program, and other initiatives. She is a lifelong educator with P-16 leadership experience at the local, state, and national level, and is the recipient of several awards including 30 "Shapers of the Future" award, E-School News "Impact 30 Award for Excellence", and the Mississippi Educational Computing Association’s Technology Educator of the Year award.

David Ross is Chief Strategy Officer at Partnership for 21st Century Learning. As P21’s CSO, David oversees all of P21’s programs, which span the entire 21st Century Learning Continuum, and its growing state support services. David created and managed the PBL world Conference, and co-authored the Project Based Learning Starter Kit, during his time at the Buck Institute for Education. 

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