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The overwhelming majority of the nearly 76 million students in America’s schools and colleges spend most of the academic day in classrooms. That’s a problem because the classroom has been obsolete for several decades. That’s not just my opinion. It’s established science.

 

Published Online: July 29, 2011
COMMENTARY
The Classroom Is Obsolete: It’s Time for Something New
By Prakash Nair
The overwhelming majority of the nearly 76 million students in America’s schools and colleges
spend most of the academic day in classrooms. That’s a problem because the classroom has
been obsolete for several decades. That’s not just my opinion. It’s established science.
The debate over education reform has been going on for longer than anyone can remember.
Relegated previously to arguments between policy wonks, questions about how we should
reform our nation’s schools have now entered the public consciousness in a very real way. The
global financial crisis and our economic woes have collided with increased mainstream coverage
of our failing educational system. The Obama administration has joined the chorus of critics and
rolled out numerous reform measures.
Lost in all this hand-wringing is the most visible symbol of a failed system: the classroom.
Almost without exception, the reform efforts under way will preserve the classroom as our
children’s primary place of learning deep into the 21st century. This is profoundly disturbing
because staying with classroom-based schools could permanently sink our chances of rebuilding
our economy and restoring our shrinking middle class to its glory days.
The classroom is a relic, left over from the Industrial Revolution, which required a large
workforce with very basic skills. Classroom-based education lags far behind when measured
against its ability to deliver the creative and agile workforce that the 21st century demands.
This is already evidenced by our nation’s shortage of high-tech and other skilled workers—a
trend that is projected to grow in coming years.
As the primary place for student learning, the classroom does not withstand the scrutiny of
scientific research. Each student “constructs” knowledge based on his or her own past
experiences. Because of this, the research demands a personalized education model to
maximize individual student achievement. Classrooms, on the other hand, are based on the
erroneous assumption that efficient delivery of content is the same as effective learning.
The overwhelming majority of the nearly 76 million students in America’s schools and colleges
spend most of the academic day in classrooms. That’s a problem because the classroom has
been obsolete for several decades. That’s not just my opinion. It’s established science.
The debate over education reform has been going on for longer than anyone can remember.
Relegated previously to arguments between policy wonks, questions about how we should
reform our nation’s schools have now entered the public consciousness in a very real way. The
global financial crisis and our economic woes have collided with increased mainstream coverage
of our failing educational system. The Obama administration has joined the chorus of critics and
rolled out numerous reform measures.
Lost in all this hand-wringing is the most visible symbol of a failed system: the classroom.
Almost without exception, the reform efforts under way will preserve the classroom as our
children’s primary place of learning deep into the 21st century. This is profoundly disturbing
because staying with classroom-based schools could permanently sink our chances of rebuilding
our economy and restoring our shrinking middle class to its glory days.
The classroom is a relic, left over from the Industrial Revolution, which required a large
workforce with very basic skills. Classroom-based education lags far behind when measured
against its ability to deliver the creative and agile workforce that the 21st century demands.
This is already evidenced by our nation’s shortage of high-tech and other skilled workers—a
trend that is projected to grow in coming years.
As the primary place for student learning, the classroom does not withstand the scrutiny of
scientific research. Each student “constructs” knowledge based on his or her own past
experiences. Because of this, the research demands a personalized education model to
maximize individual student achievement. Classrooms, on the other hand, are based on the
erroneous assumption that efficient delivery of content is the same as effective learning.

be impossible in a traditional, classroom-dominated school layout. Before we know it, we would
have created a true 21st-century school.
But the process described above is not how we design our schools today, because we still think
that yesterday’s classroom equals tomorrow’s school. Perhaps some would define “success” as
students’ ability to perform well on a standardized test, rather than their developing skills to
navigate a fast-changing world. Under that limited definition, classrooms tend to do fairly well,
but classroom-based schools would do poorly in comparison with educationally driven designs
for true 21st-century learning. Does this mean that effective education is impossible in schools
with classrooms? Of course not. Good teachers work hard to overcome the limitations of
classroom-based schools, and many succeed in spite of the odds.
So where does this leave us? What happens to the hundreds of billions of dollars of capital
investment locked up in what can best be described as “dysfunctional” educational
infrastructure? This is where the good news comes in. There is evidence that even the most
rigidly “old paradigm” school facilities can be converted with modest investments of funds into
effective places for teaching and learning.
These initiatives would not necessarily get rid of classrooms, but instead redesign and refurbish
them to operate as “learning studios” and “learning suites” alongside common areas reclaimed
from hallways that vastly expand available space and allow better teaching and learning. In
many parts of the country, limited classroom space can be significantly expanded by utilizing
adjacent open areas while simultaneously improving daylight, access to fresh air, and
connections to nature.
Those who are intrigued or skeptical about the notion of education beyond classrooms may
want to start their own research with some of the thought leaders in this arena. The School of
Environmental Science in Apple Valley, Minn.; the Minnesota New Country School in Henderson,
Minn.; the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, Minn.; Forest Park Elementary School in
Middletown, R.I.; Duke School in Durham, N.C.; Learning Gate Community School in Lutz, Fla.;
Hellerup School in Copenhagen, Denmark; Wooranna Park Primary School in Victoria, Australia;
Australian Science and Mathematics School in Adelaide, Australia; and Discovery 1 School in
Christchurch, New Zealand, are just a few great non-classroom-based examples of schools. (In
the interests of full disclosure, I need to note that my firm—and I personally—worked on
several of these school-design projects.)
Let’s hope that scientific evidence, along with the economic imperative for change, will set us
on a new path—one in which we break down the metaphorical and real walls that keep our

children trapped in boxes. To get there, we first need to free ourselves from the mental box

that limits our thinking about the real meaning and purpose of education.

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