At Baker Barrios Architects, we strive to broaden our knowledge and depth of understanding beyond our day to day responsibilities. No matter our individual focus, learning about other colleagues design, approach to problem solving, and trends in other industries helps us each become more knowledgeable of the design world. George Thomas, our K-12 practice leader and associate principal, presented on modern school design and how we think of schools differently today.  In our current culture, school priorities have shifted dramatically in the last ten years and especially in the last six months. 

Class Room

In the past, schools had large wooden desks, chalk boards, and students sat in rows and columns. Education was a linear experience, both physically and in the way we educated. Students were measured on a series of tests. For example, they would start by working on block lettering, then move to cursive writing. There was not much flexibility in the way that students learned, and they all learned at the same pace. This was also on par with the society that we lived in during the 1900s. While it served us well, experts have been suggesting that we need new standards and ways of instruction which match the needs of an evolving society. 

Factory Ed

21st century education is not linear, but rather a spider web of interconnected goals. There are core principals, such as collaboration, problem solving, and use of technology, that determine the curriculum. It is not a “one size fits all” as in 20th century learning, but a builder of thinking and action.  The new ways of learning are meant to be thought provoking, not a time-based assessment of skill mastery.  It is felt the old system of education was based upon critic rather than achievement. The goal is to generate communicators and collaborators that will match the way most businesses operate today. A downside to this “new” approach is that we will not really know the consequences of the method until the current students graduate and enter the working world. 

Modern Learner

Architecture, science, law, and business have been using the core principals of 21st Century Education in the working environment for many years. We collaborate, we think outside of the box, we communicate, and we use technology to help us complete tasks. The jobs that have been around since the beginning of the 20th century are changing with the development of technology, and we need to match our ways of education to these changes. These new educational concepts effect the way architects and engineers design schools and arrange instructional space.  Even the common areas have the capability of being integrated into the learning process. 

According to George, one of the most intriguing concepts is the “flipped classroom.” In the past, students would listen to teachers in the classroom and then go home to do homework. The flipped classroom explores the idea that students would listen to lectures at home, and then use classroom time to practice the skills with the teacher. This provides more instructional time to master skills and the teacher to be more hands on with concepts rather than regurgitating information. 

Flip Model


Gone are the days of rows of desks with assigned seats. Designers are exploring furniture that can be moved into smaller groups or entire rooms that can be modified to form a variety of spaces to accommodate smaller meetings and individual learning. Desks can be moved into a circle for entire class participation or small clusters of desks for group work. The classroom is starting to cater to each student’s individual needs, rather than just putting them all into the same box. Furniture can now include charging stations as many districts move to giving each student tablets or laptops. 

Audubon Cafeteria

Other elements are being utilized in schools to enhance the learning experience. Studies have shown that working with gardens, a class pet, natural light, and good acoustical control enhances student performance. School gardens are becoming an important feature in the campus plan with an amphitheater or gazebo as the congregational focal point for outdoor learning.  Window performance has improved over the years to let more natural light into the classroom without adding to the HVAC loads.  Acoustics between rooms is a mandatory design consideration but so is the performance of internal room acoustics.  Reducing reverberation, echo, and OITC are important to proper classroom design. 

Class garden

Although school districts are setting these new standards on their own, it is important for designers to know where trends are moving to create spaces that will last through generations of students. Moving from the old, linear way of teaching to a more individualized educational experience has changed the way we think about school design. At Baker Barrios, we strive to stay on the forefront of that change with each new project.