21st Century Classroom Design

21st Century Learning In Practice

From the 19th Century’s Frankenstein to the 20th Century’s Matrix, technology has been evoked to frighten audiences unsure of its impact on human society.  We never seem to know just how advanced technology has become and we never seem to be able to keep up with its relentless advance. Even now, in the second decade of the 21st Century, as often as we hear the phrase “21st Century Learning” very few of us know exactly what it is: I certainly do not profess to be one of those who know! But at the International School of Curitiba, we are conducting an experiment in creating a 21st Century classroom and in the process we are learning both that technology is no villain and that what at first sounds like science fiction is much closer to the classic educational strategies with which we are all already acquainted.

21st Century Classroom

 21st Century Classroom Design

The 21st Century classroom is designed with two key concepts in mind: technology access and student-centered architecture. To the end of providing greater access to technology, the classroom is outfitted with a mounted LCD projector, a document camera and an additional wireless router. The school is also in the process of installing power outlets around the room so that students can charge their personal computing devices during class. In order to create a student-centered environment, the teacher’s desk has been removed and replaced with a podium that can be moved around the room. This is a strategy known as “decentralizing the classroom” and the goals is to remove the traditional teacher’s desk (situated as the center of the class’s attention, much like a television in living room)  to allow students to take over in a polycentric layout. Students assume authority at six workstations around the room, each able to seat a team of up to five students; each outfitted with an individual whiteboard for student-to-student instruction. So far this year ISC students have taught each other the causes of World War One, the reasons why Napoleon was able to rise to power and the key historiographic explanations for the Cuban Revolution.

21st Century Classroom 2

Flipped-Learning, Project Based Learning (PBL) and the Teacher as Coach

The 21st Century classroom works best in conjunction with new and classic strategies like “Flipped” and Project Based Learning. Most readers will be familiar with the concept of projects: at ISC—after extensive on and offline research—we put Napoleon and Columbus on trial on a yearly basis and we form an ISC Nation with its own anthem, flag and constitution. Flipped-learning, however, is new to ISC. In the flipped classroom environment, students do not listen to a teacher lecture to them or provide other directed instruction. Rather they do activities associated with traditional learning (lectures, videos, worksheets, reading) at home and then work collaboratively in teams and with their teacher in the classroom, thus “flipping” the traditional model of instruction. In the flipped classroom, the teacher’s role changes drastically and she becomes more of a coach than a provider of knowledge and wisdom. In the flipped, decentralized classroom students receive the content, skills and space they need to become the facilitators of their own education.

Teamworking and Management

Some experts refer to them as skills, some refer to them as “fluencies,” but even a brief search of the Internet, the news and recent education literature reveals the same skills and themes repeated again and again:  innovation skills, career & life skills, media skills; solution fluency, creation fluency, collaboration fluency. The learners and leaders of tomorrow will be tasked more than ever before to work together to innovatively and creatively solve problems through new media and technology. The 21st Century Classroom model helps prepare students for these challenges by granting them access to the necessary technologies and allowing them to co-create solutions. The teacher in the 21st Century classroom facilitates by becoming a human resources manager who provides management structures that empower students to manage themselves. In ISC History classes, students are assigned roles as facilitators, coaches and media specialists and are responsible for setting their own homework dates, working collaboratively across platforms like Google Docs and Edmodo, and evaluating their own work and the work of their co-collaborators. These skills are not only crucial for success in the 21st Century, they will make ISC students better prepared for the challenges of the International Baccalaureate and university study than ever before.


Professional Learning and Development

Students are not the only ones to benefit from the 21st Century classroom. I am currently co-chairing a PLC (Professional Learning Community) with Technology Instructor Joyce Pereira in which we focus on sharing skills, tools and strategies for deploying technology in the most effective and engaging ways. Master teachers from the Science, Art, English, Technology and History Departments—and currently one veteran teacher from the elementary school—come together on a regular basis to build skills and share secrets related to 21st Century tricks and tools. We hope to see this peer coaching initiative springboard into further faculty learning and development in the future.


Educational Mileage

The 21st Century classroom has many benefits for teachers and students—and I am clearly a fan of the model. One of my favorite aspects of the method is the way it allows teachers to work as coaches to provide individualized and personal instruction to students with different learning styles and proclivities that Howard Gardner famously labeled “intelligences.” However, this observation should also serve as a reminder that not all students will take to the 21st Century classroom as eagerly and as easily as others—something that the enthusiastic literature on the subject seems to ignore. My favorite example of this tension came earlier this week when I introduced a fully flipped unit to one of my classes to the delight of half of the class and the terror of the other half. One worried-looking student worked up the bravery to ask, “Sir. Not to be rude, but are you going to provide another set of work when we don’t like this unit?” To which one of the pleased students burst out in response, “STOP SAYING ‘WE’!” Whether we are using chalk on a board or Prezi on an iPad, we will never make everyone happy all of the time—but we can create opportunities to make all of our students as successful as possible as often as possible. That, ultimately, is the job of any educator, regardless of the tools she uses.

In the end, the technology and techniques of the 21st Century are just a new take on the oft-quoted Chinese proverb: Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.


This article originally appeared in both the ISC Window (pp. 24-27) and the AASSA Newsletter (pp. 42-43)


Design credits for images go to Julia Wuestefeld. 

Author: williamjtolley

IB Coordinator, IBEN Workshop Leader, Examiner, and DP/MYP Teacher | Inquiry, Mastery & Culturally Responsive-Learning Advocate

7 thoughts on “21st Century Classroom Design”

  1. Pingback: Changing Instructional Mindsets for the 21st Century | iAMSTEM HUB . UC DAVIS
  2. I would love to have ideas of how to arrange shelves and tables according to the different areas ( math, sensorial, geography, language, practical life, art, reading area, and the peace table) in a primary Montessori classroom .
    Thank you,

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