Redesigning Education: Why Can't We Be in Kindergarten for Life?

"The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society's richest rewards and share its greatest joys." —Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind

I remember when my twins entered kindergarten at our community public school. All of the parents were invited to the school for an introductory presentation on the teachers' goals for learning in the upcoming year. Everything sounded wonderful. The 25 children in the classroom would be organized into small groups. Creating art would introduce them to science and math concepts. They would be exposed to different cultures by learning songs in different languages. Time would be allotted for daily storytelling followed by discussion. The teachers described an interdisciplinary, imaginative and stimulating year ahead, complete with field trips and physical, active play.

While listening to the teachers' presentation at my twins' school, I had a moment of clarity: The kindergarten classroom is the design studio. All of the learning activities that take place inside the kindergarten classroom are freakishly similar to the everyday environment of my design studio in the "real world." In an architectural design studio, we work as an interdisciplinary global team to solve the complex problems of the built environment in a variety of different cultural contexts. We do this most effectively through storytelling—sharing personal experiences—with the support of digital media and tools. A variety of activities—reflective and collaborative, right-brain and left-brain—happen simultaneously in an open environment. Like the design studio, the kindergarten environment places human interaction above all else.

Even the kindergarten classroom's physical environment supports dynamic teaching and learning. It is zoned for multiple activities and agile enough for a variety of learning modes to happen simultaneously—one group of children could be working on an art project while another group is discussing a story in a stepped carpeted area with soft seating. In a kindergarten classroom, while there are walls with white boards or smart boards, the "front" of the room is indistinguishable. Every available wall and surface is an opportunity to display student work. The design allows students to explore many different ways of learning in the classroom—it's learner-centered space.

The status quo of classroom design from first grade through high school graduation, courtesy Steven Errico, Veer

The learner-centered paradigm should extend beyond the kindergarten classroom. Unfortunately, most educational institutions follow a model that creates an impersonal environment where adults, teaching, and authority are at the center. The studio-like environment of the kindergarten classroom succumbs to a rigid structure of disconnected subject-based classrooms and curricula. Naturally, the physical environment parallels this transition, moving from an open, multi-zone learning environment to a prototypical, teacher-centric mode of direct instruction. The collaborative student-teacher team and its dynamic atmosphere are replaced with the "sage-on-the-stage," front-teaching wall model.

Take classrooms from elementary through high school. It's been near-universal since the 1800s to see self-contained classrooms that require teachers to instruct from front-teaching walls and students to sit in fixed chairs and desks in neat rows. Today's global demand for creativity and innovation cries out for a new model for the learning environment. Great alternatives to this outdated spatial arrangement are entirely possible.

A new public middle and high school that encourages collaboration among students and teachers, courtesy of College for Creative Studies

For example, at the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan, self-contained classrooms are replaced with clustered learning spaces. The relationship of the spaces is designed to accommodate multiple modes of teaching and learning—for instance, a pair of classrooms flow out to a shared collaborative environment modeled after the design studio. Thanks to architecture designed by Albert Kahn Associates with Luce et Studio responsible for the interiors, this spacious shared area is furnished with agile, soft furniture to encourage group collaboration and reflective learning.

In this interview, Mitchell Resnick from MIT characterizes the Lifelong Kindergarten Lab in the new Media Lab building.The new home of the MIT Media Lab designed by Fumihiko Maki is an exponential scaling up of the kindergarten classroom. Individuals from a wide range of disciplines collaborate to develop new products and processes to solve complex problems and enhance the human condition. The MIT Media Lab is research- and action-oriented—the result is not a whitepaper or a publication but a prototype of the solution. The space's transparency reinforces human connection and collaboration. Floor openings and a central atrium also allow for visual connectivity vertically among the multi-story building. The Lab exemplifies the kindergarten environment in its celebration of group work.

Many schools and work environments are embracing the reality that we live in multidisciplinary global world. The challenges and opportunities that we face in the 21st century require creativity, innovation and a deeper understanding of the complexities of the global economy, politics and culture. The kindergarten classroom fosters an environment where these values can be introduced and then thrive. Let's make the kindergarten studio the new paradigm for learning environment—a natural extension of our innate human capacity to create and learn by doing.  

Kindergarten photo courtesy VS Furniture

Read Trung Le's blog Design Education
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Trung Le is a principal education designer at Cannon Design. Over the past two years he has helped lead an interdisciplinary group of designers and educators from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Germany, to collaborate on a research project that resulted in the publication The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning. The term "the third teacher" is derived from Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia approach to learning and who wrote about the three teachers of children: adults, peers and the physical environment. Environment, said Malaguzzi, is "the third teacher."

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  • Lynette Gold

    I never thought that I would be teaching in the elementary or primary school system, that long that I would see the full circle. In the 70's these classrooms were called open plan classrooms. Now they are titled the new learning spaces to cater for the 21st century.The language is the same, the reasoning is the same and the designs are the same just with a "touch more technology" in the mix. And these new buildings and learning spaces and learning environments without walls for fluid movement are the same as they were in 1975. What's more they will go the same way as they did in the 70's. and will also fail as they did in the mid to late 70's. Teachers do not know how to teach in these environments. A lot of respectful collaboration needs to happen for this type of learning to take place and thats before the teachers are in front of the students. Teachers are expected to work harmoniously together and sometimes that does work. But mostly , with all the best intentions it doesn'tand that's because with all the talk by the architects come educators the human element is forgotten. Some teachers like to work in a quiet orderly manner and are very organised, Some teachers don't notice noise and mess. And some teachers are naturally instinctive and plan as they walk in the room very much based on the class on that day. So from the teachers perspective, those teachers that believe deeply in these new open learning spaces very quickly become disenchanted, dissillusioned and, disappointed. They start to disagree, they start to become upset with each other and then they start to fight. The end result ...just for the teachers, is they discover that in practical terms they can't achieve what they thought they could and would. It looked so good on paper and it read so well and the buildings look so beautiful, but schools are about people and not spaces.
    Then to the students. The students that are high achievers will learn anywhere. That covers your top 5 students in your class. However the students that are distracted by noise will suffer. The students that are distracted by movement will suffer and the less resilient, the low self esteem students will blame themselves for not understanding what has just been said, what they need to do, where they need to go, how they need to do it and so on. The individual is lost. The in depth ubderstanding thet the classroom teacher has for each of their students is lost because so many other distractions take away from 1-1 interactions. Speak to any educational psychologist, audiologist, occupational therapist or principal that has had experience with open plan learning and they will tell you "don't do it" Research shows that it is the explicit teaching and the explicit, sequential programs that are of most benefit to pur students. Elementary students, developmentally, need 1 teacher. Read any literature on child development. They are not in secondary school where they move from 1 class to the next and where they are ready for multiple teaching styles. Elementary classrooms are set up for small group work or large group work or individual work where ever the need arises. The movement within the classroom is fluid and within the students room, social skills are taught and applied, Students are carefully and deliberately matched so the dynamics in the room works and the individual students needs are carefully thought through and matched to the classroom teacher . No need for open plan learning spaces.

  • Loren Klein

    As a public school teacher myself, I snicker at some of the things mentioned in the article, like

    "Thanks to architecture designed by Albert Kahn Associates with Luce et Studio responsible for the interiors, this spacious shared area is furnished with agile, soft furniture to encourage group collaboration and reflective learning."

    Maybe it's fine and dandy to be able to create such nuanced classes when you're a charter school bankrolled by big corporations, but here in reality where the education system is shedding teachers by the tens of thousands nationwide and if not for a very generous grant and my own funds, the technology in my classroom would consist of two obsolete PCs, how exactly are we going to turn our classrooms into svelte hipster studios that this article says it the Next Easy Solution to our nation's education problems?

  • Malcolm Bellamy

    This is a powerful article that gets us to focus on the need to look at "the third teacher" (the physical environment of the classroom/school) and just how much this effects the learning.. indeed every aspect of being in a school or learning space. I have been to too many schools recently that I feel are living in the past.. they have dimly lit and cluttered classrooms that are orietated to the "sage on the sage" model that was mentioned in the article. I see bored and uncomfortable children in them and I see that the chances for open collaboration, movement and creativity are hindered if not stopped altogether in these classrooms... we really must start to focus on how we design our schools and what effects the physical environment of the classroom has on our children.

  • Tom Weaver

    It's certainly true that high schools (US) and secondary schools (UK) have a lot to learn from kindergarten, elementary and primary schools in creating areas specialised for multiple activities that are more learner centred. I'm currently leading a 2 year action research project in the UK, called Space for Personalised Learning, looking at creating schools around the principles of personalisation, in which we focus not only on learning space design around an activity based model for both primary and secondary schools, but also school organisation to create more learner-centric models instead of departments (in schools) such as vertical and horizontal minischools, homebases, etc:

    There is room, however, for lots of intervention even within primary schools, which are still fundamentally designed around the concept of a "class" space for a fixed number of pupils, the class containing all the zones required to do all the activities. The boundary of four walls still creates a limit.

    One of our current pilot projects within the project is looking at creating a much more fluid environment for groups of primary school learners, in Croydon, London, which ironically is allowing the pupils to move around a little more between spaces zones instead of being confined to one "room".

    So whilst the future of high schools may be more like elementary, so too many elementary school space start integrating some of the features of high schools...

    Re democratically run schools - I think the principle is very interesting. I looked into a little about the concept of personal space and the roots of democratic schooling here:

    ...but one of the most interesting examples I've found (which is incidentally quite critical of Sudbury) is Lumiar in Brazil, started by Ricardo Semler of Semco fame (and the brilliant book Maverick):

    Worth checking out.
    Tom Weaver
    Director, Flywheel

  • Jeff Hoffman

    Public education will only get worse unless there is a major overhaul of the entire system. I know I will not let my kids learn in that environment. I have been looking into the Sudbury model where there is no curriculum and is run democratically.