The classroom is a unique space with a particular function built out from how it is constructed. However, classrooms are often multifunctional, which brings into question how or why a classroom is built the way it is. The history of the classroom is common knowledge; coming from a single-room schoolhouse to the multi-room schools and campuses, there seems to be a linear progression from a room full of children to smaller rooms organized around ages or grades. This also, of course, ties the history of the classroom to the history of the school. To find the history of the classroom, I have reviewed literature over the architectural design aspect of the classroom; no easy feat, as it seems architecture is more interested in the total building and educational theory is interested in the utilization of the classroom (not its build). I found this contrast telling, however, and, as with most literature review, there is something to be gleaned from putting all of these studies, perspectives and analyses side-by-side that reveals something about the design thought and history of execution in regards to building classrooms and schools.

There is a bit of a historical narrative, as well, found in Baker (2012), Gislason (2009) and Ogata’s (2008) studies, which will form the core of this literature review. Gislason and Ogata in particular circle the same sources and, while Gislason gives us two epochs of design thought (I will call them “pre-war” and “post-war” throughout the review, with World War II as the war in question), Ogata is solely focused on the second, contemporary one, which helps contrast the historical changes. Baker enhances all of this with her focus on the material functioning of the schools; while Gislason and Ogata discuss architecture and design, Baker talks air conditioning and lighting. These foundational aspects of buildings are indeed foundational to the design of classrooms as well: modern studies reveal a repeating pattern of what makes a classroom effective, which comes down to the very nitty-gritty of Baker’s own review.

The review will work through the history presented by Gislason and Ogata, supplemented and illuminated by Baker, as well as some other sources focused on aesthetics, design and educational theory (Barrett, Davies, Zhang, & Barrett 2015; Ferreira 2014; Grube n.d.; Higuera-Trujillo, Llinares & Macagno 2021; Lewinski 2015; Nolé, Higuera-Trujillo & Llinares 2021; Sobe 2018; Tannebaum & Tannebaum 2019; Tanner n.d.). The post-war period of school building design in particular will be supplemented with discussions of active learning theory (Beichner 2014; Parsons 2018; Birdwell & Utlamchandani 2019; Park & Choi 2014; Rands & Gansemer-Topf 2017) which illustrates the enduring point of contention regarding the build of schools: is educational theory design? Should architects understand educational theory in order to design a school? Is that different from, for example, political science and courthouses?

Pre-War School and Classroom Design

It is striking when reading “Building Paradigms: Major Transformations in School Architecture (1798-2009)” and “A History of School Design and its Indoor Environmental Standards, 1900 to Today” side-by-side from their very first claims. Gislason (2009) opens with "The historical research on school architecture is fragmentary” (230); Baker (2012), only five pages in, claims that “Around the turn of the century, many books were written on the appropriate design and construction of school buildings,…” (5). Already there is a division in how schools are talked about and both of them are beginning in the same time period before 1930. Gislason is looking for the architect’s perspective, while Baker is looking for the artifacts that precede and are informed by the design and use of schools. This kind of division continues throughout the research and the utilitarian lens of a school is only occasionally considered with an aesthetic lens. For the classroom itself, it is viewed as a utilitarian space until the post-war and much more contemporary era, when space inside of a built environment is considered more carefully.

Perhaps there is little research on classroom design specifically because the school begins as a single-room building meant to host as many children as possible. A prime example that Gislason (2009) discusses and expands on is the The Academy at Rome (Figure 1), which he explains “…124 boys are paired at desks that are bolted to the floor,” providing one of the key differences between pre-war and post-war classroom design (231). Flexibility will become a turning point and pre-war schools are notable for the rigidity.

Figure 1 demonstrates that there was no difference between a school(house) and a class(room). Baker (2012) agrees and summarizes the design ethos of these early schools: “Schools built during the last decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century were…largely standardized, utilitarian spaces that were designed to house as many students as possible, maximizing classroom space…” (4).

Gislason gives the reader the other trend in school design at this early period—monitorial schools—which is just a reformulation of this same single-classroom schoolhouse. The pedagogy differed between these schools, as the monitorial system segmented students by an early grade system whereas the grammar school did not. This allowed for nearly double the students taught—“…the same layout was regularly used to accommodate 300-400 pupils” (Gislason 2009, 232).—with also the expected decrease in quality.

Figure 1. The Academy at Rome, New York (Gislasen 2011, 3).

Baker’s work with the pre-1930 era of school builds, though it is focused on the environmental designs exclusively, lacks a depth of reason for why there is so much data about air quality and light that Gislason helpfully focuses on. If “good ventilation was of fundamental importance to school designers at the turn of the century,” what was the cause (Baker 2012, 6)? Earlier Baker (2012) notes that “One early scholar described early school buildings as, ‘almost universally, badly located, exposed to the noise, dust and danger of the highway, unattractive, if not positively repulsive in their external and internal experience’” (4). Gislason (2009) points out the importance of increased awareness of public health toward the end of the 19th century (236), which also influenced school design: it was in this same period that some of the first graded grammar schools (Figure 2)—schools with unique classrooms that divided by age groups—and then, throughout the first half of the 20th century their modernization that further segmented the classes and classrooms (236-237). With the importance of public health and the increase in urban settlement, this naturally led to a focus on the improvement of health in buildings; namely, air circulation and light to combat disease. Baker gleans some interesting details about light in particular and the way the designers of schools would presage the blending of educational and architectural theories that are becoming more common in our contemporary time.

Daylight was the primary source of light, since electricity was certainly not well spread, and the design of schools was incredibly specific about the windows. They were tall to avoid dark spots and the room was oriented in a particular way so that light would even fall over a student’s shoulder on the correct side at the correct angle; further and much more poetically, window sills were to be built lower—since children’s eye levels are lower—to enable them to gaze outside and take small, mental breaks (6-7).

Figure 2. Quincy Grammar School-House, first floor (Gislasen 2011, 6).

The window sills and enabling the gaze is an incredible, design-centered (not pedagogically centered) thought that well foreshadows post-war and especially modern classroom design; Tanner (n.d.) agrees with this design prescription: “Adherence to scale is necessary to produce user friendly, safe schools…[including] windows low enough for children to see out,…” and “[Rikard Kuller and Carin Lindstern] point out the biological need for windows, especially noting that windows that students can actually see through, allow the eye to change focal lengths, providing essential relief for eyestrain” (34-35).

Beyond light, the standards for air circulation and temperature were well defined: 30 cubic feet of fresh air per minute and proper heating systems to raise the temperature to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (Baker 2012, 6). These figures are very important to keep in mind, established as they are at the beginning of the 20th century, since they are reaffirmed in modern studies: “The mental attention of pupils [is] significantly slower when the level of CO2 in classrooms is high and when the air exchange rate is low” and “[pupils] with more opportunities to adapt themselves to the thermal environment will be less likely to suffer discomfort” (Barrett et al 2015, 128).

Gislason also tracked the increase in public funding for schools along with accommodations for the health movement and this easily had the biggest effect on school design since pedagogy was far more prescriptive and standard.

Despite the refurbishment of schools—to include building standards we take for granted like running water—the pedagogy remained strikingly stagnant, which Gislason (2009) attributes to the traditional and enduring image of the teacher as the undisputed head of the class dolling out knowledge (235). This is an important, design enabled ideology that has faced combat from educational theory since the post-war period. Even though it is a quick, but impactful, claim from Gislason, it is constantly argued against in literature that has only begun to take up the built space and classroom design as inextricable from pedagogy.

There is little to no discussion of actual classrooms in the pre-war era, primarily for what I have already stated: classrooms were the same thing as schoolhouses. As conditions for schools improved through funding and specialized, rather than general, education following the increase in industrialization in urban centers, the space was taken up by early educational theorists and teachers themselves.

The Uniqueness of 1930 to 1945

Before any post-war boom in school design can take off, advances in educational theory and pedagogy dramatically recalibrate thought surrounding space within schools; namely the classroom. Becker and Gislason both attribute this onset to John Dewey, particularly in the American context, but other educators were also radically redefining the classroom, like Maria Montessori. This child centered approach to pedagogy needed newly defined spaces; Dewey wanted “to ensure that learning was grounded in real-world contexts and activities rather than abstract ideas or rote learning” (Gislason 2009, 239), while Montessori (2013) thought that

the general idea about the buildings of a modern school is that they should be hygienically correct, satisfying the laws of healthy housing, etc. Our idea is to build them so that they are psychologically satisfying; i.e., the building should correspond to the psychological needs of the children” (11).

Dewey’s Laboratory School was a unique case as a new build school for the time that was completed directed by Dewey’s own pedagogical theories. Notably, in contrast to other schools of the time and those that preceded Dewey, classrooms featured lightweight furniture that could be easily moved and large, open spaces without defined uses that could be used as needed by teachers and students (Gislason 2009, 239). This is echoed in modern research on active learning even for college age students; Rands and Gansemer-Topf (2017) found the example of moveable chairs quite an obvious means to encourage collaborative work and discussion (27) and Lewinksi (2015) concluded that “students seated in circles showed the most on-task behavior” (4). Montessori as well echoed Dewey’s desire for a modular classroom, looking for a room that is divided up thematically to what the children are pursuing, but still having enough room for movement (Ferreira 2014, 28).

This trend is seen from Becker’s environmental design perspective through the popularization of “open air schools,” so named for “the emphasis they placed on air, light, outdoor learning and easy circulation through the school buildings” (8). Figure 3 shows a perfect example of an open air school. The Impington Village College is still in operation, so it is unique to note that the classroom looks full of rows of desks. The photograph is more recent than 1936, when it was constructed, however, so the design of the classroom space may have been quite different. Gislason (2009) hypothesizes that this sort of classroom and school is the natural accumulation of school architecture through time; that it is instead building on itself rather than reinventing anew (231).

Still, air quality and light remain tantamount to the best functioning of a school, but the inclusion of outdoor learning re-emphasizes earlier thought that “however perfect the heating and ventilating plant, and however faultless its operation, let it be clearly understood and always remembered that no artificial heating and ventilation can ever take the place of fresh outdoor air and sunshine” (Hamlin 1910, 9).

Figure 3. The Impington Village College (Baker 2012, 8).

Interestingly, Barrett et al (2015) did not find support for or against links to nature, either seeing it or having access to it (128). Similar studies in the post-war era will counter some “common sense” design principles like this, but only from a cognitive perspective of literal learning; other aesthetic and holistic design research still stridently supports nature connections for children and adults in general.

Post-War School and Classroom Design

Ogata (2008) opens “Building for Learning in Postwar American Elementary Schools” by summarizing that “…Postwar questions about the school and its mission made space, materials, and pedagogy the concern of government officials, school board members, architects, designers, and parents” (562). The answer to these questions seems to lie with one school in particular: the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois (Figures 4 and 5). So influential is this singular school that nearly every piece of literature mentions it! It is the defining, modern school that, for Gislason and Ogata, defines the modern school architecture and classroom design.

Crow Island was designed directly from the child-centered pedagogies developed in the preceding decade. As Ogata (2008) describes the classroom design:

The classroom was a self-contained L-shaped unit including a workroom with storage, long counters, a sink for messy projects, and a small toilet…Draperies, colorful shelves, built-in seating under the large plate-glass windows, and plywood chairs and tables that could be easily rearranged were designed to make each classroom seem friendly to young children. The autonomy of the classroom, comfortable sofas in the entrance hall, fireplace in the library, and individual gardens between each classroom reinforced a strongly domestic ideal (566).
Figure 4. Crow Island School, mass study (Gislason 2011, 21).
Figure 5. Crow Island School (Becker 2012, 12).

This follows Montessori’s conception of the prepared environment open to movement and furnished for the work of education. Everything is inviting and intentional (Ferreira 2014, 28). Crow Island had the unique ability to build a new school with these very customized and customizable classrooms given its location and the high levy it could extract from local taxes in order to furnish a school. In contrast, Becker (2012) comments on the 20 billion dollars spent on a proliferation of standardized schools in order to meet new, educational demands (11). While the conversation around school architecture is enthralled with ideal types like the Crow Island School, the reality of school and classroom design across the United States was far simpler.

Here it is worth noting that new build schools that are trying something new or embracing a pedagogic approach to architecture are relatively rare. After this initial boom in new builds, funding and enrollment—inextricably tied—drop and, anyway, most communities did not have and could not raise the funds for something as ambitious as the Crow Island School. What was left? Many old buildings that would go through a series of retrofits and occasional renovations to keep them up to the changing building code.

What schools like Crow Island did, however, was sharpen a research focus on the impact of the materiality of the classroom on its students. Ogata joins with Becker in elucidating the environmental design, which almost completely reverse much of the prescriptive guidance from early, 19th century authorities. Becker (2012) tracks the change in lightning guidance, which increased during this period, and also mentions the introduction of fluorescent lighting, a vastly cheaper option than incandescent that could be installed at large. The modern school buildings also suffered from natural light coming in only a single direction, which exacerbated problems of glare and discomfort for some students (14-15). Ogata (2008) includes a wonderful detail from the director of the Texas State Department of Health, Darell Boyd Harmon, that “light allowed to come in over the left shoulder was bad for a child’s posture” (569-570).

Harmon was also quite influential with regards to color in the classroom and recommended a palette specifically for the classroom: “white ceilings with pale blue-green and peach walls, and darker shades at either end or a pearl gray as a complement” (Ogata 2008, 570). Grube (n.d.) is very critical of white valued walls, to include neutral tones; she attributes them to an institutionalizing space that affects the children negatively as it creates a clinical atmosphere. Important the introduction of fluorescent lights, she also cautions against he combination of white value and the cool blue lighting of the fluorescence. However, aside from Harmon’s recommendations, Gruber points out that school designers are probably not recommended colors from a psychological, well-being perspective and the school districts may not even have the funding to afford painting the entire school in multiple colors (69-78).

In some ways, the next wave of school and classroom design over-responded to prototypical active learning theories. It was also responding to a dropping total enrollments, which is a trend that continues into the contemporary (Becker 2012, 17). As school administration began to adopt the need for modular classrooms, the kind of quickly produced, lightweight furniture that is usable in that sense had to be produced; corporations, more than ever, were entering into the business of education, which is made none more apparent than in the construction of the Walt Disney Magnet School in Chicago. Ogata (2008) is clear: “In developing and promoting designs…[Brunswick] (like other materials manufacturers of the period) displayed a mastery of the generalized rhetoric of progressive pedagogy” (580).

What a generalizing rhetoric of progressive pedagogy led to was a focus on open education classrooms and open space schools, of which the Walt Disney Magnet School was an exemplar. This type of school relied on moveable partitions and sound-absorbing material, which were dubiously supported through research but found quite exciting over the now “hopelessly dull ‘egg-crates’” of the designs from the 1930s and 1940s (Ogata 2008, 581). The design of the schools and classrooms were largely a miss, since they could never operate in the perfect conditions that the pure theory anticipated. Contemporary studies continually agree that noise in particular is one of the most disruptive aspects of a classroom, with Lewinski (2015) easily claiming that “many classrooms are simply not comfortable places to acquire knowledge or to be mentally focused at all times, due to noise interference” (2). Further, and most supportive of Gislason’s hypothesis, the openness of the schools and classrooms didn’t even encourage the pedagogy that it was meant to contain; teachers fell back on traditional modes of classrooms (Ogata 2008, 583).

The energy crisis of 1973 also hugely impacted the classroom. New schools were built with intense, cost-saving designs and older schools were renovated to enforce those designs; in particular, the large windows in many windows were boarded over or closed off to better regulate air conditioning. Becker (2012) notes that these choices are being undone as that particular energy crisis no longer looms and there is greater research supporting (again) the impact daylight and simply seeing nature has developing minds and bodies and the educational environment (18).

Becker (2012) points out, however, that many changes to the environmental design of buildings came before the energy crisis: as mechanical and automated system became more reliable, a greater desire to use them replaced many of the more natural or manual methods of regulating the classroom environment (19). However, there are again interesting clashes with the prescriptive guidance of the early 20th century, findings at the time and contemporary research. Regarding lighting, research from the 1970s revealed that classrooms with no windows—entirely artificially lit—had no negative impact on learning (Becker 2012, 20). This is supported by Lewinski (2015, 2), but Tanner (n.d.) finds that “inadequately lit and windowless classrooms evoke a daily form of gloom, doom, and jet lag among students,…” (34). Barrett et al (2015) found light to be the most important factor in classroom design, but again did not find a difference between daylight and artificial light, though artificial light must be of good quality and high quantity (128).

The array of findings through time are…confusing and point to the multiple vectors of research that are used for built spaces. What is the architectural research? What is the educational research? What is the aesthetic research? What is the psychological and developmental research? Later, Becker (2012) offers an example of research conducted in the 1990s that showed a positive correlation between cortisol production and concentration abilities in students with access to natural light (23). But does that mean learn more than under only artificial light?

Active Learning Theory

Coming into the contemporary era, I find it hard to disagree with Gislason’s hypothesis that the history of school architecture is really a layering; while no school or classroom looks like it ever did in the past, there will be echoes of it and particularly so depending on which trend a school was designed during. The architecture of classroom is unsurprisingly reliant on the design of the school it is in; for Crow Island, it will always have the unique, modular design with a bank of windows and access to an outdoor space. What has come forward into the contemporary and shapes the design of classrooms now is the movement of a nascent active learning theory into an rigorous field of theory and practice that sees educators (re-)utilizing spaces despite the original design. What the mass production of classroom furniture has allowed is fully convertible classrooms and active learning theory readily takes advantage of that.

While most primary and secondary schools must inherit the conditions of the building—and are often forced to deal with overcrowding in classrooms that does not leave room for modified arrangements of desks or mobility—universities have the space to experiment and iterate. And oft cited formation of the classroom that is part lecture and part seminar is the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP). The typical arrangement has small groups of students at round tables in a room that hosts up to 100 students, while the lecturer can deliver materials often through computers and roam the hall to meet with individual groups (Beichner 2014, 14-16; Park & Choi 2014, 752). Here we see Gislason’s hypothesis laid out: the SCALE-UP classroom combines the large classes of an open classroom/school design, the mobility and student-led focus of student-centered pedagogy and even some classroom organization from pre-war schoolhouse design. The student groups can work at their own pace, however, and also benefit from mixed ability groupings, which everyone—not just the instructor—has the opportunity to move through the space of the class. Important, too, is the inclusion of information technology; more research can be and assuredly will be done on the expansion of the classroom into the virtual.

SCALE-UP classrooms are one experiment, however, much like many of the unique schools built through the century (I have never attended a lecture-seminar with such a structure, though the proliferation of smaller groups inside larger classes is very common). Much of active learning is in repurposing the space available, as Beichner (2014) discusses with the use of “clickers” in large lectures to garner participation (13).


On the other side, at the elementary level, I haven’t seen a row of desks in quite some time. Most of this theory seems to be at work on developmentally young students, where classrooms are divided into small groups with plenty of room to move and stations set up around the classroom for different, direct activities. The environmental conditions of the classrooms vary, however; there will classrooms in schools with no windows, others with very aggressive heating and cooling systems as cost saving measures and varying levels of aesthetic consideration depending on budget.

The history of the classroom, really, is one of adaptation. As I picture the layout for a classroom, after all of the illustrations and photographs of schools and classrooms I have seen, I come up with just a square. An unobtrusive build that can be cast and recast as the needs of the class dictate is a classroom. The pre-war and post-war split of the history of school architecture reflects this: pre-war designs had desks literally bolted to the floor and post-war designs were rife with lightweight furniture mass produced that could go anywhere. As educational theories have increasing embraced the material conditions of where those theories will be practice, the “classroom” becomes ever more abstract; also, too, in response to the world: what is a classroom over Zoom?


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