There’s no doubt that our world has changed drastically in the past century. Technology is constantly improving, communication is instant around the globe, and the demands on our students are drastically different than they were even twenty years ago.

Within the classroom, standards have been rewritten. Chromebooks and tablets are ubiquitous. Teachers swear by their Smartboards. Every day, students log in to a variety of web-based educational platforms.

So why are we still using desks designed a century ago?

There are lots of simple answers to this:

  • It’s what we’re all used to
  • It’s expensive to buy new furniture
  • It’s unfamiliar territory with few resources

But with research and deeper reflection, it becomes apparent that as schools shift toward the essential 21st Century skills, the furniture begins to get in the way:

  • Desks that were once efficient for organizing students in rows have now become clumsy and awkward for grouping.
  • Classroom layouts that were optimal for teacher lectures become problematic for student-centered classrooms.
  • White cinder-block walls and florescent lighting now make classrooms feel institutionalized, rather than welcoming places for learning.

Read: A Visual History of School Desks

What are the 21st Century Skills, anyway?

The 21st Century skills are best explained by Tony Wagner himself, who researched the skills that students needed in order to achieve success after graduation. (The article “Rigor Refined,” originally published in 2008, is an excellent resource. You can also watch his TEDxNYED Talk.)

Wagner defines the “Seven Survival Skills” as: 

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2. Collaboration and Leadership
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination

Even without going further into what each of those skills are, it becomes obvious that a teacher-centered, traditional classroom will not help prepare students for the 21st Century job force. 

The 21st Century Workplace

Quick! What companies are known for being innovative? Trendsetting? Companies that people dream of working for? 

If Apple or Google came to mind, those are two companies that incorporate anything but traditional work spaces! A quick Google image search of “Google Headquarters Offices” show pictures that you would expect to belong in a theme park, not an office.


Google Headquarters Search 800px

You can also browse the site Office Snapshots to see amazing working environments around the world …and you won’t see traditional cubicles. I especially love this fun and quirky featured space: Appboy – New York City

Even the classic boardroom gatherings have adjusted to reflect the changing nature of workplace interactions—such as Amazon CEO’s “two pizza rule” to limit large, inefficient meetings.

Read: Rethinking the School Desk: Is the best way to fix the American Classroom to improve the furniture?

WATCH: “The Myth of Average”


In this video, Todd Rose makes a powerful point about designing for average versus designing to edges.

Think about the last time you sat in a traditional desk, such as the wraparound desk from the 70’s era that is still in use today. Did that desk fit you well? How long before you felt uncomfortable? Was it distracting?

Now, think about the students in your classes. How could changing the classroom furniture or environment tap into potential that you haven’t seen yet?

“It’s very rare for students to actually have a chair and desk that fit them right—one study put the number at one in five.” 
—Linda Perlstein

Connecting Content Skills to Classroom Space