Flexible learning, Kurani school long desk, architecture sketches on walls, student at table

“It’s not just what you learn, but also where you learn.” 

There has been a lot of talk in the education industry around the concept of flexible learning spaces. New schools are being built with much more consideration being placed on the design of the learning environment, not only within the classrooms but also the cafeteria, the library, even the hallways.
Bored Teachers had the opportunity to interview an expert in the field of building 21st-century classrooms — Danish Kurani – who actually teaches a “Learning Environments for Tomorrow” course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His definition of “flexible classrooms” goes beyond the common understanding of a true flexible learning space.

Most schools think about flexible classrooms as spaces where all of the furniture is on casters. Rolling furniture has become the proxy for the word ‘flexibility’. But what happens when you need to change the walls, the tech, the tools students use, the look and feel of the space? For a great learning space, you have to consider acoustics, color, light, layout, materials, interactivity, graphics, inspiration, technology, and so much more. Putting furniture on wheels and calling the classroom ‘flexible’ is not the answer. That’s a fraction of what makes a learning space.”

The tools and hardware that students will need in a decade or two will be radically different from what they need today, and new learning spaces need to be designed to be open to new possibilities and ways of learning. Kurani’s innovative architecture firm specializes in the design and construction of learning spaces for some of the world’s leading educators, including:

The Google Code Next Lab in OaklandKurani design Google Code Next, big spaces classroom, round desk for 3 students. Tv on whiteboard, innovative flexible learning classroom

New York City SchoolsKurani design NYC school, flexible learning, science class, fun designs teacher and student looking at plant

Howard West Campus – Howard UniversityKurani design Howard West, open-space classrooms, flexible learning. Students learning at desk, students relaxing in back

However, one project that recently caught our eye is the Khan Lab School (KLS), in Mountain View, California, founded by Sal Khan, of Khan Academy.

Khan Lab School design, flexible learning. Big open spaces, with desks, in-wall reading corners, classes being taught

The Khan Lab School is a testing ground for new learning designs and practices. Educators here take an open-source approach to education and work to share their findings with the world. According to Kurani, “this campus may be the first of its kind.”

Khan Lab School_Kurani Flexible learning open spaces, classrooms open and students learning

The non-profit learning space was designed to accommodate flexible academic groupings, different levels of independence, and collaboration between mixed-age groups. Since the school is constantly experimenting with educational practices, the space is designed to function both as a school and a lab: Learning spaces not only serve as a place for teachers, but also a space for everyone to experiment, ideate, build, and present.

Khan Lab School Flexible learning spaces. Students studying on couches. Students growing plants. Big wold map on entire world.

To foster ownership and relationship, which are key to success in learning, students and teachers share breakout spaces around an open learning space.” -Dominic Liechti, Executive Director of KLS

Khan Lab School, wall-bookshelf with integrated reading nook. Student reading

Behind the design:

Just like a lab, people at the school have access to different tools and setups. For example, students are afforded the freedom to move between reading nooks, collaboration rooms, and quiet phone booths (perfect for video conferences with a mentor or community expert). Galleries encourage students to learn from each other’s work. Teachers share their ideas — like a manifesto on “Rethinking Math for high school” — on digital displays, inspiring the hundreds of educators who come to tour the school each year. Khan Lab School hopes for visiting teachers to be inspired by the space and able to implement aspects of it into their own learning spaces.

Flexible learning spaces. Open classes, walls are whiteboards, big black desk. Student experimenting.

What does the Khan Lab School hope to achieve through this learning environment?

Kurani, architect: We’ve added many specialty spaces so faculty can test different courses and experiences. Large interior windows allow everyone to see the experiments live. The breakout rooms, commons, and cafe give people places to convene and discuss. And just like a lab where scientists are expected to share the results of their testing, the school is equipped with displays for student and faculty work. By dedicating a display area for faculty, they’re encouraged to produce more experiments and share them with colleagues and the hundreds of educators who tour the school each year.

Flexible learning spaces. Little kitchen, couches, desks.

What can you tell us about “personalized learning”? And why/how did the Khan Lab School take that direction with their design?

Orly Friedman, Head of Lower School & Assistant Head of School:  At KLS, when students spend time practicing skills using online tools, teachers are freed up to do what only humans can do: coach and mentor. We personalize learning through people. Importantly, personalization does not mean individualization. Often our teachers are strategizing which interpersonal skills our students need work on as well as their own individual learning goals. Technology that supports student learning frees up teacher time, so that our teachers can have more meaningful interaction with students and lead a humanized personalized experience. Our teachers have time to meet one-on-one with students weekly to personalize content to their interests, personalize strategies to accelerate learning, and personalize the experience for each child’s emotional well-being.

Open spaces flexible learning students building at big desk

Can you tell us about the different types of labs you can find in the school?

Kurani, architect: One of the big breakthroughs in the design of Khan Lab School is having ‘classrooms’ that are not tied to a specific subject or teacher. Instead, the classrooms are each uniquely designed zones. Each supports a different mode of working or learning. So, there’s a Chat Lab for when the learning is happening through discussion, dialogue, presentation, and interpersonal exchange; an Ideate Lab for brainstorming; a Make Lab for designing, building, prototyping; and a variety of other specialty areas. Given how frequently curriculum and practices change, this classroom model makes sense for the future of education. For now, all we can bet on is that students will continue learning through dialogue, brainstorming, making, presenting.

Flexible learning spaces, Kurani, Khan Lab schools
Khan Lab School_Kurani_Flexible learning_Open classrooms

Khan Lab School_Kurani_Flexible Learning_Open spaces_Desks, couches_bookshelves etcKhan Lab School_Kurani_Flexible learning_Open classrooms_cookshelves

Everyone’s a teacher. Everyone’s a student.” How do you think the design of the school is a good reflection of these?

Kat Clark, Director of Marketing & Community at KLS:  We aim to empower students to take an active stance toward their education. This means not only enabling them to have control, but guiding and empowering them to be independent in a way that is constructive for themselves and their communities. When talking about the design of our school and our learning spaces, we talk about our Architecture of Learning: essentially, “how is our learning experience structured?”

  • To be effective and authentic, the learning space needs to be built to adapt. It needs to be flexible. Like our model of education, the environment of the school should be a working model that we can learn from and improve over time.
  • Learners of all ages need space – both mental and physical – to experiment and make mistakes.
  • The environment needs to be open and able to change.
  • The process of designing the space also gave our students and teachers ownership of the space.
  • By involving students in the design process and talking with them about the school space, exposing its inner workings, we empower students and give them more ownership of their school.

Khan Lab School_Kurani_Flexible learning_open classroomsKhan Lab School_Kurani_Flexible learning_Kids and black lockers on yellow walls

How does the space adapt to technology of the future?

Kurani, architect:  The campus was designed with change, evolution, and experimentation in mind. Traditional schools have so many fixed elements like load bearing walls, built-in cabinetry, and tech with heavy infrastructure. We chose to build a different kind of school. For now, students are using Chromebooks, digital displays, iPads, and a rolling TV. When their technology changes, the learning settings can evolve seamlessly.

Khan Lab School_Kurani_Flexible learning_long desk, students group project

What made you want to work on learning spaces?

Kurani, architect: Education is a major social issue — it’s a life-changer for so many people. That’s why there’s so much investment and conversation around how to make it accessible and effective. The problem is that a key element is repeatedly ignored and that’s the physical space. At Kurani, we decided to take that on and lead the charge for creating better places to learn. It’s not just what you learn, but also where you learn.

In your opinion, are today’s classrooms “outdated”?

Kurani, architect: Many US schools were built over 50 to 60 years ago. These buildings weren’t designed for change – they’re very static places. This has become a big problem for the US since education looks very different today and continues to evolve, as it should. Educators are constantly developing newer and better ways to teach. Yet they’re stuck in obsolete spaces that prevent them from giving students the best.

Would you say flexible classrooms are the future of education?

Kurani, architect: In the future, schools will focus less on making every room flexible. Instead, they’ll view each space as an opportunity to offer something unique. Classrooms (if they’re even still called that) will each support a specific way of learning, whether it’s learning through observation, discussion, creation, or performance. Designing each space for a different type of experience – rather than a subject or teacher – will allow schools to curate far more powerful experiences by virtue of having environments that are more supportive and far more compelling to be in. At the same time, I see our environments becoming more responsive, taking real-time data and adapting to improve the learner’s experience. This is what we’re working on at Kurani.