The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn't need to be reformed -- it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions. Sir Ken Robinson

Change in K-12 public education is often beset by what I call, “The Re-Form- the again and again repetition of repairing an old structure." Even as we inch closer to the first quarter mark of the 21st century, many good-minded people will continue to reform education within the parameters of traditional 20th century didactic teaching and learning practices.

By didactic, I'm referring to a telling mode of teaching where learning is teacher-centered.
  • Teachers tell information to either a whole class or smaller groups of instruction. This mode of instruction is commonly referred to as direct instruction.

  • Students are required to process this telling information auditorily during a large percentage of their school day.

  • Teachers tell and present information from the front of class, often determined by a chalkboard, whiteboard or possibly now, an interactive whiteboard with an AV presentation system.

  • Students sit in the same assigned spot all day or class period and face the front of the room. Typically, the class has the same sized desks and chairs arranged in either symmetrical rows or pods of 4-6 desks and chairs arranged together.

  • Student achievement is measured by a student’s ability to retain the telling information from the teacher. Assessment of students is primarily based on their memorization and the ability to reproduce the telling information onto a specific type of paper and pencil test, or paper/pencil-like test appropriated to software. 

Notwithstanding the technology just mentioned, generations of 20th century students typically learned this way in school. What is striking about education in the 21st century to date, is the general rhythm of teacher-centered instruction is largely unchanged despite innovations like digital technologies, collaborative teaming in the world of work, and national content and technology standards. Simply put, reform in education does not work as systems change. Systems change in K-12 education in the United States are like cars in Cuba. Cubans can only fix the cars they’ve had since the 1950’s because no new cars are allowed in their country. K-12 education in the United States is much like a 1955 Chevy, we can keep fixing it up, even restore it, but it's still a mid-20th century model.

A Curriculum Literally Apart

As educators, we often hear the phrase, “It’s integrated in the curriculum.” “It” being, anything that has been identified in teaching and learning as something that should transcend across any subject like- reading, writing, communication, and technology skills. These are the common literacies most cited by educators as integrated in the curriculum. As for content integration, traditional didactic practices long ago segregated content into separate subjects of Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies, often called, “the core four.” In K-5, the core subjects are still most often taught separate from one another in a block of time during the school day. In 6-12, the core four and their derivative subjects are taught as courses that are scheduled typically in 6 or 7 periods as the school day.

If you consider this key structure of how content is divided and time-marked for every school day, you begin to realize the travesty of educational reforms in America. The bedrock of subjects taught in blocks of time where student achievement is measured through testing of the same segregated subjects, is essentially an inauthentic process of learning. This inauthenticity is repetitive, it extends across students’ K-12 years and fundamentally limits how human-beings come to understand the things of this world.

In relation to content isolation, if we look at reading and writing as traditionally-termed literacy, these skills are still generally taught separately during Language Arts time or English period. As children transition from elementary to secondary schools, the ongoing learning of English becomes even more segregated from other subjects taught by separate teachers in separate classrooms.

For educational technology from the late 1970’s, our country was moving from an analog to digital world and students began to be more exposed to personal desktop computers at school. During this time, 'digital literacy' of hardware/software, and 'media literacy' pertaining to the engagement and understanding of media in digital forms emerged. Today, both digital and media literacies are blurred together in the use of devices, applications and services with the consumption and creation of digital content and the social and ethical practices that lie within.

However, just like traditional literacy, digital literacy and media literacy were isolated from the other subjects into what every student since the early 1980’s has known as 'computer lab time.' Historically, through a general lack of funding for personal desktop computers in K-12, schools clustered their computers in one room and thus established a practice for an one-size-fits-all computer instruction. The typical parental question of, “What did you do in school today?” was often answered by the 1980’s-90’s K-12 student as, “computer,” as a subject unto itself rather than as a tool used within an activity. The legacy of these technology practices continue today in two forms. One, students still go to a computer lab as a block of time with all students doing the same single subject activity on their desktop, laptop, or tablet computer. Two, each student in class singularly uses a mobile computing device altogether with their classmates, doing the same activity.

In didactic instructional environments, you can take the computers out of the lab but not the computer lab mentality out of the teacher-centered use of the devices. In effect, much of K-12 education systems continue old practices with mobile devices and now, refreshed mobile devices.

Transformational Systems Change Through Integrated Studies

Transformation, a complete change in the appearance or character of something or someone” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2018). We believe that words matter. Authentic systems change happens through a process of transformation versus a process of reform. The difference in K-12 education is that reform often changes innovative pedagogical practices in isolation from one another, as transformation integrates those same innovative pedagogical practices as one.

Systems change for K-12 schools in the 21st century begins with local level leadership to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). However, these standards will retain traditional reform practices taught in content isolation unless a much larger and complete change occurs. This transformation for K-12 schools will begin with progressive transitional steps from curriculum subjects being taught separately from one another, to the integration of the subjects being unpacked together through thematic big idea units of study. This learning practice is often called, Interdisciplinary Studies. We have embraced the term, Integrated Studies from the George Lucas Educational Foundation website publication Edutopia, as the "innovations and best practices for combining multiple academic subjects to prepare students for a world where all knowledge is integrated (2018)."

The concept of integrated studies is not new as Maria Montessori proved back in 1907, when she opened her first child-centered school in Rome. Today, integrated studies is in fact a common topic among educators that is most uncommon in actual practice within a typical school district in the United States. What you will see are specialty schools that have adopted or have been selected by a school district administration to build a themed curriculum that is linked through units of study, projects, and/or the world of work. Many Magnet and Charter schools have lead efforts here in the United States. Progressive inquiry-based curriculums such as the International Baccalaureate Program (IB) are increasing every year in U.S. schools. STEM and now STEAM (Science Technology Engineering, Art, and Math) continue to grow with an integrated studies approach in select K-8 schools. 

Forward thinking high schools have designed academies with a world of work emphasis in Health and Medical, IT, Engineering Design, Graphic Design, and Business to name a few examples. Often these academies are created with an integrated studies team of teachers representing all the subject areas and college and career courses in a project-based model. However, and with few exceptions, most of these newly branded schools or academies within a school are still bound in a traditional structure of subjects taught separate from one another in separate blocks of time. We say all of this is slow and steady progress as transformation most often begins with many steps of transition.

The Integration of Learning Design, Physical Space Design, and Digital Space Design

Constructivist Learning Design

Constructivist learning is based on the theory that people actively construct knowledge, skills and values through experiences in their physical and social environments. We continually construct our own understanding as we encounter new experiences and reflect upon previous knowledge, skills and values.

Here, constructivist learning design is embodied through integrated studies to facilitate the combined practices of inquiry-based learning + project-based learning + social and emotional learning as a framework for crafting engaging learning environments.

We present this vision for integrated studies that follows a constructivist philosophy and pedagogy as the engine for a K-12 transformational systems change. Our approach to learning design comes from the groundbreaking work of Jean Piaget and Seymour Papert. Jacqueline G. Brooks and Martin G. Brooks state in their book, In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (1999):

Each of us makes sense of our world by synthesizing new experiences into what we had previously come to understand. Often, we encounter an object, idea, a relationship, or a phenomenon that doesn't quite make sense to us. When confronted with such initially discrepant data or perceptions, we either interpret what we see to conform to our present set of rules for explaining and ordering our world, or we generate a new set of rules that better accounts for what we perceive to be occurring. Either way, our perceptions and rules are constantly engaged in a grand dance that shapes our understanding.

Building from constructivist theory, Seymour Papert advocated, “learning is most effective when part of an activity the learner experiences as constructing a meaningful product” (1987). Papert’s Situating Constructionism with Idit Harel (1991) is often referred to as “learning by making,” but both believed learning to be "much richer and more multifaceted, and very much deeper in its implications than could be conveyed by any such formula."

In a 1980’s speech, Papert uses mathematics to illustrate his position:

I think part of the trouble with learning mathematics at school is that it's not like mathematics in the real world. In the real world, there are engineers, who use mathematics to make bridges or make machines. There are scientists, who use mathematics to make theories, to make explanations of how atoms work, and how the universe started. There are bankers, who use mathematics to make money -- or so they hope.

But children, what can they make with mathematics? Not much. They sit in class and they write numbers on pieces of paper. That's not making anything very exciting. So we've tried to find ways that children can use mathematics to make something -- something interesting, so that the children's relationship to mathematics is more like the engineer's, or the scientist's, or the banker's, or all the important people who use mathematics constructively to construct something.

From Piaget and Papert we get a real-world philosophy for education that reflects the authentic world of human activity and endeavor. Constructivist pedagogy (how we learn) is essentially our human nature, it combines a person’s or group’s ability to solve problems with that person’s or group’s ability to make things in their world, as lifelong learners.

In Part I, I present a process that combines two essential learning models, Inquiry-based Learning + Project-based Learning as a constructivist learning design. Inquiry-based learning directly taps into our nature to be curious in the exploration of a big idea through questioning, problems or scenarios organized in a research process. Project-based learning is the process designed within a project that leads to creating a product. We see these two learning models as "the dynamic duo" structures for integrated studies unit development.

If constructivist learning design is the engine that drives our new twenty-first century educational car, then physical space design and digital space design represent the chassis, body, interior and technology that complete it.

Today, a majority of K-12 school’s physical learning environment is still a traditional reflection of our preparation for the past industrial-age workforce. Here, we propose integrating physical and digital spaces that are engaging, and that complement our constructivist practices for problem-solving and product making into learning spaces that promote social and emotional learning.

Flexible Physical Space Design

Traditionally-

  • a classroom is a place where students are taught.

  • a library is a place to research, read or study.

  • a lab is a place for hands-on learning activities.

  • a studio is a place where things or performances are created.

In Part II, Flexible Physical Space Design embodies the pedagogical change from teacher-centered learning to student-centered learning. Here, the physical learning space itself plays a key role in our students mental and physical well-being and becomes embedded with a school’s overall social and emotional learning plans. Traditional learning spaces designed with a singular purpose are transformed to multi-purpose learning spaces. This transformation from 20th-century to 21st-century learning spaces uses a new lexicon to describe the metamorphosis from -

  1. Classroom to Learning Studio

  2. Library to Learning Commons

  3. Lab to Makerspace

Classrooms, libraries, and labs are the three most common learning spaces within any K-12 school. These spaces now take on a more eclectic function as all can become places for learning, collaboration, personal space, and active movement contained within the same room. As classrooms and labs become more flexible, we can start to take a fresh look at the whole space that is typically no more  and often less than 960 square feet. The current terms of flexible seating and 'the flexible classroom' are laid out with groupings of various 'micro learning spaces' or 'micro making spaces.' In libraries, we typically have more area space to work with and can craft larger groupings of 'learning zones.' Educators are empowered as interior designers to create a learning space that now includes a broader mix of hard and soft furniture made for: school, office, work, hotel, restaurant, and home living spaces. These spaces may also be equipped with a variety of making materials and technology tools appropriate to the age group of students.

These flexible learning spaces are both collaborative and personally crafted by teachers, librarians and their students to directly facilitate a constructivist learning model. We feel that student achievement optimally occurs when schools can raise the level of student creativity by providing a social and emotional safe nest for all individuals to thrive within a face-to-face learning environment.

This book will focus on interior learning space design over new school construction or renovation projects where existing walls/structures are remodeled to create a new space. I want to unpack fresh ideas here for physical space projects for educators working within existing building spaces. These building, no matter if they were constructed in the 20th or 21st century are most often architecturally designed in what Prakash Nair describes as, "cells and bells" (Blueprint for Tomorrow: Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning (2014). 

Anyone who has gone to a K-12 school in the U.S. has directly experienced thousands of hours in typically the square or rectangular box of a classroom clustered in a single or double row building wing of classroom cells. Students typically stay in the one cell, learning a single subject, until the bell rings or content scheduled period ends.

It is in this context where we begin with the great majority of classrooms built with the industrial-era DNA of human management superseding human engagement. Our mission here is to create strategies that craft student-centered learning environments within these "sit and listen" teacher-centered box spaces.

"Cells and Bells"

Traditional Classroom Architectural Design

Personalized Digital Space Design

In Part III, Personalized Digital Space Design is presented as the orchestrated use of digital devices, applications and services that help accomplish student-centered tasks in face-to-face and online learning environments.

Digital technologies in this second decade of the 21st century are finally beginning to disrupt traditional K-12 education systems. As mobile devices and web applications have taken the world by storm; cloud computing has created a centralized personalization and socialization of information that conflicts with traditional K-12 practices lead by teachers mainly using direct instruction. From a historical perspective, personal computers from the 1980 - early 2000’s were decentralized in the sense that they all stood alone with their local hard drive. Computers in schools therefore needed to be clustered together in the same room, all having the same software, to be used in a teacher-centered environment.

It wasn’t until cloud computing came along in the mid-2000’s to centralize storage, applications and services all together. This centralization through the Internet allowed people to personalize their own content on any device they used like phones, laptops, tablets desktop computers, and TV viewing. Within the last decade, mobile devices working within a centralized network have in effect infiltrated the traditional school curriculum by sheer cultural osmosis. For teachers and students, cloud computing has created a new menu of options for their own, consumer IT. Teachers and students can now design much of their own digital space in the cloud rather than just use what a school district provides or tells them what they can use for devices, applications, and services.

Currently, we live in a time where even a larger picture of personalized technology is emerging. This personalization is evolving as students both consume and create content. Much of our effort in this ebook supports students creating all kinds of things. We want students using digital devices, apps and services to create content, images and objects as active makers versus say, passive receptors of social media.

As technological innovations continue to create major disruptions in our current world of work, these innovations cause both positive and negative outcomes for people in the workforce. Technology will eventually eliminate many jobs that exist today, but it also creates many more new jobs yet to exist. As co-authors, we see all this as a positive opportunity for students in the United States to invent themselves as a new generation of American makers. Not only will these young people be option driven consumers, but they will also be the self-directed and team-driven creators of new things in a new economy.

These same technological innovations will also have tremendous implications for K-12 teaching and learning in this country. We believe that these disruptions of innovation will provide the sparks toward a K-12 systems change transformation and new age of constructivism for the 21st century. In this ebook, We identify three essential design elements for K-12 learning: pedagogy, learning environment and technology. These three elements are often written about singularly in educational publications, but are rarely fully integrated together into a school system’s strategic planning and instructional deployment to students. It is our hope that this ebook helps empower local learning communities to orchestrate constructivist practices through their own educational integration of:

  • Learning Design through integrated studies in inquiry and project-based learning,

  • Physical Space Design in flexible learning spaces and,

  • Digital Space Design using cloud computing to personalize an individuals creative endeavors. 

And, a final thought before we start this journey

I'm going to presume, you the reader of this ebook, have or want to have a leadership or influencer role in K-12 education. Experience has taught us that disrupting the norms of K-12 instruction comes with the head bob and weave of a professional boxer. People within or around your school are going to love what you are doing, be indifferent, or dislike what you are doing in 'their school.' Social Science has a term for that called, Diffusion of Innovation (DOI) Theory, developed by E.M. Rogers in 1962. In short, the theory explains how a social group of people come to accept a new idea as it spreads throughout the group, overtime. This graphic (from ResearchGate, 2017) shows the bell curve of the adoption process of the idea and the challenge of the innovators to move forward with the idea.


This ebook empowers the 16% of innovators and early adopters to craft your school’s transformation to an engaging 21st century learning environment. With that said, the early adopters need to bring their social skills to work. Behavior change begins by example through humble modeling. We highly recommend the “seed and feed” approach to innovation when working at a local school community. Here are some essential tips.

  • Nurture the 16% cream by gently stirring so that the other 84% does not get petty, jealous, or actively or passively work against the innovators and early adopters.

  • People in authority at the central offices and school site should NOT make others change their learning space overnight. Remember, you are seeding the forest and not just replanting a bunch of grown trees in hard soil. For example -

    • Changing fixed furniture (with glides) to caster wheels is an acquired style and strategy that takes time through collaborative learning practices. Flexible furniture and mobile technology follow constructivist pedagogy and collaborative learning, NOT precede it.

  • Try to get an early adopter at every grade level or team for professional learning. The early adopters are your true game changers to integrate the three design elements that will be essential for transformation.

  • Crawl before you walk and walk before your run. Slow and steady with many incremental transitions wins your school’s transformational marathon.

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