From Classrooms To Boardrooms


Education and corporate culture have a long history together. Sir Ken Robinson describes the relationship quite succinctly, “Public schools were not only created in the interests of industrialism — they were created in the image of industrialism.”

Picture a 1960s workspace: orderly desks and work stations organized in identical rows. Now picture a 1960s classroom: similar scene, right? Wooden desks locked in their rigid lines, facing the chalkboard with the teacher at the front of the room.

Fast forward to 2016. Work no longer looks, for most people, like this visual of neat, orderly rows, and we know that education is on the same path for change.

Over the decades, teaching methods have progressed. Educators have realized that active learning where students are engaging each other is much more effective than passive learning where students sit and watch a lecture. Many call this active, project-based approach to education “21st Century Learning.” Teachers apply 21st century learning by engaging in hands-on projects, building enthusiasm for learning, developing curiosity, and allowing the kind of experimentation that generates creativity and critical thinking rather than simply sitting and listening to a lecture. Not only is 21st century learning generally a lot more fun, but also the rates of retention are significantly higher when students are actively learning.

At the heart of active, project-based learning is the effort to develop students’ noncognitive skills. These social/emotional skills —including communication, collaboration, creativity, perseverance and critical thinking —are uniquely fostered by this kind of learning. You now see these noncognitive skills described as fundamental objectives of the curriculum.

In this project, we strategically introduced how learning can take place outside the classroom through the use of color, which helps define various spaces, and by creating space for play and active learning.

Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed” and more recently of “Helping Children Succeed” says, “What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.”

And not surprisingly, the conversation in the corporate world is strikingly similar. Tony Wagner, former educator now Expert in Residence at Harvard’s Innovation Lab and Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, surveyed executives of major corporations and found that they are looking for what he calls “Seven survival skills” in all their employees:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving.
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence.
  • Agility and adaptability.
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship.
  • Effective oral and written communication.
  • Accessing and analyzing information.
  • Curiosity and imagination.

When designing the corporate headquarters for software giant Intergraph, we incorporated communal spaces for employees to gather, collaborate and socialize.

You will notice that the list is nearly identical to those social/emotional skills that researchers are now saying should be getting a lot of attention in K-12 education. The corporate world is driven by change and innovation, as one leader said, “I can guarantee that the job I hire someone to do will change or may not exist in the future, so this is why adaptability and learning skills are more important than technical skills.” What both educators and employers know is: someone who is engaged and thinking critically can and will continue to learn. 

As designers, we are tasked with the challenge of designing spaces where people can best learn, teach, collaborate and innovate. These 21st century spaces — whether within schools or corporate offices — often include the same key components:

This indoor play space incorporates writable surfaces, an indoor play structure (which also serves as a space for presentation), a climbing wall, and a felt board, which adds texture. The floor in the classroom wings transitions from a marmoleum floor to a softer rubber flooring for the play surface.

  • Ample natural light.
  • Stimulating colors.
  • Flexible, transparent spaces.
  • Collaborative, open concepts.
  • Agile and movable furniture.
  • Technology.

Gone are your grandfather’s rigid rows and heavy desks.

Today’s corporate offices seek spaces that inspire community, wellbeing, hospitality and flexibility. To establish community we create both communal and intimate spaces — a place to work alone, a place to brainstorm with coworkers and a place to gather for impromptu happy hour.

Features like art, dynamic light fixtures, bright colors and natural lighting contribute to well being, as well as accessibility to staircases and pedestrian connections to outdoor spaces. We are seeing more offices invest in their dining amenities, offering healthier menu items, diverse culinary choices and even in-office chefs. These spaces have become more inviting for social gatherings, which stimulates interaction and sharing.

Additionally, furniture choice is key to creating workspace that is both flexible and agile, meaning easily and quickly reconfigured to meet changing needs. We often use movable furniture that easily comes together and breaks apart to accommodate different group sizes.

And, like every good school, modern offices are incorporating fun spaces for employees to engage, burn energy and encourage creativity to flourish.

Flexible furniture allows for meetings big and small to take place throughout the office.

Just as in corporate design, community, well being, hospitality and flexibility all matter in school design. In order to support 21st century learning, schools have adapted their learning spaces to accommodate various lesson plans, demonstrations, team activities and more.

These modern design concepts aren’t just here in the U.S., we also see them internationally. We recently designed a private school in Dubai that incorporates our corporate office design strategies. The design enhances community, wellbeing, hospitality and flexibility. In doing so, just as in the states, the use of color and natural light helps us create “Pride of Place” for students and staff.

Design for 21st century learning doesn’t necessarily need to be difficult or complex.  Collaborative spaces can be accomplished easily with flexible furniture and amenities.We often use furniture on wheels and whiteboards that extend from wall to wall, but don’t forget, flexibility is only part of the equation. Furnishings must also be agile, meaning quickly reconfigured if they’re going to be worthwhile.

This new middle school is a good example of  “well being.” Through the use of natural light and multi level volumes, we’ve minimized boredom as students move around the school over the course of a day.

Schools are also enhancing their hospitality offerings by investing in more robust food and dining services. At North Atlanta High School, a large cafeteria is designed with bright colors and a food court style serving line. Expanded menus with healthy food options are also important to diversifying lunches.

Just like employees need space for fun, play is a very important element in the curriculum for kindergarten students. Kindergarten, as we know, is one of the best examples of project-based active learning. MIT even has a “lifelong kindergarten” program encouraging educators to incorporate play, design, exploration and experimentation into the curriculum across grade levels. When MIT talks about creative learning at their own institution they say, “The stories of learning at MIT are full of surprises, diversity and humility — and are delightfully unexpected.  Hint: Not many of them take place in lecture halls!”

Another common feature to designing schools and corporate offices is the importance of “encounter space.” This space allows children to meet and study together and share what they’ve learned. The distinction between designing for corporate offices and schools continues to blur, especially as technology continues to propel our world forward. We must prepare students and employees for a technologically driven future with jobs that, in many cases, have yet to be invented. We expect to see more offices and schools embracing these design trends to create better, more collaborative spaces that will inspire a culture of innovation for our future.

Robert A. Just is a principal and director of Cooper Carry’s K-12 Education Studio. Kim Roussea is director of Interior Design at Cooper Carry. For more, visit

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