Design for Project Based Learning in the 21st Century

By Sita Lakshminarayan

Like many adults today, when I look back on my formative years spent in grades K-12, I remember things like book reports, algebra equations, and multiple choice questions. The teacher stood in front of the class, giving instructions to students seated at individual desks and chairs arranged in regular rows. Learning happened by following the teacher’s instructions and successfully completing homework assignments, tests, and final exams. Group work was kept to a minimum, and individual achievement was emphasized. But much has changed in the educational model since I was in school, including the recent emergence of the Project Based Learning (PBL) approach to education. In its simplest form, PBL is “learning by doing” – a model that favors student-based learning over traditional teacher-based instruction (National Education Association, 2009). Students engaged in PBL are given freedom to explore real-world subjects through collaboration with their peers, responsibility and ownership of their assignments, and communication of their ideas to larger groups. Proponents of PBL report that this method of instruction often results in a deeper, more enjoyable, and more meaningful learning experience (Buck Institute for Education, 2007). Just as PBL represents a paradigm shift in the traditional method of instruction, it also signals an important shift in the way we design schools to accommodate this new approach.

Common Area Catalysts
In the past, the common areas inside an elementary school included common-use spaces like the cafeteria, gymnasium, and hallways. But in the 21st century elementary school, Commons are paired with classroom wings to enable Project Based Learning. Large interior windows allow for teachers to remain in the classroom while providing adequate supervision to students in the common area. This setup is designed so the students have a sense of independence, encouraging them to speak freely with their peers without fear of judgment or intrusion from the teacher. At the BLGY-designed and recently opened ShadowGlen Elementary School for Manor Independent School District in Manor, Texas, students are grouped into wings by grade level with classrooms facing the Commons. This centralized design enables an even higher level of collaboration, with students from different classrooms interacting in new and exciting ways.

Connection to the Outdoors
A central tenet of PBL is the integration of real-world subject matter into the learning environment. As a result, we are designing schools to have much stronger connections to the outdoors. At ShadowGlen Elementary, students are learning about weather prediction in the shaded outdoor classroom, rather than from inside the traditional classroom. The design of safe and functional outdoor spaces for students empowers teachers to integrate nature into the curriculum to further engage students in “learning by doing.” Similarly, students at ShadowGlen also learn about the earth’s rotation via the outdoor human sundial, where they can stand on the current month marker and use their shadow to tell the time.

Flexible Spaces for Dynamic Learning
Because PBL can take many different forms, designing flexible spaces is key to supporting students and teachers who are engaged in this type of curriculum. At ShadowGlen Elementary, the Commons are furnished with large, curving tables that fit together like puzzle pieces to allow for both larger and smaller groups. These areas are also equipped with smart boards and mobile Hokki stools to facilitate varying styles of communication and learning. Flexible spaces also extend to the classrooms, with freestanding ergonomic chairs and Balt Economy Shapes collaborative desks that can be arranged in a variety of configurations. The inherent flexibility of these areas allow students and teachers to easily transition from independent tasks like creating artwork to group tasks such as choreographing a play.


With the curriculum in our schools continuing to evolve, the design of those schools must keep pace. PBL opens up a world of opportunity for students to engage on a deeper level and to build valuable skills for the future. As design professionals, we are poised to support evolving educational models through the creation of new and innovative spaces to support dynamic learning.

National Education Foundation (2009). [Online Article]. Research Spotlight on Project-Based Learning: NEA Reviews of the Research on Best Practices in Education. Retrieved September 23, 2015 from

Buck Institute for Education (2007). [Online Articles]. What is Project Based Learning? Retrieved September 23, 2015 from

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