What If Students Designed Schools?

If Sudents Design

“The world that we’re coming into right now…we’re gonna really be on our own. We’re not going to be able to rely on our elders telling us what to do. It’s going to be us telling us what to do, and then responsible for the next generation, trying to help them and the only way we’re going to be able to learn the lessons and be individuals and be autonomous is if we do it by ourselves.”

-Peter, Student

Monument Mountain Regional High School

Great Barrington, Massachusetts


“As an educational leader, how would you design a 21st century school?” What an exciting opportunity this would be!

I’ve been thinking a lot about what a school should look like in the 21st century and I often can’t help class-starbucks-300x200but think about places and spaces where I see young people working. Places like Starbucks, Panera Bread, and even the local place in Derry, the Coffee Factory come to mind.

I see young people in small groups. Each typically has a laptop, smartphone, and ear buds visible. They are sipping coffee or a smoothie or having a snack. They’re in a comfy, oversized chair or loveseat, sitting in front of a coffee table or by a fireplace, thinking, working, and learning. kids at Starbucks

There’s no teacher in sight.

They are asking each other questions, looking at each other’s work, and engaged in deep discussion. It’s very likely they are working on a project from their laptop, while simultaneously responding to Facebook posts and Tweets. They might take a break for Face Time with their college buddy while they go order another drink. Then it’s back to work. They’re gonna be there for a while.

Then I think about their school environment.

They sit in rows, there’s no access to a personal learning device, and there is certainly no sign of a smartphone, food, or drink. Nor is their any liking, tagging, or Tweeting taking place. That would lead to disciplinary action in most cases for violating the school’s “no cell phone/eating/drinking/social media/music listening policy.”

In this environment they are listening to a teacher, looking at a PowerPoint, or filling out a worksheet, and passively consuming information. They might be thinking, “what do I need to memorize for this test?” Odds are they are sneaking a text under their desk. To their mom.

Why is there such a drastic difference between these two learning environments? One reason might be because students have zero say in what their learning environment should look like. What if we asked students to design their learning environments? How different would they look from the schools of today?

I came across this amazing and inspiring video shared by Josh Stumpenhorst, author of the blog, Stump the Teacher, which shows what a 21st century could look like. The video features students from Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. These students are involved in an independent learning program where there are no teachers, and no classes, yet the students are fully accountable for learning the core subjects of english, math, social sciences, and natural sciences.

The pilot program, developed by Sam Levin, who now attends Oxford University, allows students to pursue “individual endeavors” which focus on skill mastery as well as a “group endeavor” which epitomizes collaboration for 21st century learning.


Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 11.07.01 PM

Peter, the narrator in the video says, “My goal every presentation is to be as engaging as possible. And make my care for my subject as infectious as possible. Try to make everyone catch it.”

Isn’t this passion-driven focus at the heart of many school mission statements?

Are schools really designed to create and unleash learning experiences that students are passionate about?

Another student in the program says it is his hope that one school will see their video and be inspired to try something similar. For that to happen, a school would need a courageous, risk-taking leader such as the principal at Monument Mountain, Marianne Young. Principal Young talks about the program being an outlet for as many students to be as successful as possible.

I have been reading a lot about innovative school leaders being risk-takers who can think outside the box. Principal Young exemplifies these traits and obviously has a “let’s try it” leadership approach Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 11.08.13 PMversus the “it can’t be done” approach.

She sees opportunity over challenge.

She is obviously a leader who understands the needs of digital natives and realizes schools must change, including changing a school’s physical space, if these needs are to be met.

She also believes in giving students the tools they need to achieve their learning objectives and demonstrate their understanding and mastery of skill, whether those tools be a chalkboard or a Mac Book.

Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 11.05.32 PM

Perhaps the most admirable and inspring approach to Principal Young’s leadership style is her willingness to listen to the students. She allowed a student to create this amazing program and has put her faith and trust behind her students and the faculty and staff who coach and mentor the students in this program.

I admire courageous leaders such as Principal Young and will certainly take her approach in listening to the needs of my students. That is why schools exist. To give students what they need and deserve and to help prepare them to “do it by themselves.” When you give students ownership over their learning, it appears passion and pride really do emerge.

So imagine a school where students cared that much about what they were learning. Wouldn’t that be an amazing place to teach, learn, and grow?

Imagine a school where intellectual curiosity is the foundation of all learning and where students have the skills to ask their own questions and find their own answers.

The results?

Peter says it best when he states,

“If the question is yours, the answer is going to feel great when you obtain it.” Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 11.08.44 PM

The Vittra School in Sweden is another example of a school that has redesigned learning spaces to be reflective and most conducive to 21st century collaborate learning. These schools are breaking all kinds of traditional molds of learning environments and are focused on creating the most comfortable and nurturing spaces for children. It is probably not a coincidence that work spaces in the 21st century are designed to promote collaboration. Just check out this long board tour of Facebook headquarters as proof of collaborative work spaces.

Below are additional images of the innovative learning spaces in the Vittra schools created by architect Rosan Bosch. What is your vision of the design of a 21st century school?

School redesign 3 School redesign 2

school redesignSchool redesign 4

How would you design a 21st century school?

Image credits:




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