The Future of Schools

The challenge

Kids are always asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Whether they know the answer or not, we want to design schools to set them up to thrive in their ever-evolving social, community and work lives.

In this article

  • Understanding how classrooms are evolving to embrace new technologies, create healthy spaces and connect with their local communities.
  • How physical design, changing learning models and specific learning needs are related.
  • Opportunities for students and schools to future-proof curriculums such that they teach students to thrive in the evolving workforce and in all parts of their lives.

We’d all love a crystal ball that predicts the future job landscape. Sadly, that’s not possible. But there are actions we can take to help students capture the employment opportunities offered by this future. Dr Anne Kovachevich, who leads our Foresight and Innovation team in Australasia, thinks one key is to build physical spaces that provide adaptive learning environments for new skills and critical thinking. In the next few decades, our young people will need to respond to big, complicated, global issues no matter which field they choose, and therefore the environments they learn in, need to change as well.

Last year, we started a project to re-imagine the future of schools. We began by studying the physical spaces of primary and secondary schools – classrooms, auditoriums, libraries and gyms. It wasn’t long before we realised we needed to broaden our focus to include other interrelated factors such as community connectedness and school learning models. Schools are one place where focusing on the building and campus alone doesn’t actually support what the kids and teachers need to develop their knowledge and skills.  

“No one theme or topic could exist without the other,” says Anne. Since the skills a child needs to learn are directly informed by the shifting needs of society, schools must be seen as an extension of the communities in which they are built.

Focusing only on the physical building, and therefore missing its connection to the community and learning model is an easy trap to fall into when trying to plan a new facility in a school or campus.

There is no simple, static list of skills to prepare our children for a changing world, but we can prepare them to adapt to anything. This involves shaping curricula to focus on more adaptive skills like intuition, empathy, innovation and creativity. Some suggest that traditional standardised methods of learning and testing—which are worked on independently and reward students for providing correct answers—can impede growth in these adaptive capabilities. A more future-focused physical learning environment might instead focus on getting kids together to solve problems, and understanding the tools, technologies, and resources needed to get them there.

The school of the future will be an adaptive learning environment, supported by the physical environment. Schools may have collaborative open spaces with a set of modular, smaller, more intimate workshop areas that can be tailored to each student's learning needs.

This approach to learning will change the way classrooms operate. In one room, a flock of energetic 8-year-olds might meet local business people and other members of the community. In the next, a dozen self-directed 10-year-olds might work in a maker space type set-up, solving problems using open-source code libraries and increasingly-cheaper technology such as 3D printers.

This learning doesn’t have to be limited to the school grounds, and doesn't have to take one form. We’re beginning to design for learning that happens at all times of the day in all different locations, from classrooms to community gardens. Schools can take a range of physical forms, from high rise structures in city centres to smaller buildings in residential or regional areas. Teaching environments can be highly digitised or low tech. 

Elements we consider when designing schools for the future.

So how do we build the best classroom and campus to support these expected changes in teaching style and location? We can start by thinking of the building as a teacher itself. The building could be designed to marry internal and external environments to highlight sustainable practice and increase the natural light and fresh air inside. Kids can learn through experience how buildings can perform in different weather and get re-acquainted with the idea that inside spaces don’t always have to be 18 to 22 degrees.

We could also design for specific needs of each age group. Not only do we each learn differently, we also tend to require different learning environments at different ages. Children in primary school have different acoustic needs to adult learners and do better with spaces that enable concentration. As we start to see more open plan vertical schools to meet demand in our rapidly growing cities, we’ll need to provide quiet spaces with low reverberations.

A more adaptive approach to learning will also require the environments themselves to be more flexible. The classroom of tomorrow must be able to evolve based on individual student needs as well as curricula change as technology evolves over time. This can be as simple as choosing a fit out with modular units and furniture. The modern classroom should be multi-functional, where the wider community can gather to access technology and working space after hours. With laptops and e-learning we’re also beginning to see the decentralisation of learning. This will only continue, as the concept of a 'classroom' becomes increasingly portable. This model may improve access for regional communities, disadvantaged communities or even students who may like to re-watch lessons to better understand the topic.

Ørestad Gym in Copenhagen consists of an expansive glass cube, filled with makeshift classrooms with moveable walls and bookshelves. The dynamic space is meant to empower students to move between working together in open spaces and seeking more private, intimate spaces for moments deep, focused learning.

Given the effect school has on our youngest citizens, by reimagining classrooms and campuses we aren’t simply building a more resilient workforce. We’re building more resilient communities of life-long learners as well.

“Schools are about learning to learn, not just for one future, but for multiple futures at different times of life,” says Anne.

To learn more about the Future of School, you can download the full report, authored by Arup Foresight here.


  • We think the future of schools will be characterised by student-directed curricula, and by a need to develop both practical and conceptual problem-solving skills. Future schools should offer diverse, flexible and tailored spaces to support changing teaching and learning models, rather than restrict them.
  • Schools will continue to be a base for social development. Future schools should uphold strong community ties to develop support networks around students and their interests. This will result in more engaged citizens with lifelong learning habits.
  • We see a trend towards a ‘back to basics’ approach that recognises the importance of the physical environment (including fresh air and outdoor spaces) as a ‘third teacher’ where the atmosphere, quality and quantity of space and layout can, if executed successfully, facilitate self-learning and self-education.
  • We expect advances in digital technologies to provide opportunities for learning to happen everywhere, however, we need to carefully consider the ethics of tradeoffs between learning and privacy.

This story was written by Eleanor Whitworth as part of the Research Review series. The series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.

Lead Arup Researcher

Anne Kovachevich
Anne leads our Australasian Foresight + Innovation team in Australasia.

Ask Anne about:

  • Emerging school models and how they relate to the built form, including self-directed learning and including attributing value to the process of learning (rather than just reaching the correct answer).
  • How schools can be designed to integrate with their communities – both local and global.
  • Evolution of classroom design, including using the physical environment, healthy learning spaces and adoption of digital technologies for learning.


Research TEAM

Jasmine is a foresight consultant from the Brisbane team.
Mimi is a foresight and façades consultant in LA.

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