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Reconsidering the Design of Schools: Bob Pearlman Interview

“Getting the classroom right as the center of learning and students at work is the essential building block for 21st Century Schools.” — Bob Pearlman

For anyone who has been tracking key leaders in the school reform movement over the last 3 decades, Bob Pearlman stands in rare company:

  • Larry Rosenstock - the founding CEO and principal of High Tech High in San Diego - told DesignShare recently that Bob Pearlman literally “wrote the DNA for much of the most innovative school reform models that can be seen in the U.S. today.
  • Edutopia describes Bob in the following way: “Pearlman has been a pioneer in designing new schools, integrating project-based learning, work-based learning, and technology into the schools, and in training teachers, administrators, and parents in the application of new technologies and their role in restructuring schools.”
  • Needless to say, these are powerful descriptions of a man who has spent a career pushing forward on the future of education.

    DesignShare has been pleased to spend time with Bob in conversation about his views for how school designers/planners need to re-imagine the future of learning spaces. Towards the end of this initial interview, he speaks of the critical need ‘to design from the classroom out’ first rather than the tradition of designing from the campus in. We look forward to sharing Bob’s thoughts on this classroom design idea in the coming months here at DesignShare and offer this Q&A conversation as a first chapter.



    Imagine it is day one of a team of educators and their design partners sitting down to create a high school for the future. The team turns to you and asks you to challenge them with one guiding principle that will impact their entire design process. What would you tell them?


    I would ask them to describe what learning looks like in the 21st Century:

    • Describe a typical classroom?
    • What does it look like?
    • What are the students doing?
    • What are the teachers doing?


    When you consider the changing expectations of work, society, and technology, what will ‘success’ mean for a student in the 21st century? Will the traditional skills taught in schools allow them to become a vibrant, capable and connected member of the social and workforce in the years to come?


    Not a chance. Despite the national rhetoric, current modes of schooling are a formula for leaving all children behind! Success for students in the 21st Century means mastery of both content skills and new 21st Century Skills – collaboration, presentation, written communication, critical thinking, work ethic, creativity, project management, etc. They don’t get these skills in schools today.


    What does a classroom look like that is ‘getting it right’ in terms of preparing their students for the future of learning, collaboration, and participation in a myriad of human organizations? In other words, what would a neutral visitor see if the walked by or stepped foot in a truly 21st century school classroom?


    They would see students at work — students working on their own juices, self-directed, collaborating with their peers on short and long-term projects. They would see workstation areas, group work areas, presentation and lecture areas, all in the same classroom/workroom.


    For much of your career, you have been an outspoken advocate for project-based learning. How does technology enhance the underpinnings of project-based learning?


    Project and Problem-Based Learning (PBL), or what in Asia they increasingly call project learning, challenges and engages students with complex problems that integrate and exercise all the 21st Century Skills. Most people easily grasp that equipping students and teachers with computers, 1:to:1, gives them the tools they need to do their work in all its facets – investigation, communication, design, product development, and presentation.

    But actually it’s a lot more than that.

    A technology platform that houses projects, project calendars and benchmarks, rubrics, assessments, and online, living gradebooks, like the New Tech High Learning System, binds the whole learning community together and gives project learning students the information and orientation they need to become self-directed learners. Such technology platforms are called Collaborative Learning Environments (CLEs).


    At the same time, what do you see as distinctive between the core pillars of project-based learning and the current emphasis on Web 2.0 tools and 1:to:1 laptop programs?


    1:to:1 laptop programs are an essential precondition to a 21st Century classroom, but it’s potential will go totally unrealized unless schools switch from traditional education to learning through projects.

    Web 2.0 tools make possible the Read/Write web, which allows students to use blogs to self-publish their writings and multimedia products. Web 2.0 tools give added power to project learning students to share their work with authentic audiences.

    All these new tools have great implications in designing the classroom learning environments of the 21st Century.


    You’ve spoken positively about schools such as the Homewood School (Tenterden, England), The MET (Providence, RI) and New Technology High School (Napa, CA) as examples of schools that embrace Project-Based Learning across the spectrum of their programs.

    What do you ‘see’ when you visit these schools that goes beyond well intentioned efforts that other schools may try to add to their traditional programs? And what lessons can be offered to school designers/planners who are helping their clients create more authentic learning environments from schools such as these?


    It is not easy for school designers/planners charged with developing new school buildings to envision what learning looks like in the 21st Century.

    Homewood, the MET, New Tech High School, and others have turned their classrooms into student workplaces and designed their curriculum around project learning. Learning looks very different from that of traditional environments.

    School designers/planners are advised to spend a day at these exemplary schools, see how learning and teaching function, and then see how the classroom learning environments support their models.


    Do you believe that school districts and communities should create more CATE (Career and Technology Education) like facilities or should such programs become part of every school on every level? What prevents most communities from seeing the relevance of CATE programs within a college-prep culture? Or do you see this disconnect becoming less and less pronounced?


    CATE varies across the country, from slightly re-invented Vocational-Technical to new models of schooling aimed at developing college-prepared and career-ready students. In California, where they call it CTE, a lot of good work is being done by ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career, which hopes to provide the next generation of young adults with the knowledge and skills they need to successfully compete in California’s growing and dynamic economy.

    The key for new schools is not at all whether they have lots of CTE facilities, but instead it is whether they have school programs that provide for learning skills in emerging industries and utilize either school-based facilities or community facilities at businesses or community colleges.


    You speak also about the use of technology to foster digital portfolios of student learning.

    What would your realistic yet ‘dream’ classroom or learning studio possess in terms of technology to allow students, teachers, and partners to fully express their learning journeys and accomplishments in a digital manner? Do you see these tools being used in every part of the learning/project process, or more for documentation and reflection?


    First, schools and classrooms need a powerful local area and wide area network with sufficient bandwidth, and a Collaborative Learning Environment technology platform, for all student activity.

    Second, students and teachers need all state-of-the art tools for investigation, communication, design, product development, and presentation. The latter is an ever changing and widening list of peripherals and software tools.


    Identify one opportunity that you think most educators and their design partners overlook (or side-step) when they try to create schools that will be relevant for their students’ future? Is it a vision, political, pedagogical, or social issue that prevents them from seeing such a possibility in most situations?


    That’s easy – it is lack of vision, and you can’t blame them.

    Everyone has been to school or is in school today and few of these past and current environments demonstrate what 21st Century student workplaces should look and feel like. But educators and planners get it quickly when they visit 21st Century schools, talk to students and teachers, and carry their stories home.


    Name individuals or organizations that you believe are making a pronounced difference in terms of tying project-based learning with the design of 21st century schools but may still be flying under the radar for many of us today?


    Nationally and internationally, most of this activity is still under the radar, though many regions and states are moving toward project-based learning, including Singapore, Quebec, Queensland, while some great spot activity is appearing in the US and the UK.

    Here’s my short list of organized efforts from my limited travels and contacts:


    Please offer 5 guiding principles/questions that you’d offer all stakeholders that are well-intentioned in designing 21st century schools.


    1. Describe what learning looks like in the 21st Century. Describe a typical classroom? What does it look like? What are the students doing? What are the teachers doing?

    2. Visit 21st Century schools and classrooms to help you and your colleagues conceptualize 21st Century learning.

    3. Study how technology supports 21st Century Learning – go way beyond computers and SmartBoards to Web 2.0 tools and networked Collaborative Learning Environments.

    4. Design from the classroom out. Get the classroom learning environment right as the building block of the whole facility.

    5. Design the classroom as a workroom for 21st century students, with spaces for technology workstations, group work spaces, presentation and lecture spaces, and hands-on activity.


    While we’d like to have you explore this topic further in the future here at DesignShare, you said to us recently that one of the greatest mistakes most design teams make is designing 21st century schools from the campus/building down to the classroom.

    Instead, as you suggested above, it is imperative to design from the classroom or studio out, allowing the center of learning to be the heart of each design decision from the beginning.

    Can you expand on this for us briefly here?


    Getting the classroom right as the center of learning and students at work is the essential building block for 21st Century Schools.

    Lighting, windows, energy efficiency, community space, green buildings, theaters and athletic facilities are all important, but without a fundamental redesign of the classroom into a 21st Century workspace for students, the beautiful new buildings that this generation of school designers and planners build will be little more than, as the Brits say (and warn about) with regards to their Building Schools of the Future programme, “Old wine in new bottles”.


    One final note to consider:

    If you have time, listen to Alan November’s podcast presentation given by Bob Pearlman in 2006.

    Summary: “Bob Pearlman, Director of Strategic Planning for the New Technology Foundation, will define the skills and knowledge that makes students successful in the 21st Century and show the new schools, new school learning environments, and new project-based and rich task learning approaches that foster these skills.”



    Bob Pearlman is the Director of Strategic Planning for the New Technology Foundation in Napa, CA, a school development organization which supports the replication of the New Technology High School model in 25 sites across the United States. The New Tech model features a new shape of schooling which realizes deep learning and deep experience for all students. Pearlman consults and speaks widely in the US and the UK on 21st Century Learning.

    Pearlman is the former President of the Autodesk Foundation and former Director of Education and Workforce Development at Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network. Pearlman previously served as Coordinator of Educational Reform Initiatives for the Boston Teachers Union, National Consultant on Educational Technology for the American Federation of Teachers, and as a founder of the Co-NECT School New American School Design Team.

    Pearlman has been a pioneer in designing new schools, integrating project-based learning, work-based learning, and technology into the schools, and in training teachers, administrators, and parents in the application of new technologies and their role in restructuring schools.

    Pearlman is the author of many articles on 21st Century Learning, including:


    Bob Pearlman can be reached at and

    February 20th, 2007

    DesignShare publications are submitted by designers, university professors, architects, planning consultants, educators, technologists, futurists, and ecologists. Publications include podcasts, detailed case studies, conference proceedings, interviews, original research, editorials, thesis projects, and practical design guidelines.


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