Rethinking classroom designWhile the West has seen massive educational reforms, Nepal’s pedagogical approach remains stagnant.
The absence of well-equipped classrooms is a critical contributor to learning gaps. However, this is often overlooked in Nepal. During a New York University Abu Dhabi study away programme earlier this year, I had the opportunity to engage directly with schools across New York City. Among the valuable experiences, my initial encounter with American classrooms was very insightful. Their aesthetic appeal, richness and resourcefulness showcased the advanced nature of their pedagogy, a stark contrast with my school experiences in Nepal. American classrooms are integral to a holistic education system that prioritises comprehensive learning instead of Nepal’s exam-centric approach. Despite rapid technological advancements and global pedagogical innovations, Nepal is deprived of such privileges, primarily due to its stagnant education system and enduring political complexities.
In his book Teaching in a Digital Age, Tony Bates, a renowned Education Consultant, underscores the historical evolution of classroom orientation. The traditional classroom model—characterised by rows of seats with the instructor at the front and students focused on the teacher—was perfectly suited for an industrial society. This model persisted for centuries, fostering efficient and straightforward learning setups based on teachers imparting knowledge to students, reinforcing the teacher-centric model with little concern for factors like students’ comfort and concentration.
However, as educational philosophies evolved, particularly with the advent of technology, the teacher-centric approach faced significant challenges. A shift towards “constructivism” emerged, emphasising the active involvement of both students and instructors in the learning process. This approach viewed learning as a creative, collaborative process, unlike the passive student role in traditional lecture-based classrooms. This philosophy slowly changed classroom design, especially after World War II, and the recent integration of information and communication technology further accelerated this shift. This fostered individualised classroom spaces and a flexible setup focused on core values of holistic learning, such as interactive peer work and group-based learning.
Nepal and New York
In Nepal, the organisation of classrooms adheres to a rigid, standardised structure found across both public and private schools, with only a few elite institutions deviating from this norm. These classrooms consist of rows of attached desks and benches, often designed to accommodate a large group of students simultaneously. Individual chairs for students are rare, with no space to keep their stationery items. At the front of the room, a stage and a rostrum elevate the teacher, reinforcing a teacher-centric education model.
This traditional setup in Nepal implies that the teacher assumes the role of a leader with full agency, positioning the students as passive recipients of knowledge. In New York, flexible classroom designs feature individual chairs and desks, often detached to encourage mobility. In some cases, round or rectangular tables were surrounded by cosy chairs, fostering an environment conducive to active class discussions and collaborative learning. This student-centric orientation breaks the barrier of constant teacher-student eye contact, allowing the teacher to become a mentor and making the learning space less intimidating. Students can readily share their ideas with peers and engage in group activities reflective of pedagogical approaches centred on active learning, project-based learning, critical thinking and group work.
Furthermore, students changed classrooms for their subjects rather than teachers. This arrangement allowed schools to allocate dedicated classrooms for specific subjects, with ample resources relevant to each discipline. For instance, physics classrooms featured an array of physical instruments and laboratory materials adorned with posters of scientists and subject-related content. This thematic approach extended to other subjects as well. Notably, classrooms included racks stocked with relevant reference books, ensuring easy access to supplementary materials. Practical considerations were accounted for, with ample storage space for books thoughtfully provided beneath the desks. Teachers had designated areas, usually with a table and chair, typically filled with essential teaching materials. These classrooms were deliberately decorated to engage students and promote meaningful learning, emphasising the importance of a well-equipped and resource-rich environment in shaping the educational experience.
In light of these observations and results, it is crucial to reevaluate and revitalise classroom setups in Nepal. Research indicates that classroom design can influence a student’s academic performance by up to 25 percent over an academic year. While the government of Nepal has laid down specific provisions for classroom dimensions and student-to-teacher ratios in its Education Rules of 2002, they are often overlooked in practice, leading to crowded and inflexible learning spaces.
Historically, the traditional classroom design was aimed to provide mass education and uplift social awareness. While these objectives have largely been met with significant progress in mass literacy, the current landscape presents new challenges. Unfortunately, the stagnant Nepali education system has struggled to recognise and adapt to these evolving social attitudes and individual needs. This systemic failure negatively impacts the overall development of individuals and fails to produce competent citizens capable of thriving in the global society.
Modern education in Nepal requires dynamic school design, emphasising flexibility, colour and aesthetics. Implementing nationwide change is challenging due to resource constraints. However, the government must start prioritising learner-friendly infrastructure to enhance education quality and append it to the existing setup. Funding and resources from national and international organisations can be leveraged to plan new learning models. The government should enforce a comprehensive plan to standardise classroom design for both public and private schools. It can learn and replicate from the successful government-initiated Delhi Education Model for public schools, starting with aesthetically designed classrooms. A pilot project in selected schools at specific local levels can be experimented with new designs, monitoring learning outcomes. After one to three years of effective implementation and impact assessment, the project can expand to other local levels, using a similar accountability measure.
Classroom reorganisation is one facet of the effort required to elevate education quality. Government agencies should concurrently implement complementary strategies, including teacher professional development and holistic growth opportunities focused on students. It's high time we acknowledged the changing educational landscape and worked towards transforming our learning environments to better equip students for the challenges and opportunities of the future.