Expert Viewpoint

4 Reasons to Build Choice into Classroom Design — and How to Make It Work for Students

A look at the key elements of a modern and highly engaging learning space

4 Reasons to Build Choice into Classroom Design — and How to Make It Work for Students

Compare these two scenarios:

You walk into a classroom and everything looks the same. All of the furniture — the desks, tables and chairs — is of a uniform style. Maybe there are student desks arranged in neat rows, or maybe there are tables clustered together in groups of four. Regardless of the layout, it doesn’t matter where you plop down: Every seat is exactly alike.

Or, you walk into the room and see a variety of seating types. There are tables arranged in groups of three or four, but also soft seating options. There are traditional plastic chairs, but also stools that swivel or rock.

If you’re a student, which scenario would get you more fired up to learn? Which classroom environment is more likely to unleash students’ creativity and individualism? Which one sends a subtle message that independent thought and activity are discouraged?

Teaching and learning are undergoing significant transformation, but, by and large, the design of classrooms has not transformed at the same rate. At School Specialty, we’ve identified six key elements of a modern and highly engaging learning space that both supports and encourages 21st century learning: choice, comfort, versatility, connection, stimulation and technology.

This article looks at choice in particular, why it’s important — and how you can incorporate choice into the design of a learning space.

Why Provide Choice?

Giving students choices in where they sit and how they learn is important for many reasons. For instance:

  • It strengthens engagement. Students are more invested in their education if they’re allowed to make their own choices. As best-selling author Dan Pink writes in his book Drive, autonomy is a main driver of human motivation: “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”

  • It makes classrooms more inclusive. Something as simple as having multiple seating styles to choose from can accommodate different learning needs and preferences — and it helps students feel more welcome. For example, students who have anxiety or sensory processing disorders can be overly sensitive to certain types of fabrics or materials, and offering a variety of options for where to sit and work lets them choose where they’ll be most comfortable.

  • It advances social and emotional learning. Giving students options in where to sit and what tools and materials to work with promotes responsible decision-making and builds confidence. When students have the freedom to make learning decisions for themselves, they feel more in charge of their own development.

  • It gives students ownership of their learning. Choice and student agency put students at the center of the learning process, sending a clear signal that they’re empowered to take ownership of their education. Instead of waiting for the teacher to supply them with answers, students are encouraged to think, investigate and learn for themselves.

To meet a wide range of student needs and abilities, a growing number of teachers are incorporating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles into their classrooms. UDL is a framework for developing flexible learning environments that can accommodate differences in how students learn. It calls for using instructional methods and materials that provide multiple means of representation, to give students various ways of acquiring knowledge; multiple means of expression, to give them different options for demonstrating what they know; and multiple means of engagement, to tap into students’ unique interests and motivate them to learn.

The idea behind UDL is that by approaching instruction in many different ways, teachers will hit upon a method that resonates with each individual learner. Building choice into the design of a learning space is simply taking the concept of UDL and applying it to the design of the space as well, by giving students multiple options in where to sit and work so they’re able to learn most effectively.

How to Build Choice into Classroom Design

How can you incorporate choice into the design of a learning environment? Instead of opting for uniform seating throughout a classroom, consider using both individual and group seating, as well as a mix of hard and soft seating options. Instead of prescribing a uniform set of tools and materials to teach and construct with, mix it up with a variety of choices for students.

Classrooms that include multiple options for both materials and seating — such as standing desks, soft seating, fidget stools that allow students to rock or swivel while they’re working and traditional desks and chairs — help students make their own choices to support how they’ll learn best.

Students also should be able to choose whether they want to work alone or in groups for certain assignments. Designing classrooms with different zones for individual and small-group seating, or using flexible furniture that can be moved around the room and quickly rearranged, allows students to switch seamlessly from individual to small-group work as needed.

As students switch from one learning task to another, they should be able to move around the room and sit where it makes the most sense to do so. They might sit in a group with two or three of their peers to collaborate on a project, then move to a soft, comfortable chair to read independently and so on.

Of course, there are some logistical challenges that teachers will have to overcome in order to make this work in their classrooms. Letting students pick a seating option that works best for them doesn’t mean the teacher gives up control. Teachers must still be able to move anyone at any time, because students will sometimes make unwise choices with their seats.

Teachers should clearly outline their expectations at the beginning of the year and then reteach these throughout the school year. You can find more advice for maxing flexible seating work in this blog post on the topic.

Furnishing learning spaces with a variety of seating options can accommodate different student needs and preferences. Empowering students to choose their own seating gives them a say in how they learn, which makes them more invested in their education.