The primary characteristic of the 21st-century classroom is flexibility. Furnishings must be agile, mobile and ready to go to create whatever configuration is needed to facilitate any particular mode of learning. Whether that means putting them on wheels, casters, glides or runners, just about everything has to be able to move — sometimes, even the walls.

No longer do students simply sit in desks lined up in straight rows facing the front of the room, carefully listening to the words of wisdom for the day. Though there are many hundreds of schools in this country that are still in use well beyond their years, more are in the process of being replaced with state-of-the-art construction, requiring a rethink of furnishings.“Do we really want 20 to 30-year-old furniture in new buildings?” asks Jan Lintner, associate and director of Design for Kaestle Boos Associates in New Britain, Conn.

Since the current vision of overall school design has very little permanently affixed, except perhaps the building itself, fewer schools are being outfitted with built-ins. Moveable furnishings now are the hot commodity for classrooms. Even older buildings can benefit from the use of mobile furnishings. Moveable units can reconfigure static classroom space to give it additional utility and, potentially, extend its lifespan.

Some teaching veterans, however, tend to be resistant to moveable components, reluctant to part with their built-in coat and storage closets and, by extension, the clutter they manage to accumulate through the years.“I think a lot of teachers aren’t aware of what’s available in the big, wide furnishings market,” Lintner says. “They don’t know what’s possible.”

No Rock, But Lots of Roll

“Teaching today is much more interactive,” says Lintner. “Teachers see their roles as facilitators.” The old classroom model, where the students’ desks were lined up in rows, while the teacher stood lecturing at the front of the room, just doesn’t allow for that type of interaction.

For this reason, Lintner says, less money is being spent on built-ins. More and more, funds that previously would have gone to installing such classroom fixtures are being put into moveable furnishings. And, according to Lintner, just about anything and everything can end up on wheels.

I’m a big proponent of keeping things moveable,” Lintner explains. She does note that built-in cabinetry is still necessary in classrooms that have sinks, which are often desired in K-3 classrooms. Lower grades also tend to need cabinets for project storage space.

Carl Brockway, vice president for Sales at Texas-based Paragon Furniture, says he’s seeing increased interest in mobile classroom furnishings. Storage closets, file and storage cabinets, marker boards and bookcases, once relegated to permanent fixture status, now are rolling along with the times. To keep the furniture from continuing to roll after placement, casters usually are equipped with a “step-down” lever mechanism to lock and unlock the wheels, Brockway says.

Moreover, instead of self-contained desk/chair units, the greater likelihood is that students will be sitting in freestanding chairs around trapezoid-shaped tables. The tables, an increasing favorite, Lintner says, lend themselves to a wider variety of arrangements — anything from one huge circle to smaller clusters for more project-based group learning. And, she adds, individual chairs allow for the fact that the students themselves are bigger these days.

If the piece of furniture isn’t outfitted with casters, as is usually the case with desks and chairs, then it generally rests on runners or glides, enabling the item to be pushed across tile flooring or carpeting with relative ease. Of course, there’s also nothing to stop enterprising students from rearranging the room when the teacher isn’t looking, but Lintner figures the imminent threat of discipline would quell that urge.

Stretching the Walls

At times, you may find the need for more individual classroom space than you have within any of the existing four walls. One such case is a Long Island, N.Y., school that needs to divide a room to accommodate a special education kindergarten inclusion class. To carve that extra break-out space, moveable screens provide a viable and cost-effective alternative.

According to Rich Maas, vice president of Illinois-based Screenflex Portable Partitions, “the most common use for partitions is to create additional learning areas.” An example of that would be when a district needs money for new classrooms and doesn’t get it, he says. Portable partitions can be used to establish separate, nonpermanent learning spaces in flex areas, like the school cafeteria/auditorium. Partitions can be free-standing, wall-mounted or contained within a mobile cabinet. For maximum utility, his company’s partitions are built on a steel frame and composed of an acoustical honeycomb core and fiberglass for lightweight sound absorption, Maas says. They’re then covered with either fabric or vinyl. Multiple-panel systems have a “position control hinge” to lock each panel to the next and locks on the end of the line of panels.

Lintner adds that moveable screens or partitions can be used for display space for artwork or they can be fitted with a white board for instructional purposes. Naturally, anything that’s moveable comes with the element of chance for accidents, particularly tipping over, Brockway explains. The largest impediments to furniture mobility, he says, are thresholds.

Since safety is of paramount concern in the use of mobile furnishings, Lintner says that wheel bases need to be wide enough to offset the weight load and prevent tipping. She says that these units generally present few safety issues. Brockway, however, admonishes that you have to be careful with taller modules, explaining he recommends that bookcases on casters be no taller than 4 ft. high to handle the potentially excessive weight load. Mobile units that will be carrying substantial amounts of weight should be supported by a steel substructure that can provide the necessary strength to support the casters themselves, he adds.

Robbin Rittner-Heir is a freelance writer from Dayton, Ohio, with experience in the education field.