Classrooms Designed for Higher Performance

Many classrooms contain rows of clunky desks, a teacher's podium and a writing board fixed to the wall. This design worked once upon a time, but simply does not measure up to meeting the needs of today’s students. Fortunately, a transition has begun to modernize classrooms and thus modernize the education process.

Today’s students — Generation Y — brings new attitudes and learning styles to the classroom, and educators are striving to meet those needs while tapping the different ways students learn. Researchers have identified several different forms of learning. "There are people who learn from seeing pictures, those who learn by listening, others who learn by seeing words — we have studied six different classroom learning styles," says Elise Valoe, design researcher at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Steelcase, Inc. She's part of the company's WorkSpace Futures, a group that has closely studied classrooms, libraries, labs and other spaces devoted to learning at elementary, high school and college-level institutions.

The WorkSpace Futures research has been conducted through the last three years using a rigorous, six-stage, student-centered design process that has resulted in a deep understanding of classrooms and the potential for improving their design. The six steps (understand, observe, synthesize, realize, prototype and measure) create a thorough understanding of learning processes, and lead to the development of new approaches for teaching and learning based on the research. The Steelcase team builds full-scale prototypes and creates space design strategies that integrate space, furniture, tools and technology, then refines, tests and evaluates those solutions at different schools.

Research Findings

Steelcase research shows that outmoded classrooms share a common set of issues:
  • aging infrastructure — most buildings were constructed in the 1960s or earlier;
  • built for lectures, not learning;
  • a lack of flexibility;
  • limited student movement (tablet arm desks, chairs and tables without casters, etc.);
  • interaction between students and instructors is constrained by space and furniture;
  • poorly integrated technology; and
  • support for collaborative learning is inconsistent or nonexistent.
Consider student movement as it relates to learning today. Teachers want students to explore, experiment and learn by interacting with the instructor and other students. When students are confined to fixed tablet arm desks that are difficult to move around, interaction and communication is stunted. However, when students are provided with seating that's on casters and has a work surface that holds a variety of materials, it's easier for them to coach each other and work in groups. Plus, instructors can provide coaching and support as more natural elements of the learning process.

Technology is similarly challenging. Gen Y students are used to media-rich presentations, and new technology offers innovative ways for delivering information, yet technology is often poorly integrated into classrooms. A generation ago, teachers struggled with film and slide projectors; today's instructors are frustrated trying to get content from a laptop, the Web and portable media on to screens that everyone can see and interact with.

Barriers to Change
Solving these issues and thus bringing classrooms into the 21st century is a major challenge. Space standards at many schools are driven by efficiency. There are pressures from increasing enrollment and never-ending needs for funding. Faculty are at various stages of new pedagogy development and sometimes fear adopting new approaches. Strategies for breaking through these barriers are based on some other key learnings about classrooms:
  • they have their own rhythm and pace;
  • many present real barriers to learning;
  • they often do not support new media;
  • the new teaching norm is peer-to-peer learning with instructor guidance;
  • support for individual needs of students and instructors is lacking; and
  • learning happens everywhere.
The word “classroom” itself is a barrier to advances in education, notes Dr. Lennie Scott-Webber, IIDA, IDEC, NCIDQ, Interior Design & Fashion Department professor and chair at Radford University in Virginia, and a consultant for IN_sync: Education Design Consulting. “I would love to have the word ‘classroom’ go away,” she says, “because it has come to mean passive learning. And our world can no longer accommodate learners who are there just to absorb or teachers who just share knowledge. I’d rather call classrooms learning environments or learning spaces. ”

Design Principles for the 21st-Century Classroom
Universal, one-size-fits-all classrooms are no match for the demands of the 21st century. Instead, school planners and administrators should consider a range of solutions to fit different academic disciplines, faculty and student needs, and administrative requirements. The best way to provide that range is with a flexible learning environment. Here are some of the design principles Steelcase has developed for these innovative classrooms.

1. Design for multiple rhythms in the same classroom.
Classrooms should support easy transitions to different learning modes, offer different zones for varied activities and that support the constructivist pedagogy being adopted by many educators, and its five phases: engage, explore, explain, evaluate and extend. "Learning styles vary by age, gender and country of origin," notes researcher Valoe, "and the youngest generation is much more diverse than previous generations. It's critical that the classroom has the flexibility to support the different ways people learn."

Sam Miller, AIA, CEFPI, LEED AP, a principal at Klipp, a Denver-based architecture firm, offers an example of classroom flexibility in Skyline High School, Longmont, Colo. “We’re just finishing this project,” he observes. “Our focus group discussions centered on flexibility and more student-centered learning. The way we accomplished that was by not installing fixed casework, as well as by installing as many writing surfaces on all four walls in a classroom as possible. This allows teachers to set up their class rooms based on the curriculum and even the day or semester or year.”

Similarly, Insights, a publication of Charlotte, N.C.-based VS Furniture, notes that flexible furniture solutions have the versatility to meet a variety of classroom possibilities and learning needs, including hands-on projects in small groups, large group discussions, whole group presentations, student presentation and performance, and individual student work.

2. Allow everyone to be seen and heard.
It is not only possible to make every seat in the house the best seat, it’s important to teaching and learning. Students shouldn’t have to crane necks or twist around in their seats to see content on the board. They need adequate horizontal work surfaces for tools, technology and materials, and they need vertical work surfaces for sharing information. Instructors should have visual and physical access to every student, and students need similar access to course content and other students.

3. Take advantage of new media.
When it comes to technology, students and instructors have one thing in common: they both learn from their peers. Gen Y students are digital natives, comfortable living with new technology. Instructors tend to be digital adopters and need to incorporate technology into their curricula, as well as integrate knowledge of student thinking and learning, subject content, and knowledge of technology. It’s a tall order, yet facilitated by integrating mixed media that can be used easily by both students and instructors.

Steelcase research shows people collaborate and learn more effectively if information is democratized and shared equally and easily. Creating spaces that shift the dynamic from a presenter-led discussion to a group discussion where everyone can participate and share information enhances collaboration. As a result of the research, the company developed media:scape, which incorporates technology in the furniture and allows users to quickly connect their laptop or mobile device and switch back and forth between multiple users.

Technology discussions are also happening in the classroom design studio. “We’ve had some interesting conversations with school administrators and teachers,” says Miller, “regarding the use of interactive whiteboards. If you do use them, they’re typically mounted on the wall, and that limits flexibility with the rest of the classroom. You can achieve greater flexibility with a laptop and small projector and wireless access to the Internet. Part of the conversation includes how much money they’re going to invest, and it usually includes the IT and curriculum directors.”

4. Provide seating that supports active learning.
When a student enters a classroom and sees row-by-column seating, observes Scott-Weber, he says to himself, “Oh, I just have to sit here and takes notes. Nothing more is expected of me.” “Our world is too complex and we can no longer think that way,” she says. “If a student enters a classroom and sees an innovative layout, he realizes that something different is going to happen and he has permission to participate. It takes past expectations and throws them out the window and allows both faculty and students to say, ‘I know there’s a different behavior expected of me,’ and that a good thing.”

Innovative layouts can’t happen when students struggle to move fixed tablet arm chairs when it's time for interactive learning. Tablet arm desks are too heavy, glides don't glide and many students simply give up trying to maneuver into a true, collaborative seating arrangement.

Helping to fill this need, Steelcase design researchers created a chair that better supports social and active learning. It's designed for quick and easy transitions between learning modes, with an adjustable work surface that lets students of all sizes and shapes feel comfortable and a base that doubles as a storage shelf.

Also keep in mind that not every classroom can boast flexibility. There is always going to be a need for the auditorium and lecture hall as part of the instructional strategy, and these spaces simply cannot accommodate flexibility and collaboration. “Nor do you necessarily want a great deal of movement when the educational style is lecture,” says Deb McDermott, director of Marketing for Grand Rapids, Mich.-based American Seating. However, these spaces can be designed with comfortable, low-maintenance seating that is easy to clean around.

It’s clear that a transition to a more contemporary classroom design that meets the needs of today’s learners is underway. For the transition to continue to move forward, more time and effort is required. This includes listening and participation on the part of school designers and architects; research, design and performance measurement on the part of furniture manufacturers; and willingness on the part of teachers and school administrators. The transition will ultimately result in greater student engagement and better learning outcomes, thus earning an A+.

Compiled using research from Steelcase, and other educational furniture providers by Ellen Kollie.