Key to Classroom Design Is Furnishings

Pedagogy has changed during the last 150 years. So, furniture and its placement had to change as well. In the past, all desks faced the front of the room and were either bolted together or fixed to the floor. The desktop might have lifted up to allow some storage space inside the desk, and the seat was attached. That concept of storage and attachment has continued into the present, while the desks have become more movable and lighter. But as educators have changed their ideas about good instruction, furniture design and placement have transitioned as well.

The wrong furniture, placed in the wrong way, can make instruction very difficult to nearly impossible. Sometimes, furniture choice and arrangement can make it nearly impossible to teach, either in large group or one-on-one style.

Due to scarcity of funding, the current trend seems to be to upgrade and renovate our older buildings. Nearly all of them need to be upgraded to accommodate new electrical wiring, network wiring and better Internet capabilities. But pairing the newest technology with an older style of furniture can (will) create problems.

In general, schools need to have at least three kinds of spaces — classrooms, group collaboration spaces and commons spaces. The key to furnishing these spaces is to determine the instructional activity first, and then design the room layout and furniture to fit the activity.

Individual workspaces need room for students to spread out books and papers and use a computer. Desks, tables or other furnishing of this kind should be at a good height for writing by hand and also allow for typing on a keyboard (those heights are never the same). A keyboard tray under the table or desk, about 27 inches off the floor, can address the problem of keyboard comfort.

Also, this workspace furniture should be designed so the height of monitors or laptop screens do not cause discomfort to students from leaning back to “look up” at the monitor, or looking over the top of the monitor to see the instructor.

Flexibility of furniture, allowing it to be easily rearranged, is essential. In a typical 900-square-foot classroom, it is best to figure out how many ways the furniture can be reconfigured to take advantage of that space.

It is best not to have things built into the wall that can’t be easily moved. Workstations should be capable of being rearranged into perimeter, island or stand alone, and the places for electrical drops (and data, if needed) should be predetermined for maximum flexibility.

Talking to the instructors who would use the space and observing how they interact with students before ordering the furniture, or deciding on its placement, can make a huge difference. When asked what aspects of the physical environment affect their teaching the most, a group of Teachers of the Year responded that the most important things were the availability and quality of classroom equipment and furnishings, climate control and acoustics. The teachers in your district might have more specific recommendations, but sometimes even they need help in breaking out of “the way it’s always been” to find furniture that enhances newer methods of teaching and learning.

Spending a few hours visiting different teachers in a school, particularly one that is trying curricular arrangements, such as group work, can provide valuable insights for furniture placement and ordering. Even better, try to involve a district administrator and a classroom teacher in the decisions.