Furniture and Classroom Spaces

Versatility Is a Critical Design Element for Modern Learning Spaces — And COVID Reinforces This Idea

When schools finally reopen after the worst of the pandemic is over, what will classrooms look like? The answer is anybody’s guess — and this only underscores the need for flexible, dynamic learning spaces that can easily be changed and adapted.

In a recent article, architects with experience in designing educational facilities described what they think classrooms might look like when students return to school. Many suggested that social distancing protocols are likely to continue even after public officials give schools the green light to reopen, with desks spaced six feet apart and schools altering schedules or using non-instructional spaces for learning to accommodate this change.

Schools that have flexible, versatile learning spaces will find it easier to adapt to these new circumstances. As Jim French, senior principal for architectural firm DLR Group, notes in the article: “Incorporating flexible furniture within a classroom or open instructional space … allows students to modify their environment and inherently separate from one another.”

Even before COVID-19 forced K-12 leaders to rethink the design of school spaces, versatility was an important design element for classrooms and other instructional environments. Once life returns to normal, versatility will continue to be a critical design element.

Today’s learning spaces must be able to support a wide range of teaching methods, learning activities, and student needs. For instance, there might be times when the teacher is providing direct instruction to the entire class or to a subgroup of students, while at other times students are having a class discussion, working together on projects, or working individually. The design of the learning space should be able to facilitate each of these activities effectively, with minimal or no downtime in transitioning from one type of activity to another.

In a post-COVID world, learning environments also must be able to support a blend of face-to-face and online learning.

By seamlessly supporting many different learning activities and modalities, versatile spaces help engage students more deeply in their education — and they ensure that teachers can meet a wide range of student needs and abilities.

Learning zones

One way versatility can be accomplished is through the use of learning zones, or separate areas for supporting different kinds of activities.

For instance, a learning space could have one area that serves as a quiet, reflective place for students to read or work individually, with soft, comfortable seating. Another section might be a dedicated makerspace with tables that contain built-in storage for supplies and materials. Each zone would be equipped with furniture and materials that are appropriate for that particular kind of learning.

Movable furniture

Not all learning spaces are large enough to contain separate learning zones. In this case, educators can create flexible, multi-use spaces by using moveable furniture on wheels and modular pieces that easily can be arranged into different configurations.

For example, teachers might have students sitting at individual desks or small tables facing the front of the room for direct instruction, and then students might arrange their desks or tables in a circle facing each other to facilitate a class discussion. Having movable, agile furniture makes this transition easier and more seamless.

Multi-purpose furnishings

Another aspect of versatility is having furniture that can serve multiple purposes simultaneously. Choosing furniture that can serve multiple purposes allows you to maximize your use of a learning space.

For instance, mobile shelving can fill your storage needs while also serving as an attractive space divider, and desks with markerboard surfaces create additional areas for students to brainstorm, jot down their ideas, and otherwise be creative.

Flexibility is key

When designing modern learning spaces, consider how you can create flexible learning environments through some combination of learning zones and/or movable, agile furniture that can serve multiple purposes — and understand how various pieces of furniture can help you accomplish different types of learning goals most effectively.

However you achieve versatility, the key is designing spaces that are flexible and easily adaptable to different needs and uses. Starting with large, open spaces and using portable dividers or other design elements to delineate these spaces gives you the flexibility to create, adapt, and reimagine learning spaces on the fly.

About the Author

Cindy Eggebrecht-Weinschreider is a proven mentor, leader, and marketing strategist in the field of classroom experiences and learning environments. Her pedigree includes a degree in Business Administration, Marketing from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, IL. For over 20 years, Cindy has held a variety of marketing, sales and channel manager positions in the education learning environment and technology industries with leading companies such as School Specialty, Paragon Furniture, Bretford, NEC Solutions (America), Inc. and Lucent Technologies. She has overseen all activities pertaining to creative, professional development, and public relations as well as leading extensive research focused on educational learning spaces. Cindy is known for her insightful, solutions-based approach to business and her ability to counsel clients from inception to execution.