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Benefits of Flexible Classroom Design

In the last few years, flexible classroom design has become a hot topic in education. A lot of research has come out of both the education and psychology fields about ways to improve learning. As researchers and teachers learn more about the different ways in which students learn, they have determined that a one-size-fits-all teaching strategy does not result in the best outcomes.

According to an article from the National Education Association, “One cannot have a community of learners without having a positive instructional climate. Instructors help to create this climate by everything that they do, from the way they respond to student questions to the arrangement of the classroom chairs.”5 Teachers already have a big job in managing a classroom, so the question comes up, “how can I help my students learn the way that they learn best without adding too much to my already full plate?”

Enter the flexible classroom. The impact of flexible classroom design is very hard to quantify because there are so many factors involved (light, air quality, noise, layout, teaching method and of course…the many differences in the way kids learn).7 In addition, the research studies done are not conclusive – some of them show little impact and some of them show huge increases in test scores. However, sufficient research shows a positive correlation between flexible classroom design and learning, making it very popular in classrooms. One example of these findings is the 2016 Steelcase Education study, showing that “classrooms designed to support participative learning increased student engagement compared to traditional row-by-column seating.”1 Lets look into some of the reasons why a flexible classroom design is a good idea for teachers and their students.

Health Benefits

As our lifestyle becomes more and more sedentary with the rise of technology, studies show that more students have trouble concentrating in class. A lot of researchers have tied this trend directly with the decrease in the amount of physical activity people get on a daily basis. Eric Jensen, Ph.D., a former teacher who is now an educational consultant, notes that physical activity benefits learning. While it may be obvious that it burns calories and increases oxygen to the brain, it is also shown to increase heart rate and circulation, enhances spatial learning, allows cognitive maturation and stimulate release of beneficial chemicals. Carla Hannaford, another educational consultant and the author of Smart Moves, Why Learning is Not All in your Head, shares that 13 studies reveal that when students move around in a classroom, “they are more engaged and can better anchor new info and experience into neural networks.”8 Students also retain more information if they are using multiple senses to process information.2

Aside from the physiological impact, research shows that students are more alert and productive when they are comfortable. When they get to choose where they are most comfortable – both physically and mentally, the result is lower stress and anxiety levels. And since it’s all about figuring out how to give students’ their best opportunity at learning, why wouldn’t you give flexibility a try?9

In addition, when students are allowed to move, fidget, rock, lean, stand, etc., they are more alert, more focused and helps them to get rid of excess energy. Teachers that have implemented a flexible classroom design note that the behaviour benefits of a flexible classroom are dramatic…even more so for the students who have trouble sitting still, such as those with ASD, ADHD and ADD.8 If the goal is to help students learn and changing up the layout of your classroom does just that, it’s worth the investment!

The Impact of Choice

Some of the most fascinating educational research being released studies the impact of giving students choices in the classroom. Herman Miller 2008 study6 showed that “giving people some control over their surrounding adds to their sense of well-being.” When they’re given choices, they take more ownership over their classroom and learning.7 Providing options for students to choose where they feel they learn best gives them a voice and an active role in their education, and results in significantly increased engagement.

A research study at Iowa State University studied the impact of “active learning classrooms.” The feedback from students supported the idea that a flexible classroom design made students feel more valued and respected as it “erased the line between instructors and students.” They said that removing that line enhanced student engagement – both with their instructor and with each other. The freedom to move around also encouraged interaction and led students to feel closer personal connections with their instructors and their peers.8 Read more about the benefits of group work in the first part of this blog series.

Implementing a Flexible Classroom Design

You’ve read why a flexible classroom design is beneficial, but may be thinking, “now what?” Below are three aspects of flexible classroom design that you can immediately implement:

  1. Seating options – Of the three, flexible seating is the most popular aspect of flexible classroom design. The rows and columns of desks are a thing of the past. (But remember that some students will still prefer to sit in a desk with a chair.) Pull tables into groups with various seating options such as exercise balls, wobble chairs or stools. Provide the opportunity for students to work at a standing desk. Give students comfortable options on the floor with rugs, pillows and bean bags. And remember that your students are all very different – so give them lots of options. Get creative with your layout, be sure to provide rules for the new seating options and enjoy the benefits!
  2. Writing options – An often-overlooked aspect of flexible classroom design is mixing up the writing options. Traditional pen and paper versus the use of iPads and laptops are obvious options. But have you considered portable dry erase glassboards, lap desks or even glass tables that students can write on? Incorporate various writing alternatives into your lesson plans to keep students engaged.
  3. Collaboration tools – As part two of this blog series explains, research proves that active learning benefits students more than traditional lectures. Since most types of active learning involve interaction between students, it is crucial that teachers can rearrange their rooms. One of the latest trends in flexible classroom designs is reconfigurable classrooms – providing furniture that can be mixed and matched depending on the need of the classroom. If you invest in products that are mobile and reconfigurable (such as Flex Mobile and Flex Wall), you are never confined in your classroom layout. Build “learning zones” with the different tables, seating and writing options, and watch your students’ creativity soar!

Flexible classroom design may always be a controversial topic. While some teachers will never want to implement it, many feel like it’s worth a try. According to researcher Peter Barrett of University of Oxford, “Flexible spaces alter the fundamental dynamics of teaching and learning, giving students more control and responsibility, improving academic engagement, and undermining the typical face-forward orientation of the traditional learning environment.”7

Sources

1 Darby, Alexa. “Understanding Universal Design in the Classroom.” National Education Association. Elon University, http://www.nea.org/home/34693.htm.

2 Merrill, Stephen. “Flexible Classrooms: Research is Scarce, but Promising.” Edutopia, 14 June 2018, https://www.edutopia.org/article/flexible-classrooms-research-scarce-promising.

3 Healy, Maureen. “New Classroom Trend: Flexible Seating.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 23 Oct. 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-development/201710/new-classroom-trend-flexible-seating.

4 Paterson, Jim. “Is Flexible Seating Right for your Classroom?” Education World. https://www.educationworld.com/how-much-should-your-classroom-flex.

5 Barkley, E. Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass, 2010.

6 “Rethinking the Classroom: Spaces Designed for Active and Engaged Learning and Teaching.” Herman Miller, 2008, https://www.hermanmiller.com/research/categories/white-papers/rethinking-the-classroom.

7 Cox, Janelle. “The Flexible Classroom Management Option.” TeachHub.com, https://www.teachhub.com/flexible-classroom-management-option.

8 Rands, Melissa L., and Gansemer-Topf, Ann M. “The Room Itself is Active: How Classroom Design Impacts Student Engagement.” Education Publications, Iowa State University, 2017, https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1048&context=edu_pubs.

9 Lynch, Matthew. “Proven Learning Zones for Every Classroom.” The Edvocate. 17 Jan. 2019, https://www.theedadvocate.org/proven-learning-zones-for-every-classroom/.

Other Sources

Barret, PS, et al. “Teachers’ Views of their Primary School Classrooms.” USIR, University of Salford, 2016, http://usir.salford.ac.uk/id/eprint/36129/1/1-s2.0-S0360132315000700-main.pdf.

Delzer, Kayla. “Flexible Seating and Student-Centered Classroom Redesign.” Edutopia, 22 Apr. 2016, https://www.edutopia.org/blog/flexible-seating-student-centered-classroom-kayla-delzer.

Markle, Brooke. “Reflections on Shifting to a Flexible Classroom.” Edutopia, 20 Aug. 2018, https://www.edutopia.org/article/reflections-shifting-flexible-classroom.

Watoner, Amanda. “9 Benefits of Flexible Seating in Education.” Special Education Resource. 18 Sept. 2019, https://specialedresource.com/9-benefits-of-flexible-seating-in-education.