May 25, 2017 12:59 PM PST
SINCE 2007

Can classroom designs motivate students, generate quality learning?

As I See It

Other than a quiet and serene atmosphere, is there any other way of enhancing the 21st century classroom? How about furnishings in the classrooms? Can they help in creating an environment or atmosphere that is conducive to

learning or best suited to an individual classroom’s needs?

My educator friends Ruel Manipis and Allan Navarro say, yes! “Definitely, classroom designs matter in motivating our students. Most of the time, we change sitting arrangements and make sure the students are rotated for them to know each other and be familiar as a class. This will also encourage peer learning and will enhance personal relationships which contribute to better learning atmosphere” both uttered.

According to an article written in The Journal by Leila Meyer titled, “4 ways furnishings can enhance the 21st century classroom”, furniture arrangements can definitely make or break an educational space. This corroborates Manipis and Navarro’s classroom practice.

Traditionally, student desks and chairs are more or less stationary in arrangement and are seldom moved by both teachers and students. No wonder, Meyer said modern-day educators consider it as a relic of the 19th and 20th centuries. For the 21st century classroom with its 1-to-1 ratio of devices to students and emphasis on collaboration and communication, the 21st century classroom demands classroom furniture that is mobile and device-friendly.

A parent, Andy Casabar said, “My daughter tells me she was seated with a guy all the time and the sitting arrangements is more or less permanent. It’s boring dad…”

Going with the winds of change of the 21st century, some schools have replaced their traditional classroom furniture with tables and chairs on wheels to facilitate flexibility and quick transitions between individual, small group and large group activities.

In Saluda Trail Middle School in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Meyer said the classroom of Language Arts teacher Julie Marshall was transformed to an active learning center complete with tables and chairs on wheels. Her school is a recipient of the Steelcase Education’s 2015 Active Learning Center Grants. Added features in her classroom include interactive whiteboard, student whiteboards, and other upgrades. Marshall said, “It was “designed to meet the needs of the 21st century learner, emphasizing critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. By having things on wheels, by having all of the furniture on wheels, it allows for a very mobile, very fluid environment.”

At the beginning of each class, Marshall and her students roll their chairs into a large group for a brief mini-lesson. Once the mini-lesson is over, Marshall says, “Ready to rock?” and her students say, “Ready to roll!” and then they roll out into their small groups, either in the classroom or the hallway.

Marshall has noticed a significant improvement in her students who struggle in school, since implementing the active learning center. “The new environment has changed their motivation because they now have control and ownership of what they are doing in class… they control where they sit… they control who they sit by or who they work with on a daily basis… and they can control what they are studying,” Marshall said.

The students, according to Marshall, are very grateful for the new classroom environment and treat it with a sense of pride. “The gratitude for that classroom is transferring to their work… and the missing work has decreased…,” she said.

Marshall said she thinks the new furnishings have also helped her low-achieving students. She observed that the students feel more motivated to take risks emotionally and academically. “A lot of low-achieving students are afraid to try something new in a classroom because all they’ve done all their life is get in trouble when they try to do something different,” she said. “We can’t fix things unless we fix motivation, and that’s what everybody is struggling with: how to get kids motivated. If you make that room exciting, inviting and non-traditional, it’s a place where they can just relax.”

In another classroom in Cudahy, Wisconsin, some at-risk students have an option to attend Connects Learning Center, a unique high school designed specifically to help these students succeed through a combination of an individualized blended learning curriculum and a comfortable environment. “These kids have proved that they do not learn or have not been successful in the traditional environment,” said Stacey Adamczyk, lead teacher at the school. “So really it’s about making an area that’s comfortable for them, an area that they want to come to.”
The school is located in a renovated church with three rooms where the center room serves as a break room, and there’s a single classroom on either side. “We were thinking about creating an environment where kids wanted to be, so we were thinking about where are they going to be most comfortable, what’s going to make them want to come to school,” said Adamczyk. “And the kids feel as though it’s a privilege to be here in this type of environment. They know not all students get that opportunity.”

Adamczyk said, “It’s really nice for them to be able to work independently at their own pace and receive the 1-on-1 attention as they need it rather than being expected to learn everything at the same rate at the same time and be at the same level… When they’re doing their independent work, some of the kids roll a chair to a corner by themselves, while others form little groups, whatever makes them feel comfortable”.

She attributes the change in the students’ attitude towards school to the individualized, flexible, comfortable learning environment.

Another public charter school in LaGrange, Georgia, THINC College & Career Academy, is focused on career readiness and uses a curriculum designed to meet the needs of local employers. The school’s designers used tables and chairs that could be rearranged easily to support student collaboration. “Our purpose in choosing the furniture was to help create a collaborative environment, and we wanted to promote communication between the students,” said Chris Williams, principal of THINC. “We did not want the students to walk in here and feel like they were in a traditional high school setting. We wanted them to feel that they were experiencing higher ed, business and industry. So we knew that we needed a very collaborative environment.”

THINC College & Career Academy strives to establish a culture of business and industry, of being grown up and professional, and Williams said the furnishings contribute to that culture. “It’s hard to play the role of an employee or an adult when you’re sitting in a student desk,” he said.

The last example given was that of the Interactive Student Learning Center at Immaculata-La Salle High School in Miami which converted half of its classrooms to active learning. It has also transformed its library into an Interactive Student Learning Center with four active learning spaces, a presentation area and two mediascape rooms.

The transformation was driven in part by the school’s 1-to-1 iPad initiative. “After six months it became very apparent that having the students sit in rows and engage in the device was not working,” said Federico Padovan, dean of innovation and technology at the school. “It was creating a very isolated experience, and it went against everything 21st century learning is about.”

The result of the four learning centers’ furnishing designs has created a truly flexible learning space that is conducive to the communication and collaboration tenets of 21st century learning.

Does classroom designs matter in the 21st century education? With all has been said and done, definitely… yes!
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