Our educational institutions form such a deep part of the American fabric that we might be excused for spending more time dreaming wistfully about days past than fixing them for the future. And for good reason: Whether it’s the K-12 down the block or the university with enough gravity to create its own neighborhoods, these public buildings form important parts of our social and civic lives. We learn, we gather, we vote. That will likely never change.
And yet, for all of the emotional investments we've made in them, these institutions have failed to keep pace with an accelerating world. That’s not for lack of trying, of course, but budgets are low and needs are high. The last government report on the state of our nation’s schools—conducted in 1995—found that the average school building was 42 years old. With the our Green Building Council estimating that U.S. Pre-K-12 schools are due for $540 billion in repairs and modernizations, it’s easy to see how classroom design can fall to the bottom of the list.
Fortunately for students and staff alike, that view is changing. Hard data linking modernized school environments to student achievement is beginning to trickle in—a 2013 study in the British journal Building and Environment found that a good learning environment can account for up to a quarter of a student’s “learning progression”—but much of what we know at this point is intuitive. It doesn’t matter what level of education you’re at; when your classroom is cramped, your desk is painful or the light just isn’t right, it’s hard to concentrate.
And so, with funding increasingly being tied
to school performance and competition coming
in the form of private and online schools, administrators and superintendents are committing to the improvement of classrooms in a way we haven’t seen in decades. So how can you help create a school students will thrive in? Here’s what a few people in the know had to say.
Perhaps one of the biggest shifts in education design currently taking place is the movement—some might say flight—away from the lecture hall mentality many of us grew up with. Some of that shift can be attributed to the fact that we now understand that people learn differently—some learn through sound or visuals, while others are better on the move—and some can be chalked up to the parallel shift taking place in the corporate world, giving us spaces with fewer divisions, more flexibility and more choice.
“Twenty years ago, you had students sitting at a desk, all facing forward.” says Jeff Wood, national sales manager with Bretford. “Today, there’s the expectation that there is going to be more collaboration, whether it’s between the student and the teacher or the students working in small groups together.”
Studies have revealed that it’s the act of connecting with others that improves our learning and retention.
According to Herman Miller’s “Rethinking the Classroom,” a 2000 study from the National Training Laboratories found that the highest rates of information retention came from discussion groups, practice by doing and students teaching others (50, 75 and 80 percent, respectively). Lecture learning delivered a measly 5 percent retention rate.
So it’s critical to bring students and faculty together quickly and easily. Wheeled desks and tables are popular for their ability to allow teachers and students to reconfigure the classroom with a minimum of disruption. Steelcase’s Node and KI’s Learn2 are popular thanks to their casters and storage options, but other products, such as SmartLink desks from HON or Rulo personal workstations from Vertseel can create equally flexible spaces. For classes that might require more work surface, training tables, such as the z series from ABCO or Motion tables from Interior Concepts, can provide easy mobility and compact storage.
Tech-enabled collaboration stations are also making the jump to education, with Bretford introducing a line of teaming tables intended for common areas and media centers.
As a side note, creating connections between people is important, but the modern classroom also needs connections for its technology. “The one thing that feeds learning in our schools, regardless of what level, is power access,” says Karen Volner, director of furniture for Business Interiors by Staples. Whether it’s integrated into the furniture, delivered through a unit like Smith System’s I~O Post or a device like Coalesse’s Power Pod, convenient power access will keep students learning and teachers happy. Tablet and laptop carts from MooreCo and Anthro can keep tech tools charged and ready to go when not in use.
Generating movement in our schools has become a new imperative for designers, but it’s not just about trying to replace recess (although that’s certainly part of the concern). Emerging research tells us that movement can improve learning, and not just among kinetic learners; a 2010 CDC report found that “physical activity can help improve academic achievement (including grades and standardized test scores),” and frequently results in improved concentration, attention and classroom behavior. An active classroom is a learning classroom.
To capitalize on this, designers can specify products that make it easy for students and teachers to get out of their seats and move around the room. Look for tables or desks that provide improved ingress and egress options for students, such as the Arc-8 series from Smith System or the A&D cantilever student desk from Paragon. Mobile instructor carts, such as those offered by Steelcase or Bretford, are also becoming more popular, as they allow instructors to move more flexibly around the classroom.
Designers can also take a page from the corporate world and experiment with creating different spaces within a classroom—or even within the school or larger community—to facilitate movement and stave off boredom. “Students learn by exploring,” says Volner. “And I think that’s why you have learning happening outside of the classroom. You have student learning in cafeterias, in hallways—there’s a lot of pressure for life learning and world experiences.”
And while most schools lack the budget or space to make wholesale programming changes, you can begin creating basic “learning labs” that will be in demand. Whiteboard paint, available from companies like 3M, Sherwin-Williams and Wolf-Gordon, can be used to create a work area anywhere there’s a free wall. Mobile glassboards, such as Cleo from Skyline Design or Mobile Xpress from Clarus Glassboards, can be used to create productive, partitioned space, whether in the cafeteria or a classroom.
Mobile technology has quickly become the new must-have for school districts as parents, students and teachers alike clamor for the newest gadgets. But how do you get students to stick around when they can learn and study anywhere? The answer appears to revolve around creating more comfortable, home-like spaces for students.
“You’re seeing more common areas,” says Wood. “For example, the library used to be wooden desks and chairs; now it’s more of a social space, where you have soft seating, lounge spaces with sofas, and tablet arms. It’s almost like a residential coffee shop.”
Hard surfaces are out, soft seating is in. Product lines like Bretford’s Library 2.0 are addressing this directly, introducing lounge-inspired sofas and furniture that will appeal to students’ social sides, while collections like Sauder Education’s Puzzle Series can create modular, customized layouts to accommodate unique spatial needs. Younger students will gravitate to HABA’s hexagonal cushion and Twenty Twenty seating from Arconas for informal learning, while older students will appreciate the amenities and contemporary style found in lines like Herman Miller’s Celeste.
And while a new lounge set may never compete with the Xbox waiting at home, research and anecdotal evidence is telling us that a well-designed media center or common area can have a big effect on student motivation. “If you provide the resources, the equipment and the comfort, students will linger,” Volner says. “And that’s the goal.”