Remedial Design

With many schools racing to update their technology portfolios, upgrading the learning environment has taken a back seat. Here’s how you can bring some excitement back to the classroom without an iPad or smartphone.

by Adam Moore

create movement
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.”

More Tips for Designing Modern Schools

Start Small
“Start small—maybe in a single classroom or media center—so that you’re not disrupting a particular classroom,” says Wood. “Then they can see how a single room can really change the learning behaviors of students.”

Understand the Paradigm
“[Designers] need to understand what the teaching philosophy is at the school, how integrated the community might be in that particular building, and so on. You need to see the vision and the goal for the environment before you start selecting product,” says Volner

Consider Unanticipated Impacts
“Glass boards are taking over from whiteboards … however, now you have all of these reflective surfaces in classrooms now, so we need to adjust the lighting,” Volner explains. “You have one side of the table saying,we want to be LEED, we want more natural light—which is good—but there’s a ton of glare coming from all of these polished surfaces.”

Respect the Budget
“Regardless of what level you’re working at, designers need to understand that sometimes to create a really fun, explorative environment, you may need to reuse some equipment,” says Volner. “You need to be very creative in finding fun and interesting ways to adapt the equipment at hand.”

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.

create comfort
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.”


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