Apr 17, 2018
Connecting Furniture Planning and Student Engagement
by Gwen Morgan
Located in Detroit’s northern suburbs, Bloomfield Hills Schools is a district with a long history of forward-thinking educational instruction. As one of the top performing districts in the country, Bloomfield Hills Schools recognized more than a decade ago the need to redesign its facilities and re-imagine its programming to support the changing educational needs of 21st century students, preparing them for success in college and the workplace.
Planning for the new Bloomfield Hills High School began with a year-long facilitation process, which was driven by the district’s Ten Guiding Principles of Teaching and Learning. Extensive community engagement led to the development of a concept that consolidated the two existing high schools – Andover and Lahser – into one state-of-the-art facility on the Andover site featuring small learning communities.
Co-designed by Stantec’s Berkley, Mich. office and Fielding Nair International, the resulting 350,000-square-foot building opened in August 2015 and includes 233,000 square feet of new construction and 117,000 square feet of renovations made to the former Andover High School.
The central design concept lies within nine learning communities, each of which integrate core classes in a collaborative, technology-rich learning environment to encourage collaboration, student directed learning, project-based learning and interdisciplinary instruction.
Each learning community includes a wide variety of learning spaces – from small group rooms to larger break out spaces, to rooms for individual work – all of which are designed to meet the needs of different kinds of learners and different kinds of activities. The design of each community offers students and teachers the flexibility to ebb and flow from spaces, encouraging interdisciplinary instruction and a more collegiate-like experience.
Outfitting the Space
Designed to support pedagogy that places a greater focus on personalization and collaboration, the high school looks and functions unlike any other. Armed with this understanding, the district recognized early in the design process that they would need furniture solutions that would align with the instructional model.
A furniture pilot program conducted simultaneous to construction of the new school offered a unique opportunity for the district to embrace changes in pedagogy, understand new classroom environments, and evaluate the influence that furniture and technology has on the learning experience.
As part of the pilot program, teachers and students in nine classrooms tested a variety of furniture solutions and evaluated it for its ability to transition from activity to activity, adapt from subject to subject, and encourage student engagement. At the end of the year-long study, the results directly influenced furniture selection for the new school.
Collecting the Data
The study began by gathering information from the 18 teachers slated to teach in the classrooms throughout the school year. This “pre-occupancy” survey focused on learning more about what types of furniture the teachers used in past classrooms, what kinds of furniture they thought would work well in the future, and how important they believed furniture solutions are to the learning environment. In their responses, teachers clearly expressed that type, comfort, flexibility, and variety of furniture has a significant impact on the both the teaching and learning experience.
Following furniture installation in the test classrooms, student surveys and onsite observations were conducted periodically each semester. In the surveys, students were asked to identify the courses they had taken in the test classrooms, their grade level, and which types of furniture they felt were most successful in supporting their learning.
The survey results identified a number of student furniture preferences. For instance, students saw standing height tables and two-person tables with chairs as helpful for small group learning. Tablet arm chairs were popular for individual work, but were one of the least supportive solutions when it came to transitioning from activity to activity within a class period. For this mid-class period transition, larger tables to seat four to six people seemed to work better. Students consistently agreed on the positive impact that comfort and ergonomics had on their learning experience.
The onsite observations consisted of two full days at the end of each semester, during which time observers rotated through the classrooms, taking note of how students used the furniture. Additionally, posters showing a variety of furniture layouts were placed in the classrooms and students were asked to select which furniture types they had used that day and what furniture type they thought might have worked better. The most popular selections were large project tables and standing-height tables, while tablet arm chairs and individual desks were the least popular.
A visual observation of the students using the furniture yielded additional trends. For instance, researchers found that incorporating a variety of furniture solutions within a room seemed to work well for both individual and group work. In addition, varying heights allowed strong visual connection between teachers and students. In smaller rooms, the furniture was moved less, due to lack of space, and was more likely to remain set up in rows for the duration of a period. Chairs on casters greatly eased movement between individual and group work. In many cases, storage was an issue, with backpacks taking up quite a bit of floor space.
Armed with a year’s worth of research and study, the team compiled its findings as they set out to plan the furniture for the new school, focusing on the furniture’s ability to transition, adapt and promote student engagement.
When it comes to transitioning from activity to activity, the researchers found that while teachers and students appreciated a variety of furniture to choose from, having too many options made the room feel chaotic. In order to achieve balance, findings suggested that classrooms should have enough space to move furniture in a way that best supports their current activity. Also, furniture should be intuitive in order to minimize the need for teacher training on how to take advantage of the different options.
The ability to adapt a room for different subjects, teaching styles, or uses was found to be critical to the new school’s learning community format. Results emphasized the importance of resetting the furniture between classes to a general function layout. In order to reduce the time spent moving the furniture, students needed to become familiar with the standard arrangements so they could adjust and adapt to their surroundings quickly.
In addition, the study showed that the furniture needed to be able to adapt to technology. While the technology used for the study was not the same as what would be used in the new school, the main lesson remained the same: the overall design should be proactive and focus on how the furniture could best support the day’s activity, meaning accessibility to charging stations and power locations.
Nearly across the board, students agreed that furniture has an impact on both their level of engagement and the way they learn throughout a class period. Furthermore, results asserted that students recognized the role the furniture plays in supporting collaborative activities like group work.
When it comes down to it, in order to engage students, comfort matters! Students reported furniture that allowed for posture change and choice helped make students “learning-ready.” Most preferred were two-person tables and standing height tables, while only a few students preferred ottomans.
Students also noted that while ease of furniture rearrangement is important in supporting the way they learn, too much movement actually decreased student engagement, so strategies should be in place to manage this. Wheels on seating were much preferred over wheels on tables.
Implementing the Findings
When Bloomfield Hills High School opened in August 2015, it had an innovative pedagogy, and a cutting-edge furniture program to match. The majority of the enclosed student spaces are furnished with larger tables and chairs on casters, with a few standing height tables, as was preferred by staff and students in the study. Smaller learning studios contain single-person desks and chairs for more individual work. The project rooms feature larger tables for four to six people, but maintain the same mobility offered in the learning studios. The common areas offer a combination of tables and lounge furniture to complement the more formal learning areas.
The information gathered from the surveys, test classrooms, and observations collectively gave the design team a strong direction about what would work for the new Bloomfield Hills High School. Equally as important, the pilot program worked as a conduit for teachers and students to get a feel for how a new model of teaching and learning will occur in the new school. By applying the successful solutions of the pilot classrooms to the new furniture package, the district ended up with a tried-and-true solution from day one of class.
GWEN MORGAN is an interior designer with significant experience in the design of educational facilities, both higher education and K-12 buildings, including LEED projects. She has also managed numerous FF&E projects, from programming, budgeting, furniture and finish selection, to bid document preparation, installation coordination and supervision. She currently leads Stantec’s Research and Benchmarking team for FF&E and Technology.