By David Mocton
The majority of classrooms in schools today are the same as they were 30, 40, or more years ago — a teacher’s desk up front, a board on the wall, rows of traditional student desks and chairs facing the front, and perhaps tables and windows in back. Some students do well in this environment but many do not.
Fortunately times are changing. Forward-thinking designers, product developers, and manufacturers are finding better ways to plan more productive learning spaces. Many more schools are now experimenting with different layouts that feature interactive environments, new types of furniture and equipment, and in some cases, no traditional classrooms at all.
What if you could create the optimal learning space? An environment where today’s students could thrive and their teachers could motivate and facilitate. What would that include?
At Hertz Furniture, we reached out to the 1,300 members of our “Classrooms of the Future” LinkedIn group — teachers, administrators, consultants, and designers — and asked them what the ideal classroom would look like. We wanted to know about design, furniture, technology, workspaces, color, and any other factors that would enhance student learning. While some results were expected, there were definitely some interesting surprises along the way, as well.
So what elements are most important to today’s educators?
- Ready access to technology
- Outdoor learning spaces
- Flexible workspaces with individual and collaborative learning areas
- A creative, fun and welcoming environment
While at first glance it might seem impractical to get all of these elements into one learning space, it may just be a matter of creativity and balance. Much of today’s flexible classroom furniture has been designed for comfort and technology. Additionally, flexible furniture allows both individual learning and collaborative work spaces in the same room. When thinking about design and layout, considering which setup will make technology the most accessible and straightforward can make a big difference in the daily experience of teachers and students.
Creating a flexible classroom starts with matching the right furniture with the curriculum and teaching style. It is simply not practical to expect elementary school students or their teachers to drag heavy desks and other equipment around the room on a regular basis depending on what’s needed for that class. Jerry Blumengarten, the Cybrary Man, thinks that “the most awesome classroom would have everything on wheels”.
With this arrangement, reorganizing the space as the need arises is quick and easy. This allows for flexibility at all times, so students can even re-arrange their own learning clusters throughout the day. It’s not just about desks and chairs either. With mobile boards, bookcases, and teacher’s desks, educators can experiment with different teaching models and room configurations throughout the year, join and work with groups of students, and renew the look of the space on a regular basis.
“The ideal classroom should be adaptable to learning needs —moveable walls and desks, work spaces that can accommodate different learning styles, integrated technology throughout the room, bulletin boards and display walls, and plenty of storage units,” said E. John Fredrich, Principal of Grace Lutheran Church and School. With the right amount of space and a clever layout, all of these things can be integrated into a classroom, while maintaining an aesthetic appeal. It seems that other educators agree as well, saying they would like to see inspirational messages on classroom walls as well as 4D immersive teaching and learning technology.
Based on the responses, there appears to be a consensus regarding flexibility in the classroom. Today’s educators don’t want to be limited when it comes to teaching and learning styles, or classroom arrangement. When we asked participants what kind of furniture should be included in the ideal classroom, flexible and movable furniture came out on top, with comfortable furniture as the second most popular choice. The good thing is, flexibility and comfort go together. Most modern school desks and chairs are designed with ergonomics and comfort in mind, so the comfort factor is already integrated.
A creative, fun and welcoming classroom environment starts with an enthusiastic educator, but a little help from an inviting design and color scheme can go a long way. Our survey respondents thought that ‘natural and warm’ colors were ideal, with ‘bright and bold’, and ‘rainbow color’ schemes tied for second. Thinking about colors in individual classrooms is important. Too many divergent color schemes vying for your students’ attention can make it difficult for them to focus. It’s better to commit to one family of colors and make sure everything in the room fits in harmoniously. Warm, natural hues make a learning space both inviting and relaxing, encouraging students to come right in and get to work.
Out With The Old
In addition to asking our survey participants what would be found in the best classroom, we also asked them what they would never want to see in their ideal classroom. Not surprisingly, a traditional setup where desks and chairs can’t be moved around was the least desirable. Clutter, punishment areas, closed and barred windows, textbooks, and dull colors were also mentioned.
Some of these things might seem obvious when thinking in abstract terms, but it’s also important to consciously keep in mind what teachers don’t want during the school year. If they find that the room setup has been the same for a while, encourage them to mix things up. When it suddenly seems that papers are piling up on desks and the shelves are overstocked, suggest customers take some time to regroup and reduce clutter to create a more open learning environment. Creating the ideal classroom is not just about repainting, rearranging and getting some new furniture, it also requires consistent maintenance to retain and renew the original appeal of the space.
What Comes Naturally
We found that educators can be innovative when they are not limited by budget or space concerns. What interesting items do today’s educators want to see in their classrooms? Responses included outdoor learning spaces, and increased connection with nature, a sunroof to let natural light into the classroom, and even a space where students can read peacefully while swaying gently in hammocks. Preschool teacher Teri Bierman dreams of “creating an indoor garden that children can explore year round.” Other responses included bright yoga balls to allow students to gently bounce and balance as they release energy and stay focused on the task at hand, floor-to-ceiling whiteboard walls with idea paint to encourage students to brainstorm freely, work through problems and formulas and leave their personal touches directly on the walls of the classroom. When there are no limitations and educators are free to dream of the perfect space, their ideas are truly remarkable.
Besides the ‘where’ and the ‘what’ of the physical classroom, many respondents addressed the ‘how’ of the ideal classroom —how would students learn best.
Simply because we have a teacher and students in the room together, doesn’t mean we have to retain the traditional teacher- student dynamic. Hal Porter, an education consultant said, “The savvy 21st century middle and high school teacher functions as facilitator, coach and resource; the student functions as team member, researcher and creative problem solver; and the classroom may extend, virtually and actually, beyond its walls.”
Similar views were expressed by others who felt that through virtual reality, electronic textbooks, interactive whiteboards, smart TVs, and other innovations, students would be more in control of their learning and benefit from it. “The most awesome classroom is where students are self-directed and conferencing and making their own learning decisions with guidance,” said Dr. Vicki Knopke.
It’s clear that technology and flexibility should be main factors in determining the design and layout of an ideal educational space. It would be enlightening to see what the space would look like and what the results would be when creative ideas such as hammocks, sun roofs and whiteboard walls are integrated into classrooms. We hope these results encourage educators and designers to really consider what matters when designing classrooms, think outside the box, and create the best spaces for today’s students.
David Mocton is the President of Hertz Furniture, a nationwide dealer of 21st century educational furniture. David is passionate about providing schools with classroom layouts and furniture that enhance students’ ability to succeed. David leads the popular ”Classrooms of the Future” group on LinkedIn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.