Mar 13, 2019

How the Agile Classroom Impacts Student Engagement

By Jolene Levin, Director, Norva Nivel, USA

Teachers are increasingly challenged to engage students. Traditional classrooms with rows of desks and chalkboards in the front of the room aren’t conducive to meeting students’ needs, particularly in our fast-paced society, where information, visuals and messages compete for their attention. The classroom of the past — too often today’s classroom —is a motionless venue that lacks inspiration and does not deliver the essentials for building an enthusiasm for learning.
A recent study conducted by MDR, a division of Dun & Bradstreet, and the Education Market Association, found that approximately 94% of the more than 1,600 teachers polled agreed that the design of a learning space impacts students’ success. The study highlighted the importance of flexibility and collaboration, technology integration and intentional design in modern classroom spaces. 
In 2010, we visited our first school. Listening to the school’s principal, teaching staff and students, we unearthed their challenges and needs. Their frustrations centered on the fact that most learning spaces aren’t customizable and do not accommodate a variety of learning styles. They do not address individual student needs and cannot adapt to varied subjects and teaching styles. The educators and administrators we’ve spoken with stress that the classroom needs to be relevant and vital, in keeping with ever-evolving technologies and what’s required to capture students’ attention.
We see the challenge surrounding engagement increasing exponentially over time. An assistant principal put it this way: “It doesn’t matter what quality of curriculum you deliver; if they’re not engaged in the practices that you’re delivering, it counts for nothing.” This is why we’ve developed an advanced and innovative version of the “agile classroom,” a learning environment designed to meet a complex variety of student, teacher and district needs.
The Agile Classroom
Some call it the future of education. Education experts call it the agile or flexible classroom. Based on its transformational attributes, we know it defines what’s possible in education today. George Lucas’s educational foundation, Edutopia, says this: “While a classroom is different from a [business] startup, certain mindsets and strategies translate well: vision, agility, the right tools, creative thinking, and recognizing individual strengths. An agile classroom is an environment in which students are motivated to do their best work and feel invested in the class as a whole.”
Engagement is one descriptor that repeatedly emerges when education experts describe this learning environment. It generates superior student outcomes, adapting to a diverse range of learners — from cognitive to hands on. This goes beyond how specific students learn best by offering accelerated growth regardless of learning style. This growth builds confidence and cognitive abilities in large part through the physical attributes of agile spaces. In our work transforming classrooms, libraries, collaborative learning spaces and presentation areas, we’ve heard countless teachers and school administrators affirm the efficacy of agile learning spaces.
They report student outcomes being impacted in tangible ways, such as:
-       An increased sense of ownership and pride by students in their learning spaces and educational process, plus the ability for teachers to more easily motivate them;
-       The benefits of movement as well as adaptability, which supports all teaching styles, learning styles and subjects;
-       The breakdown and removal of barriers to learning, based on varying student populations and individual needs, inclinations and tendencies.

Fostering The Ownership Mindset
Technology has demonstrably impacted society in several ways, learning being one. America’s classroom is one of the last holdouts and it’s in dire need of evolution. Transitioning from the acquisition of knowledge through instructional teaching, learners are now being encouraged to develop the 6 Cs, a set of skills transferable to any learning activity and ultimately any profession. With this shift, the need to change educational spaces is essential. The key is to create modern learning spaces, classrooms and environments that cater to students’ individual needs and learning styles. Then, to show educators successful methods for motivating and engaging students, which include getting students to embrace the ownership or accountability mindset.
The agile class gives students the power to decide how they learn and from whom; it offers more choice, promoting a sense of ownership, control and agency. Guided by their teachers, students are empowered to think and make smart choices. This empowerment nurtures a sense of proprietorship. We’ve seen these learning environments completely change the classroom dynamic. Teachers regularly comment on how their students are driven as never before and how their spaces capture kids’ attention, even high-energy learners.
Agile spaces help teachers motivate and engage students in a lasting way. And, because they can quickly and effortlessly be changed based on subject matter, class requirements, student needs and other factors, classrooms don’t become dated, stale or obsolete. Moreover, the flexible classroom teaches skills, not just knowledge —facilitated by the space itself and the relationship the learner has with it. Students are guided through strategic facilitation by the teacher but have an ownership stake in the learning environment and how it’s structured. They experience movement, diversity and choice in their relation to their classrooms.
Movement Matters
Studies show that movement in the classroom setting builds focus and improves learning outcomes. We’ve observed thousands of students acquire more balance, focus and accountability through the movement that agile spaces provide. Learners acquire transversal skills, those relevant to future jobs and occupations and lifelong learning. These skills can be acquired through education or training if the setting is right.
We believe that all truly flexible learning spaces should be able to be reconfigured in 60 seconds or less, by even the youngest of learners. With straightforward guidance from their teacher, learners can modify their environments quickly and intentionally. This requires concurrent physical and analytical engagement that students steer, helping them take charge of and responsibility for learning.
Another example of movement in a learning space is having tables at various heights in a classroom. Versus a series of static or even height-adjustable tables, this variety encourages students to freely move from one workspace to another. Standing height tables create the opportunity for movement and increased blood flow, with physical as well as cognitive benefits. At a standing height table, students can use a balance board, which we incorporate into our agile classrooms. In doing so, they fuse physical (body) control with concentration and focus (mind) requirements.
Removing Barriers to Learning
Whether they’re visual or hands-on learners, or those requiring additional support, every student must be involved so they can learn and thrive. Using agile furniture, such as moveable and multipurpose tables; storage that doubles as seating or work surfaces; a varied selection of workspaces; lightweight, movable seats and other adaptable features, each space has the flexibility to be quickly rearranged and transformed into a unique, subject-appropriate setting —one that’s visually appealing, smart and that involves the student at a deeper level.
In addition to creating spaces specific to an activity, flexible learning environments can be reconfigured according to student and teacher needs, breaking down obstacles to learning. Students can select their preferred workspace or create their own. When they are in a space where they feel more comfortable or safe, they are better able to retain information and are more engaged. In addition, to more effectively utilize the space and engage, our classroom furniture designs always include versatility. We make use of walls, floors and the entire room, enabling teachers to have kids stand during certain aspects of the lesson, sit during others and balance (seated or standing) for others. This exemplifies complete engagement and helps kids manage their energy levels.
We’ve had hundreds of teachers and school administrators tell us that the empowerment students acquire enables introverted learners to shine. One principal emailed us recently saying “Our best teachers are saying that with the agile classroom, kids are more likely to collaborate with students they would ordinarily not interact with. They are inspired, self-motivated and less likely to be intimidated by personal or environmental limitations.”
The Future is Now
The right lighting, comfort elements, technology and customization are essential but without agile features, today’s classroom is incomplete. The agile classroom offers immediate and complete customization; they are completely adaptive and modular. Today’s classroom cannot remain static. Our youth have a tremendous amount of energy that needs to be harnessed for absorbing and retaining information. An agile classroom combines physical and cognitive elements of learning that helps students acquire a true sense of ownership. It breaks down barriers in education and addresses a broader array of learning needs and styles.
The multifunctional and adaptive characteristics of the agile classroom help our educational system evolve in our fast-paced, ever-changing society to engage more students. In all classrooms, the role of the teacher cannot be underestimated. In agile environments, the teacher acts as a facilitator, nurturing a sense of proprietorship and deeper interest in learning. They guide kids through the decision-making process and make deeper engagement possible.
Undeniably, these flexible education spaces offer elements that adapt to the needs of teachers and students alike. Greater choice means kids are more actively engaged in the learning process, which inevitably produces better outcomes in all types of learners.
All educators we’ve conferred with agree: stagnancy hinders engagement and a lifelong passion for learning. To spark ownership, agency and empowerment, learning environments must be relevant today and remain that way well into the future. This is what the agile classroom delivers.

Jolene Levin is a director at NorvaNivel USA, designers and manufacturers of educational furniture and learning spaces, which are made in the U.S.  For more information, visit

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