The long-overdue refocusing of U.S. primary and secondary education from the industrial economy to the information economy promises to play out in the coming years. The focus is shifting away from having students memorize facts toward self-directed learning, research techniques, and team approaches to problem-solving.
The main factor shaping this new learning environment is classroom media.
Digital interconnectedness is ingrained in today’s students. According to a report on children’s media consumption, “Always Connected: The new digital media habits of young children,” those aged 8–18 are exposed to a total of nearly 11 hours of media daily.
This new educational paradigm necessitates reconsideration of the design of spaces that our students use. Making classroom media easily available to students has major implications for classroom furniture and design. The priority is focused on flexible, movable classroom furniture that can be quickly reconfigured to accommodate changing needs—shifting to different learning groups and classroom media with regularity. This flexibility and agility allows rooms to be rearranged at a moment’s notice.
Our approach to flexible classroom furniture design is guided by “movement ergonomic” principles developed from a 4-year study in Germany called “The Educational Workplace.” The study concluded that classroom furniture has to adapt to its user’s “healthy need of movement.” It stated that seating, desks, and storage units must be flexible and movable — and provide versatile, easy-to-reposition work surfaces.
The challenge school districts face in bringing teaching and learning into the 21st century is a familiar one—tight budget constraints. One solution is the use of Technology Integrated Learning Environments (TILEs), which fuse technology, furniture, and various design features into a dynamic, collaborative, and instructional environment for students.
Our design philosophy for TILEs is based on ideas from a report on teaching in the digital age (Take a Giant Step: A Blueprint for Teaching Young Children in a Digital Age), which states that the most powerful benefit of technology is its capacity to deepen and personalize learning.
As the report’s executive summary notes,
“Technology is most productive in young children’s lives when it enhances their engagement in the rich activities of childhood—talking, interacting, manipulating, pretending, reading, constructing, exploring.”
Initially, TILEs can serve as a laboratory for experimenting with different technologies, furniture options and teaching approaches prior to a more substantial commitment and implementation of new strategies, equipment and learning styles on a broader scale. This is a cost-effective approach that uses a limited commitment at first.
Our firm has used TILEs in K-8 schools and provided an environment teachers and students can utilize for professional development training, student computer classes, collaboration and research activities, independent study time, and one-on-one tutoring. These spaces — which are not assigned to an individual teacher or group of students — feature flexible furniture, standing-height computers for easy student access, and comfortable, inviting soft “lounge” furniture where students can read.
Multiple activities can take place in the TILEs at any given time simultaneously, and teachers and students can easily rearrange them within a matter of minutes. These spaces also have a movable partition to accommodate groups of varied sizes.
One of the school districts for which we have provided design services—School District 62 in Des Plaines, Ill.— has converted three classrooms in the Pre-K-8 schools in the district into permanent TILEs and other classrooms will be converted over the next two years. Two classroom spaces in each of 11 school buildings were also converted into TILE spaces.
The TILEs have smart boards, computer tablets, floor-to-ceiling marker boards, and tackable walls. All of the furniture is mobile and students can sit on beanbags or motion-friendly, ergonomically-correct chairs, which can improve cognitive ability, according to studies. The TILEs are centrally located in each facility to allow for easy access before, during, and after school hours. They also are used for staff training and community group meetings.
Making the giant leap from the 19th century classroom to one more suited to the digital age can be intimidating. One method we have used during the design process to help clients make this transition is the use of classroom mock-ups. Input from school faculty, staff, students, and the school board is incorporated in the development of a classroom prototype. We use that prototype to experiment with a variety of furniture, equipment, and materials before they are incorporated into the final design.
Classes are taught in the mock-up for a semester or even a full school year. We have provided mock-up classrooms for high schools with design features ranging from solely furniture options to completely redesigned classrooms with flooring and furniture options, display and writing surfaces, and technology upgrades. We have also provided various types of mobile furniture, such as tables, desks, and storage units. Since high schools do not always need a lot of storage in a classroom and it takes up valuable floor space, we put storage units on casters so they will be available only to teachers who need them.
For Naperville Central High School in Illinois, we provided three mock-up classrooms dedicated to full-time teachers and a fourth was available to any teacher to use for a week or two. The mock-ups used mobile furniture and gave students and teachers a flexible classroom that could be rearranged within minutes without the need to call in maintenance staff. A teacher might be using a lecture format and then direct students to work in small groups — either by turning their swivel chairs to face a table behind them or by moving their mobile tables into small groups and using a mobile whiteboard.
With full-height marker board paint, all students can work on a math problem without having to sit in their assigned seat. Such arrangements—education in the round—result in more engaged students and an overall better learning environment.
We also held several meetings with the teachers to explain the concept of the mock-up classrooms and conducted an online survey in order to gather teacher input. Four teachers also gave the rest of the staff a presentation on their experiences with the mock-up classrooms. The teachers were a part of the classroom design decision-making process and became educated clients.
- Naperville Central High School; Paul Schlismann
- Orchard Place Elementary School; George Lambros
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