Is the Classroom More Important Than the Curriculum in Today’s Schools?

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The appearance of today’s classroom has come a long way since rows of desks set before a teacher at the front of the room defined most pupils’ educational environment. Modernized classrooms integrate the sleek-looking features of a Silicon Valley office with upgraded versions of commonplace tools like the interactive whiteboard or document camera.

Yet, with so many furniture and design options available, it can be easy for decision-makers to become overwhelmed with choices and lose sight of which classroom design factors matter most. What changes are proven to make the biggest differences, and what are schools doing now to create spaces that support collaboration and individualized learning experiences?

One way is through changes to classroom furniture. Though it may seem simple, relatively inexpensive changes of a classroom’s desks and seating options can make a meaningful difference for students.

Flexible seating, a system in which students have a say in where they sit and may have opportunities to move around the room during instruction, has been a popular trend for some time now. Some teachers implement flexible seating with just a few bean bags or a couch on one side of the room, while others opt to completely rehaul their rooms with multiple stations incorporating low and high tables, stools, rugs and more.

Companies like Smith System specialize in flexible seating and have developed innovative products like the Oodle Stool, a movement-optional, height-adjustable stool system that allows students to switch between flat sitting and rocking.

Active seating represents another option for those who want to encourage movement in the classroom. As opposed to flexible seating, which emphasizes student choice, active seating is defined by use of chairs or stools that permit physical movement even in a seated position. Classroom-ready models of popular standing desks such as ErgoTron’s LearnFit are one available option. Schools can also select from a variety of wobble stools, ball chairs, standing furniture and more offered by companies that specialize in active-movement furniture, like teacher-led and founded WittFitt.

The upsides to both flexible and active seating systems are that the small bursts of activity they provide, like standing and shifting positions during instruction, can help students to remain focused.

Flexible and active seating is a great start but aging infrastructure may make it necessary to rethink entire school buildings or campuses. This is where larger-scale building renovations, or in some cases new building construction, come into play.

According to Building Design and Construction, modern school architecture is designed for collaboration, and “the idea that teachers individually ‘own’ a space is counterproductive to that end goal.” Rather than designate separate spaces for teachers in different subjects, leading design firms are designing flexible spaces meant to be used for multiple purposes, as DLR Group did at Wainwright Intermediate School.

Flexible spaces support the cross-curricular and collaboration-focused work expected of today’s students. Meanwhile, “typical, single-use rooms like cafeteria and libraries, […] are being designed to function as hybrid theaters, makerspaces, and media centers” according to Edutopia.

When beginning to research classroom design upgrades, adopting a design thinking perspective is an excellent starting point. Design thinking is a method that stakeholders can use to carve a path forward when making high-level decisions about school and classroom renovation. Rather than make sweeping changes from the top down, leaders can instead begin by making smaller changes and gathering feedback about what changes make the most sense.

As one a St. Louis art teacher reported to EdSurge News, “the power of design thinking is about the user and taking an iterative approach.” One step at a time, leaders can make classrooms better-suited to learning the skills that tomorrow’s leaders need to succeed.

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