By Kylie Wroblaski
Even as teaching and learning styles have become less rigid, it turns out that what students learn in school has remained relatively consistent throughout the years-foundational subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic unfortunately leave little wiggle room in the curriculum.
The good news is that the desks and chairs that make up students' days are adapting to allow for a little more wiggle. Spurred on by new technologies and a growing emphasis on collaboration in the classroom, manufacturers are creating durable, flexible furnishings that promise to keep students engaged and energized throughout the day.
"As education practices are refined over time, designers and facility managers will be challenged to create learning environments that respond to the unique needs of students and faculty," says Shawn Green, KI's vice president of design and product marketing.
TRADITIONAL DESKS ARE HISTORY
The most conventional of all teaching methods remains the lecture, where the teacher speaks at the front of the class while students listen, take notes and work quietly by themselves. It's been an educational standard for centuries, and is relatively easy to support with rows of traditional desks all facing toward the front of the room. But things are changing quickly. Laptops and tablets are no longer unique sights in classrooms (with some school systems going as far as adopting "one laptop, one child" policies), and new teaching pedagogies are replacing lecture-style lessons with collaborative exercises and active learning. And while research supports these new teaching and learning methods, the furniture often fails to make the grade.
Steelcase noticed this problem when it began researching classroom seating seven years ago.
"A lot of the classrooms we've gone into could have been created 50 to 100 years ago, with seating lined up row-by-column, students seated and looking at the backs of the heads in front of them, listening to the teacher lecture," says Sean Corcorran, general manager of education solutions at Steelcase. "What we saw was at odds with what we've learned about the active learning environment. As pedagogies have changed, the classroom wasn't changing."
The growth of active learning environments has driven the need for more flexibility and mobility. Teachers need the ability to shift seamlessly between lecture, group work and presentations without large disruptions; the existing paradigm of row-by-column seating with heavy chairs in a static layout takes time to rearrange, is noisy, and generally disrupts the flow of the class.
SEATING THAT WORKS WELL WITH OTHERS
Manufacturers and designers alike are realizing that seating products need to do more than just keep students pointed at the front of the classroom-they need to allow students to work with their peers.
"Current education practices place a higher emphasis on student engagement within the classroom, which impacts the ways spaces are designed," Green says. "This requires new approaches to product design."
According to Bill Risdall, vice president of marketing for Smith Systems, traditional desk designs can stifle collaborative learning due to their restrictive nature. "They were doing collaborative learning 20 years ago but they didn't have furniture to accommodate it, so it was a struggle," he explains. "A lot of students were left out because they had a hard time engaging with the whole thought process-not the collaborative process, but the way the room was arranged didn't really allow them to participate."
To promote a more active learning style, modern seating systems are integrating a bevy of collaboration-friendly features. Flat seat pans allow students to shift from side-to-side, and sit sideways or backwards in chairs; some systems, such as Steelcase's Node and KI's Learn2, incorporate a swivel function, allowing for increased visual engagement between students, as well as casters, which facilitate movement for impromptu group sessions.
But it's not just the seats that are changing-desk surfaces are also shifting to adapt to the new paradigm of classroom collaboration. Students now often work in groups of three to five, but facing each other is difficult with traditional rectangular desks. The desks don't easily fit together and are difficult to move, which can limit the amount of eye contact and engagement. "10 years ago it was rectangles-now it's arc shapes, diamond shapes, wing shapes and different things that kids can group around," Risdall says.
PAINTING WITH A FULL PALETTE
Schools are now taking the overall design and visual appeal of classroom products into consideration, which means that the colors used in classrooms are becoming more important. Studies have found that the use of color, even subtly, engages and promotes thought processes, attracts and retains students' attention, and helps create a less institutional look and feel in the classroom.
Designers, in turn, have begun extending the vibrant colors already found on the walls and floors of many schools to the very seats students sit on.
"Architects and interior designers are starting to get involved a lot more-in the past it was often a purchasing agent who would just buy the same dark chairs, but that's going away," Risdall says.
While classic colors like navy, black and dark gray remain popular choices, other colors like bright reds and greens are making their way into classrooms around the country. Smith Systems currently offers 17 different colors ranging from pastels and neutrals to bright pinks, cerulean blues and apple greens. Steelcase's Node was launched with 12 colors-the most colors ever launched with a plastic seat shell.
SOLVING FOR THE CLASSROOMS OF TOMORROW
Classroom furniture is going to continue to evolve and grow-just like the students who occupy it. Technology will continue to have an impact on educational furniture design, and both manufacturers and designers will need to find innovative ways to bridge the analog worlds of books and paper with a fully digital future.
"The electronic device is going to take over the books pretty soon-we've got quite a few schools that already have 1:1 [student-to-computer ratio] and that's the way it's going to go," Risdall says. "They'll still need a desk for a writing surface, but it will be less and less of a book issue."
In short, it's an exciting, if uncertain, time for educational spaces. The rapid pace of change in technology makes it difficult to forecast how students will be learning in the future. Video conferencing and distance learning are already taking place directly in the classroom, and it's conceivable that students will be regularly collaborating on projects with remote partners, even though their classmates may be seated nearby. Without a crystal ball, a designer's best bet is to create engaging, flexible and multi-modal spaces that allow students and teachers to do what works best.
"If you really want students and faculty permission to act differently in the classroom, you have to give permission," says Corcorran. "If you want to give permission to act differently, you want to design in a way that demonstrates they can act differently, and you want to use products that are designed to feel like they can be used in a broader way."