When we think of learning environments, we often think of how the desks and tables in a classroom are configured. That’s an important consideration, but it’s not the only factor affecting student success. How the design of these items makes users feel emotionally also is critical—and this can have a big impact on achievement.
How students respond emotionally to the sensory input they get from desks, chairs, and other elements in their environment is just as important as their physical comfort. Factors such as color and texture can affect a student’s mood significantly, and decades of research suggests this can influence a student’s ability to focus or succeed—for better or for worse.
Researchers Kristi S. Gaines and Zane D. Curry from Texas Tech University summarized a number of studies about the effects of color on students’ emotions and academic performance in a 2011 paper titled “The Effects of Color on Learning and Behavior
“Color is a powerful design element that produces profound psychological and physiological reactions,” they wrote. “Studies have shown a relationship between color preferences, emotions, and academic performance in students.”
However, because color affects different types of students in different ways, it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions about which colors are best for which types of learning environments, Gaines and Curry wrote.
Similarly, the fabrics and materials that a piece of furniture is made from also play an important role in whether students are comfortable both physically and emotionally—and therefore whether they are learning to their full potential.
“There are a lot of children coming to school who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders or special needs, and many of them can be heavily affected by the different textures that are in classrooms,” says elementary school teacher Erin Klein
, who studied interior design in college before entering the classroom.
Because children react to different colors or textures in different ways, it’s important for schools to offer furniture with a wide variety of colors and textures.
“Just like when we personalize instruction—the more ways we teach, the more students we reach—the more furniture options we have, the more accommodating we will be to our students,” Klein notes.
The way the furniture in a classroom is set up can have a significant effect on both how students learn and how much they learn, studies suggest.
How a classroom space is designed shapes the kinds of learning that happen there, writes Nancy Van Note Chism in Learning Spaces
. For example, “a room with rows of tablet arm chairs facing an instructor’s desk in front of chalkboards conveys the pedagogical approach: ‘I talk or demonstrate; you listen or observe,’” she writes. On the other hand, “a room of square tables with a chair on each side conveys the importance of teamwork and interaction to learning.”
or tables so that students are facing the teacher at the front of the room works well for direct instruction, because it focuses students’ attention on what the teacher has to say. Arranging desks or tables in a large circle or “U” shape makes whole group discussion easier, because every student can see every other student in the class. Arranging desks or tables in small groups, with three or four students facing each other, facilitates small group interaction and collaboration.
Because there will be times when teachers will want to use each of these strategies in their classrooms
, flexibility is critical when designing learning spaces, Van Note Chism observes.“
A group of learners should be able to move from listening to one speaker…to working in groups…to working independently,” she writes. “While specialized places for each kind of activity…can accommodate each kind of work, the flow of activities is often immediate. It makes better sense to construct spaces capable of quick reconfiguration to support different kinds of activities [using] moveable tables and chairs.”
A 2013 study
by the University of Salford in England confirmed that classroom design can have a 25% impact, either positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year—and flexibility (defined as how easily a classroom’s furniture could be rearranged for a variety of activities and teaching approaches) was one of six key environmental factors that showed the most effect.
A decade of research from the national nonprofit group Project Tomorrow
tells us that students want access to anytime, anywhere learning opportunities through the use of mobile digital devices. And K-12 leaders have responded in kind, with a growing number of schools creating mobile and digital learning environments. But this shift has important implications for how we design learning spaces to support more agile learning.
Three-fourths of students believe that every student should have access to a mobile device during the school day to support their learning, according to Project Tomorrow’s latest SpeakUp survey results
. Many already have such access: 50 percent of students say they frequently use a mobile device to look up information in class.
Meanwhile, teachers are using more digital content in their classrooms than ever before, the survey reveals
. Sixty-eight percent of teachers say they use videos in their instruction, 48 percent say they use digital games, 36 percent use online curriculum, and 27 percent use animations. All of those figures show increases over the prior year.
In short, learning is becoming more mobile, multimodal, and technology-rich. It’s also becoming more social, as teachers assign collaborative group projects to help their students develop important 21st-century skills—and K-12 leaders must redesign their learning spaces
to reflect these powerful shifts.
Students need more agile learning environments that support communication, collaboration, and multiple forms of learning, such as furniture on wheels that easily can be moved around and reconfigured to support various classroom activities. They also need readily accessible power sources to recharge their laptops, tablets, Chromebooks,and other digital devices.
Paragon’s classroom furniture is designed to be reconfigured easily to support many different teaching and learning styles, and many of these products are manufactured with power supplies seamlessly integrated into their design—allowing for the creation of highly agile learning environments.
The traditional classroom setup, with rows of desks facing forward, worked fine when
lecturing was the main form of instruction. But as more schools have shifted from a teacher-centric to a student-centric approach to learning, the design of K-12 learning spaces is evolving as well.
“New kinds of learning require different approaches to classroom design,” said Leslie Wilson, founder and chief executive officer of the nonprofit One-to-One Institute
, which advises schools on the use of technology to transform instruction.
Aided by mobile technologies, students are working together in groups to solve problems or challenges, Wilson said. They’re working independently with adaptive online software that tailors the lessons to meet their needs. They’re making movie trailers, designing photo books, or creating other artifacts to demonstrate their learning.
And the environments in which they perform these tasks must be flexible enough to support this more active, collaborative style of learning. For this reason, many schools have begun integrating furniture that students and teachers can move around easily and put together in various configurations to accommodate different groupings and activities.
Want to rethink the design of learning spaces in your own schools, but you’re not sure where to begin? Here are four suggestions.
1. Visit other schools.
Wilson recommends visiting other schools to get ideas for what
is possible.“Touch it, see, it, and visualize it,” she said. “You’ve got to see the space in your mind in order tocreate it.”
2. Ask students what they want.
“Kids like being able to have a choice in where and how they learn,” said elementary school educator Erin Klein, who studied interior design in college and now writes and speaks
about K-12 learning spaces. Klein has several conversations with her students about the type of learning environment they want, then sets about creating it in her
3. Focus on the learning goals.
“Build learning spaces based on what you want kids to be able to do,” Wilson said. For instance, if you want students to be able to create artifacts using technology, you’ll need aspace for creating—complete with the tools they’ll need to do this work.
4. Consider power supplies.
How are you going to power up students’ digital devices? “Make sure you have enough power outlets to support recharging,” Wilson said. For instance, Paragon builds power supplies directly into many of its student tables and seating.