Design Principles for the 21st-Century Classroom

Universal, one-size-fits-all classrooms cannot match the demands of the 21st century. Instead, campus planners and administrators should consider a range of solutions to fit different academic disciplines, faculty and student needs, and administrative requirements. The best way to provide that range is with a flexible learning environment. Here are some of the design principles Steelcase has developed for these innovative classrooms.

1. Design for multiple rhythms in the same classroom.
Classrooms should support easy transitions to different learning modes, offer different zones for varied activities and that support the constructivist pedagogy being adopted by many educators, and its five phases: engage, explore, explain, evaluate, and extend. "Learning styles vary by age, gender, and country of origin," noted researcher Elise Valoe, design researcher at Grand Rapids, MI-based Steelcase, Inc. “It's critical that the classroom has the flexibility to support the different ways people learn."

Sam Miller, AIA, CEFPI, LEED-AP, a principal at Klipp, a Denver-based architecture firm, offers an example of classroom flexibility in Skyline High School, Longmont, CO. “We’re just finishing this project,” he observes. “Our focus group discussions centered on flexibility and more student-centered learning. The way we accomplished that was by not installing fixed casework, as well as by installing as many writing surfaces on all four walls in a classroom as possible. This allows teachers to set up their classrooms based on the curriculum and even the day or semester or year.”

Similarly, Insights, a publication of Charlotte, NC-based VS Furniture, notes that flexible furniture solutions have the versatility to meet a variety of classroom possibilities and learning needs, including hands-on projects in small groups, large group discussions, whole group presentations, student presentation and performance, and individual student work.

2. Allow everyone to be seen and heard.

It is not only possible to make every seat in the house the best seat, it’s important to teaching and learning. Students shouldn’t have to crane their necks or twist around in their seats to see content on the board. They need adequate horizontal work surfaces for tools, technology, and materials, and they need vertical work surfaces for sharing information. Instructors should have visual and physical access to every student, and students need similar access to course content and other students.

3. Take advantage of new media.
When it comes to technology, students and instructors have one thing in common: they learn from their peers. Gen Y students are digital natives, comfortable living with new technology. Instructors tend to be digital adopters and need to incorporate technology into their curricula, as well as integrate knowledge of student thinking and learning, subject content, and knowledge of technology. It’s a tall order, yet facilitated by integrating mixed media that can be used easily by both students and instructors.

Steelcase research shows people collaborate and learn more effectively if information is democratized and shared equally and easily. Creating spaces that shift the dynamic from a presenter-led discussion to a group discussion where everyone can participate and share information enhances collaboration. As a result of the research, the company developed media:scape, which incorporates technology in the furniture and allows users to quickly connect their laptops or mobile devices and switch back and forth between multiple users.

Technology discussions are also happening in the classroom design studio. “We’ve had some interesting conversations with administrators and teachers,” says Miller, “regarding the use of interactive whiteboards. If you do use them, they’re typically mounted on the wall, and that limits flexibility with the rest of the classroom. You can achieve greater flexibility with a laptop and small projector and wireless access to the Internet.”

4. Provide seating that supports active learning.
When a student enters a classroom and sees row-by-column seating, observed Dr. Lennie Scott-Webber, IIDA, IDEC, NCIDQ, Interior Design & Fashion Department professor and chair at Radford University in Virginia, and a consultant for IN_sync: Education Design Consulting, he says to himself, “Oh, I just have to sit here and takes notes. Nothing more is expected of me.” “Our world is too complex and we can no longer think that way,” she said. “If a student enters a classroom and sees an innovative layout, he realizes that something different is going to happen and he has permission to participate. It takes past expectations and throws them out the window and allows both faculty and students to say, ‘I know there’s a different behavior expected of me,’ and that a good thing.”

Innovative layouts can’t happen when students struggle to move fixed tablet arm chairs when it's time for interactive learning. Tablet arm desks are too heavy, glides don't glide, and many students simply give up trying to maneuver into a true, collaborative seating arrangement.

Helping to fill this need, Steelcase design researchers created a chair that better supports social and active learning. It's designed for quick and easy transitions between learning modes, with an adjustable work surface that lets students of all sizes and shapes feel comfortable and a base that doubles as a storage shelf.

Also keep in mind that not every classroom can boast flexibility. There is always going to be a need for the auditorium and lecture hall as part of the instructional strategy, and these spaces simply cannot accommodate flexibility and collaboration. “Nor do you necessarily want a great deal of movement when the educational style is lecture,” said Deb McDermott, director of Marketing for Grand Rapids, MI-based American Seating. However, these spaces can be designed with comfortable, low-maintenance seating that is easy to clean around.

It’s clear that a transition to a more contemporary classroom design that meets the needs of today’s learners is underway. For the transition to continue to move forward, more time and effort is required. This includes listening and participation on the part of designers and architects; research, design, and performance measurement on the part of furniture manufacturers; and willingness on the part of instructors and administrators. The transition will ultimately result in greater student engagement and better learning outcomes, thus earning an A+.

Compiled using research from Steelcase and other educational furniture providers by Ellen Kollie.

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