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Redesigning Learning Spaces & Flexible Seating

By John Camp, English Department Head

Redesigning Learning Spaces & Flexible Seating

from The Space: A Guide for Educators (Hare & Dillon, 2016)

As difficult as it may sometimes be to relinquish the manacles of some tradition(s) in education, I have focused on a main mantra when considering change: what is best for students and learning. Thus, driven by this guiding principle and my teaching methods, I decided to pursue a critical trend in 21st-century teaching and learning: the importance of space, flexible seating, and classroom design. The rub, however, was my particular classroom; since I arrived at St. Mark’s in 2008, I have been fortunate to teach in Room 8/Room 136, which historically had been the “Sixth Form Room” until 1995 (read the partner piece to this article on the history of this room here). Hence, making changes to the “seminar” classroom would be bold, as the beginning move would be removing the large, classic seminar classroom table that has been a fixture since 1995. When I teach, I do not often lecture (if at all), and while seminar-esque discussion is a crucial element of my classes, it certainly is not the only element. In all of my classes (VI Form electives “Getting LOST,” “Getting LOST II: The Writers’ Room,” “Rebels with a Cause,” and V Form English class “Books Without Borders”), students work in small and medium groups, write on their own, present to the class, do activities that include movement and interaction, utilize media, collaborate on writing and projects, watch videos/films, brainstorm and note take on the whiteboards, and conference one-on-one with me (see images below for most of these activities in action!). The large oval table was not conducive to quality student learning in these endeavors.  My first stop en route to change was John Warren.

As an alumnus (1974) and Head of School, John Warren obviously has deep stakes in St. Mark’s as an individual as well as a leader. Although I am certain the tug of tradition and history were challenges to John in his decision process, he carefully considered my proposal/objectives and agreed on the redesign for the classroom. John demonstrated his leadership by also seeing this project as an opportunity: to utilize the redesign as an experimental prototype for classrooms in a potential future “Humanities and Social Science Center.” My classroom is now a laboratory for elements to be considered when renovating Humanities’ rooms. John connected me with Bob Meyer (Director of Finance and Business Operations at St. Mark’s) and Madaline Hale, (Senior Associate/Director of Interior Design

Draft of ARC Renderings

at Architectural Resources Cambridge {ARC}). Madaline and her team devoted time to several meetings with Bob and me, which included an essential aspect of 21st-century classroom design: student voice. We listened to students’ views on their use of the space as well as their opinions on the sample furniture that was being considered. As with any professional and expert design (and any good artifact of student learning!), revisions and revisions and revisions of the design were developed to arrive at the final configuration. Honestly, when I first had the idea of redesigning the room, I thought that we would maybe just swap out the table with more mobile furniture. Madaline and her colleagues introduced me to the complexity, depth, and inspiration of space design, and I am so grateful to have been able to work with them as they made ideas into a vibrant reality.

Core elements of the design:

*Eight-section mobile table (the ‘seminar’ table construction when all arranged together, yet ability to be split apart as needed); the tables are wood-styled to tie into the rich paneling and wood of the walls and ceiling; one table is a white board that can be tilted if needed; (and my V Form class discovered that all the tables can be written on with dry-erase markers and clean off beautifully!)

*Main chairs are sturdy but with “give” and slight bounce

*A mobile, adjustable “bar” table with three stools, for students who like to stand or prefer a higher perspective

*Comfortable additional seating: two couches, three lounge-chairs, with accompanying accent tables at appropriate height for that seating

*Window-seat cushions for the gorgeous windows that look out onto the VI Form quad

*Three mobile white boards (in addition to the large white board and small black dry erase board already present on the walls)

*A sleeker, lighter television and mobile cart, with sound bar, DVD/BluRay player, and Apple TV for mirroring and AirPlay from my computer/devices as well as students

*A mobile storage cart for teacher supplies but that also doubles as a podium

*Three power stations in different areas of the room for easier power access for student devices

*Wall-to-wall carpeting (although this was disappointing to replace the Oriental rug, the carpet is necessary for the smooth transition of the mobile furniture in its myriad uses)

Current research and data support this endeavor. The following are just a few samples of the thinking:

*Kevin Ryan, 21st Century Learning Director in Illinois: “Our data in year one showed that 1.) Teachers love lots (LOTS!) of board space; 2.) Students collaborate in a multimedia environment throughout the classrooms and 3.) Mobile furniture maximizes group flexibility and minimizes the loss of instructional time.”

*Erin Klein, 2nd grade teacher and Scholastic Inc. Top Teaching Team member: “By creating an environment that is brain-friendly for students, you also touch on many more of the brain-body compatible elements such as allowing for a safe space for reflective thinking, movement around the room, choice by students, and ease of collaboration. Therefore, it is imperative never to overlook the impact of your learning space—nor to overlook how students should be involved in that process.”

*Kayla Delzer, teacher and TEDx/international speaker on ‘Reimagining Classroom‘: “Everything I do in my classroom is based on research and best practices for kids. Redesigning my classroom was not any different. I’ve found that some of the immediate benefits of flexible seating include burning more calories, using up excess energy, improving metabolism, increased motivation and engagement, creating a better oxygen flow to the brain, and improving core strength and overall posture. It’s no surprise that physical activity is linked to higher academic performance, better health, and improved behavior. In fact, a paper by Matthew T. Mahar, et al (PDF) finds that: ‘Simple in-class activities can boost performance. Studies suggest that children who participate in short bouts of physical activity within the classroom have more on-task behavior, with the best improvement seen in students who are least on-task initially.’ I have a strong conviction that simply swapping out desks for tables doesn’t ensure higher motivation, engagement, or accountability. Redesigning a classroom or implementing unassigned flexible seating is a shift in both structure and teaching philosophy — an entire mindset shift. In fact, teachers need a keen intuition about where the students are working and their level of engagement at all times. We must be willing to give up the power of the seating chart and truly hand over the responsibility of seating choices to our students. I’ve found that the more power I give up in our classroom, the more power I get back. I’ve also noticed that it helps my students become more self-aware of what types of seating and environment help them learn best. And they’re empowered by the opportunity to have choices.”

The image at the top of this article is from the 2016 book called The Space: A Guide for Educators by Rebecca Hare and Robert Dillon (strongly recommend!); it reinforces many of the essential points that were the drivers of the redesign:  the five major tenets of classroom design in the book are 1. Students as co-designers; 2. Spaces to collaborate; 3. Spaces to create; 4. Spaces to showcase learning; 5. Spaces for quiet. All of these are addressed in the redesign of Room 8/136, and I am thrilled to utilize the room to continue to foster and to improve my innovation in teaching and learning. Granted, some of the historic tradition of the room changed, yet future St. Markers will look back at their learning experience with an appreciation for this moment in St. Mark’s history.

John Camp (@gettinglostcamp) is the English Department Head. He holds a B.A. in English from Middlebury College and an M.A.L.S. from Dartmouth College. He is Associate Director of the Center–Student Enrichment and is the creator and faculty editor of LEO. He lives on campus with his wife Tara and their three children, Grady (10), Joss (8), and Desmond (4), their two Westies (Simon & Mick), and their two greyhounds (Jody & Hurley).

Works Cited

Delzer, Kayla. “Flexible Seating and Student-Centered Classroom Redesign.” Edutopia, 22 Apr. 2016, http://www.edutopia.org/blog/flexible-seating-student-centered-classroom-kayla-delzer?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=cpc. Accessed 28 April 2017.

Hare, Rebecca Louise, and Robert Dillon. The Space: a Guide for Educators. Irvine, CA, EdTechTeam Press, 2016.

Klein, Erin. “10+ Tips for Using Brain Based Methods to Redesign Your Classroom (EdSurge News).” EdSurge, EdSurge, 10 July 2016, http://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-03-01-10-tips-for-using-brain-based-methods-to-redesign-your-classroom. Accessed 21 Mar. 2017.

Ryan, Kevin. “5 Big Takeaways from Redesigning Learning Spaces.” ESchool News, ESchool News: Daily Tech News & Innovation, 1 Feb. 2017, http://www.eschoolnews.com/2017/02/02/redesigning-learning-spaces/. Accessed 21 Mar. 2017.


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