Flexible spaces aim to get students comfortable enough to learn
Julie Beaver knows that her math classes at Zimmerman Middle/High School might not be a student’s favorite place to be, but in the last few years, she has tried to make her room a comfortable space to learn.
Beaver is one of the many Minnesota educators who have started exploring flexible learning spaces, by trying non-traditional classroom seating and room configurations.
Research on the growing trend is still limited, but a 2012 study from the University of Minnesota found a 48 percent increase in a student’s participation in classroom discussions when they are in a more collaborative seating arrangement versus a traditional lecture-style setting. That study also found improvements on a student's performance on standardized tests.
But educators warn that it is not just about how you furnish your classroom, but also how you change the way you interact with your students in the space.
“The furniture helps a ton, but if I were to teach exactly the same way with cool furniture that does me no good,” said Beaver. “I don’t have to be the person lecturing in the front all the time. It didn’t work really well in desks all the time either.”
“Overall, it’s less about the furniture and more about offering students voice and choice and including them in the design process,” said Tom Deris, an elementary teacher in Prior Lake-Savage who loops second and third grades. “The success of this model does rely heavily on student ideas and interest and understanding that each group of kids is different.”
“Even when I had desks, I tried to make my classroom very collaborative,” said Mindy Christianson, a high school English teacher in Fergus Falls. “But the desks were getting in the way of conversations or getting into small groups.”
Beaver, Deris and Christianson shared some of their philosophies around flexible learning spaces and how they set up their rooms.
Christianson’s administration told her they would not purchase any non-traditional seating or equipment, but she was welcome to purchase or receive donations to furnish her classroom on her own.
Beaver and Deris also have outfitted their spaces on their own, with approval from their administrators.
“My philosophy is don’t buy 24 of everything. Buy eight of this. Buy 10 of this,” said Deris. “I had kids tell me don’t do that or I don’t want that. When I got my tables, my kids helped me with the research.”
Christianson set up seven different learning zones.
“I spent the summer scouring Facebook marketplace, using wish list money from my district foundation and spending my own money,” she said. “I have a traditional area and library. There’s a bean bag area and a couple lounge-like areas.”
Christianson said she also had some trial and error when came to the types of seats that would hold up to high school students' use all day.
Beaver has received all of her furnishings from donations.
“I put out a couple pictures of what my classroom was starting to look like and more people started donating,” she said. “I got bar stools, a coffee table, a craft table, two kitchen tables and a ton of comfortable chairs. I have 40 yoga mats, as well. Kids can sit on those, and we do some stretches when we all need a break.”
For Deris, it’s about making the spaces personal for the students so they can find what suits their learning style.
“I wanted to create personal space for students to concentrate and do their best work,” he said.
Deris also reminds other educators that modifying your classroom also requires a lot storage and organization. He keeps some desks available in the hallway, and uses supply bins and lap desks for some of the seating options.
“It has to be functional and create an ease of space,” Deris said. “The room has to be structured, but within the structure is flexibility.”
Beaver and Christianson both kept some desks for students who wanted them.
Deris believes that students need to have ownership in the classroom’s set up.
“I set up the room based on what last year’s looked like. I pull in all the regular chairs. I put up my flexible furniture,” he said. “I do two weeks of community building, getting the kids to know each other. I make seven rotations. You have to try every section of flexible seating at least for one day. I have them write down their top three choices. After they have all experienced the room, we talk about what works and what doesn’t.”
Beaver says she does surveys to check in with students on their seating choices.
“There were always kids who wanted to sit at desks. There were always kids who wanted to sit at the dining room table,” she said. “I haven’t really had any issues with classroom management, because they know if they can’t handle it, they don’t get to use it.”
Christianson lets her students choose their own seats, and saw it contributing to a positive classroom climate. But she does monitor how students are using the spaces.
“It doesn’t work perfectly for everyone,” she said. “Ninth graders ended up getting assigned seats, but are earning back the freedom to choose. Really, the rules are the same than with desks.”
Christianson also changes the seating depending on the curriculum.
“I put the bean bags away when we’re doing speeches,” she said.
Beaver’s students have had nothing but positive reactions.
“The kids love it,” Beaver said. “When they come in at open house, their eyes get really big. I have complete buy-in and parent support. Once they saw it, I got four or five more donations from parents after they saw what I was going for.”
Christianson said that she has only had positive feedback.
“The students were super excited about it right from the get-go,” she said. “Kids that I don’t have will come in and say they want to be in my class.”
Deris says he has seen behaviors improve.
“It’s more about kids understanding who they are as learners. They know I need to go sit at this desk, or on this project, I need to work with somebody,” he said. “I have seen a lot of friendships blossom. Kids are building more community this way. Kids are reflecting more on their own styles and traits.”
(Top) Julie Beaver has outfitted her high school math classroom with non-traditional furniture, completely from community donations.
(Middle) Tom Deris asks his students to help him decide what types of seating his elementary classroom will have each year, and they move around and manipulate the space depending on students’ needs.
(Bottom) Students in Mindy Christianson’s high school English classes sit in one of seven different learning zones, which she has furnished on her own. Christianson has seen an increase in collaborative learning since switching to flexible learning spaces.