Educators, Designers Look to Change Traditional Classroom Furniture

18 July, 2019

For much of the past hundred years, classrooms have been designed with the teacher seated in front of desks for students. The desks are almost always positioned in lines facing the teacher.

But many educators now say children can do better in a less structured learning environment. And designers have been providing spaces and seating to meet those suggestions.

Students Sean Aitchison, left, and Alex Aguilar study for their final exams at the newly-renovated Oviatt Library on the Cal State Northridge campus in Los Angeles on Thursday, May 12, 2016. The facility underwent a five-year renovation that included flex
Students Sean Aitchison, left, and Alex Aguilar study for their final exams at the newly-renovated Oviatt Library on the Cal State Northridge campus in Los Angeles on Thursday, May 12, 2016. The facility underwent a five-year renovation that included flex

Bob Pearlman works as an education consultant in the United States. He helps teachers and school administrators with educational planning and other issues. He told The Associated Press that traditional classrooms are a thing of the past. Now students work in "extended learning areas" that include project-planning rooms, workrooms, and laboratories, as well as learning spaces for groups and individuals.

Pearlman points to Albemarle County Public Schools, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The school system invited teams from all its schools to develop learning spaces that would help students deal with complex ideas and work on creative building projects. Now, its elementary school classes have exchanged traditional desks for things like soft seating and connectable tables.

Another change to the design of classrooms is the ability to connect to the internet.

"Classrooms, libraries, and [laboratories] used to be the only spaces where students spent their school hours. Wireless, laptops and project learning have changed that," Pearlman said. He noted that this has made all school spaces into possible extended learning areas.

Jo Earp is with Teacher magazine, a publication of the nonprofit Australian Council for Educational Research. She notes that in the 1970s, American Robert Sommer was urging a critical look at traditional classroom designs. Sommer was a psychologist. He believed that in any given room, the lighting or heating will be better in some places than in others.

Earp said that in addition to newer "freeform" classroom designs, some teachers can find good results with designs that combine new and old ideas. They could try lining up desks at the start of the year and then placing them in groups as the classroom relationships become clearer and project work begins.

Natural light, reduced outside noise and good air quality are all considerations in classroom design, says Aaron Jobson. He is with the Quattrocchi Kwok Architects in Santa Rosa, California.

"More and more evidence connects the physical environment to learning outcomes," Jobson said.

New designs include glass walls inside buildings and doors that increase connectedness among students and create more open space for teachers.

A major supporter of nontraditional, explorative learning spaces is David Thornburg, who wrote the book "From the Campfire to the Holodeck." He says schools should provide spaces based on how humans learn. That could mean one room is used in different ways at different times, or in different ways at the same time.

Loren Myers teaches at a public charter school in San Jose, California. She says redesigning traditional schools can be costly, and teachers do not have big budgets. So she noted that many teachers get creative with what little money they have to create a specially designed classroom.

In her class, Myers set up a space where students can calm down and a special workplace for students who demonstrate good behavior.

Over the years, famous designers have lent their abilities to school furniture — among them, Jean Prouve, Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen. Today, classroom furniture includes all kinds of seating, with work tables of different heights.

Imagine Charter Schools, which operates schools in nine U.S. states, offers colorful seating that turns in different directions and other soft seating. Montessori schools have soft lighting similar to home environments, and simpler furniture than traditional classrooms.

Marianne Box is a design specialist at school-furniture maker Hertz Furniture, in Ramsey, New Jersey. She says movable pieces are big sellers at the company. They are designed to help control children's energy levels, and give them places to center their attention.

Self-contained study areas have power supplies for computers, footrests and armrests.

Teacher Loren Myers loves that designers are coming up with more seating choices for young students.

"Children shouldn't be expected to sit still in a chair for more than 20 minutes at a time," she says. "Sometimes it's as simple as switching where and how you sit that can set the tone for the rest of your day."

I'm ­Pete Musto.

Kim Cook reported this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

What changes are schools in your country making to their classroom designs? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

desk(s) – n. a piece of furniture that is like a table and often has drawers

elementary school n. a school in the U.S. for young children

librariesn. places where books, magazines, and other materials, such as videos and musical recordings, are available for people to use or borrow

laptop(s) – n. a small computer that is designed to be easily carried

psychologistn. a scientist who specializes in the study and treatment of the mind and behavior

outcome(s) – n. something that happens as a result of an activity or process

charter schooln. a school that is established by a document issued by a government that gives rights to a person or group, is run by teachers and parents, and uses tax money but does not have to be run according to the rules of a city or state

furnituren. chairs, tables, or beds that are used to make a room ready for use

tonen. the general quality of a place or situation