Flexible Classrooms: Rearrange for Better Learning?
Ashlee Tripp’s classroom looks more like a library lounge for teens than a serious place to get academic work done. There are strings of twinkling lights framing walls and bookcases, a couple of bright blue Adirondack chairs, and a cozy seating area complete with a wrap-around couch that looks well loved.
Needless to say, this is not your typical high-school English classroom. And yet, Tripp is a Colorado teacher of English Language Arts classes, including sections of Advanced Placement courses—so, presumably, lots of real work does get done here, although students may be lounging on the couch while they do it.
Tripp's classroom doesn't look like this by accident; rather, she has taken the flexible classroom plunge. Indeed, in a 2018 blog post for the online education site Edutopia, Tripp described herself as an unusual adoptee of the movement to shake up traditional learning spaces. “If you asked my coworkers to describe me, they probably wouldn’t arrive at the word flexible,” she admitted before going on to declare herself an organized, rules-driven teacher. Yet as the number of students in her classes kept going up, she felt compelled to try something new—and the fact that her school district provided a $1,000 grant for teachers interested in redesigning their classrooms served as additional motivation.
Ultimately, Tripp created a “space where kids wanted to hang out and read” in a more relaxed atmosphere than might be associated with a traditional classroom. And despite her long-standing penchant for schedules and structure, she admitted that this more flexible approach is working. Greater collaboration among students and improved cohesion with her preferred discussion-based teaching methods are just a couple of the benefits she's seen so far.
The flex effect
Another post on Edutopia seeks to answer this question: “Can flexible learning spaces boost student achievement?” In a short video, Edutopia researchers argue that the answer is yes because flexible classrooms (in other words, classrooms where desks are not static and students are encouraged to move around and get comfortable) can offer a quicker way for “individual and group needs” to be met.
As highlighted in the video, when furniture can easily be rearranged, teachers can more readily employ a host of teaching strategies, including direct instruction, small group work, and one-on-one assistance. That’s not all, though. The Edutopia researchers maintain that teaching itself has to be flexible and adaptive in nature to make a real difference in student learning.
A guide to flexible classrooms from the California Department of Education echoes this very point. After all, schools today are typically expected to prepare students for a dynamic economy and society where creativity, collaboration, and a diversity of perspectives are valued. According to the guide, “To optimize 21st-century teaching methods such as project-based learning and personalized instruction, space should be adaptable to allow multiple learning activities to occur simultaneously.” The document goes on to outline the five key principles that should be reflected in flexible classroom design:
Fluidity: How easy is it for people and things, including sound and air, to move through the classroom?
Versatility: Can the space easily accommodate multiple uses?
Convertibility: Can educational spaces be easily turned into something new, as needed?
Scalability: Can the space be either expanded or shrunk easily?
Modifiability: Does the space “invite active manipulation and appropriation”?
Minnesota school district enjoys flex success
These principles appear to be on display in classrooms across the Hopkins, Minnesota, school district, which serves a suburb just outside Minneapolis that is composed of an economically and racially diverse student population. In a 2017 article published in a local newspaper, reporter Sabina Badola documented the increasing presence of flexible classrooms in Hopkins schools.
A picture accompanying Badola’s story depicts a group of elementary-school students stretching out on large, round cushions set atop a colorful rug while others sit together at a low table. All appear engaged with a book or other reading material.
As quoted in the article, third-grade teacher Justin Ingraham is an advocate for making the move to “swap out” desks with assigned seating for a classroom designed to encourage movement, group work, and adaptability. More specifically, Ingraham reported wanting his students to “have the freedom to roam freely around the classroom and choose the best way to learn—whether that be sitting, standing, or lying down on the floor.” Ingraham described initially making use of whatever he could find on-site to make his classroom more flexible until a grant from a local education foundation allowed for the purchase of classroom materials specifically designed for a flexible learning environment.
In Hopkins, the switch demonstrated by Ingraham quickly caught on; although there was no mandate to incorporate the flexible classroom concept, more than two dozen teachers have embraced the model from the ground up. One of them—Tracey Beaverson, another third-grade teacher who works for the school district—reiterated the connection that Edutopia and other research sites have made between movable furniture and more flexible teaching styles. "What I realized is that it’s not all about the furniture," she told Bardola. "Flexible seating is a shift in teaching style and thinking."
If you're intrigued by the flexible classroom model, the Edutopia website has a collection of resources for teachers or school districts eager to find out more about the approach. A notable piece by Emelina Minero gets down to the basics: how to make a classroom flexible in an era of shrinking school budgets. Minero recommended following in Tripp and Ingraham's footsteps by seeking out grants, as well as leveraging crowdfunding platforms such as DonorsChoose.org. However interested educators choose to go about raising funds, they'll need a good pitch—and Minero has that aspect covered, too. In the same article, she presented some best practices for cultivating a successful fundraising pitch, all with an eye toward creating the kind of 21st-century, flexible classroom spaces that help foster a dynamic learning environment.
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