Collaborative Technologies | Feature

Bringing Down Walls (Literally) to Foster Classroom Collaboration

Schools are using configurable chairs, whiteboards, and even walls to give students control of their environment and inspire them to work together.

This article, with an exclusive video interview and interactive slide show, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's February 2013 digital edition.

This is the second in a six-part monthly series examining how different technologies can help schools enhance collaboration among students. You can read the first part, about social media, here. In this installment, we look at the benefits of furniture that allows students to shape their own learning environment.

Could new types of pedagogy that involve more classroom projects and peer instruction encourage school districts to replace outdated furniture and redesign classrooms? Or could new classroom designs using modular furniture have an impact on how teachers engage their students?

These are just a few of the questions that educators, instructional technology leaders, and space-planning experts have been grappling with for the past several years as student-centered collaboration becomes increasingly important to the 21st century curriculum. Studies on the topic indicate that the classroom setup does indeed have an effect on instructors' habits as well as student participation and collaboration. Schools across the country are accommodating this mode of thinking by unbolting furniture and tearing down some of the more physical impediments to learning.

Kate Mraw, an interior designer at California-based LPA, an architecture and design firm focused on education, says school districts and charter schools are increasingly asking her to help design spaces to support project-based learning. "They want to provide students with the opportunity to work in collaborative teams, develop career awareness and knowledge, and use a variety of technologies," she says. Collaboration-focused features include classroom clusters, common spaces, and furniture that facilitates group work.

Even schools that can't afford to invest in modern furniture are redesigning or building new spaces with more awareness of technology issues and BYOD options, Mraw says. For instance, campuswide WiFi can support learning models that emphasize mobility, flexibility, and collaboration.

Learning on the Move
At the Princeton City School District in Cincinnati, district leaders are currently designing new middle school and high school spaces to foster project-based learning. (The middle school is scheduled to open in August and the high school in 2014.) Every area of the high school has been designed to facilitate learning, notes principal William Sprankles: Even open stairwells and lobbies can be meeting spaces. Hallway corners will have semicircles cut out for booths where students can sit and collaborate.

"The wings in each school end with three classes with retractable glass walls so that smaller rooms can suddenly become much larger group spaces," Sprankles explains. "These classrooms have a whiteboard wall that is actually a jigsaw of much smaller whiteboards that can be taken down and worked on by student groups, then reassembled."

Sean Corcorran, general manager of the education division of furniture company Steelcase, has also seen a significant shift toward project-based instruction that doesn't all happen in the classroom. "If you want to create a learning environment, we think the right approach is to start with what you are trying to accomplish and then choose the technology and space to support that," he says.

To respond to the demand for mobility, flexibility, and comfort, Steelcase has developed classroom furniture with names like Verb and Node. "We were finding support among education customers for more active learning and furniture that supports teamwork, so we put a chair on casters and added the capability to swivel 360 degrees," Corcorran says. "That supports dialogue and a sense of community with everyone, and allows them to follow the context of the conversation more easily." The Node chairs also feature a place to put backpacks so they are not on the floor, where they could impede students' movement.

Sheridan Steelman, a teacher at Northview High School in Grand Rapids, MI, has been using the Steelcase Node chairs in her English classroom for four years. "The main thing I like," she says, "is that the students can swivel quickly to respond to me and to each other, and the chairs can be moved into many different configurations easily and quickly." In each class period, she has students move the chairs two or three times. "I might have them change from being all in a big circle to small groups," she explains. "The change really only takes five seconds or so."

Steelman participated in a pilot project in which Steelcase researchers observed how the different classroom setup affected her instruction. "It was really valuable feedback," she says. "They noticed I wasn't using my desk or file cabinet much, so we got rid of them. We made the space more student-centered."

She believes the classroom design has actually changed the way she teaches. "This is my 40th year of teaching and my fourth of using the Node chairs," she says. "I wouldn't want to go back. I have become more of a facilitator. Students bring their laptops and iPads and work in groups. I sit in one of the chairs and join them in their groups."

No Two Classrooms Alike
Design consultant Kate Mraw has been working on the layout to support collaborative learning at The Academy, a 320-student public charter high school for foster teens being established by the Orangewood Children's Foundation in Orange County, CA. One distinguishing feature of the space is that learning areas will have a variety of shapes and sizes. Students will move throughout the building during their day and participate in project-based activities that demand different approaches for each of their foundational studies.

In The Academy's design, the technology and the classroom furniture are different in each space. One teacher might need students working in pairs, another in groups of four. Another may want the students in a circle to work on a play. As the students move through the day, each room they come to will be set up differently. "That variety is engaging," Mraw says. "It also allows for classes to open on to each other for team teaching."

This flexibility, mobility, and access are all new territory for teachers who are used to "owning" their classrooms, Mraw says. "In traditional schools, teachers have their own desks and are quite stationary and territorial," she says. "Here, it was decided that teachers would use multiple spaces but not own any one." This decision freed the design team to reduce the count of rooms, because teachers don't need to be in a classroom to do prep or grading. Instead, Mraw says, the designers created "a teacher/faculty collaboration space for them to work in."

Measuring Furniture's Impact
The Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, CA, is dedicated to studying the impact of new furniture and design on its pedagogy. Last year it converted an underused 720-square-foot computer lab space into the iLab Learning Space featuring EDU 2.0 furniture from Bretford Manufacturing. The space includes mobile flip-top tables, mobile whiteboards, and chairs with built-in power supplies.

When teachers and students come into the room, it's a blank slate with chairs and desks stacked on the side, explains Christa Flores, a science educator and the iLab's director. "The space invites possibilities," she says. The teacher can initiate how to set it up or can ask students to choose the configuration that best suits a certain activity.

"In their normal settings, the furniture isn't as flexible," she says. "They have the same setting and the same seating arrangements, and that is reassuring to them. But sometimes it is nice to shake it up and create spaces."

The formerly underused room has become the most popular space in the building, used for all types of activities from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Teachers hold advisory meetings with students, intern teachers use it as a collaborative space, and teacher mentors meet there. After school, students use it to explore robotics and create obstacle courses, and the speech and debate classes meet there.

The space definitely encourages collaborative work and even collaboration across small groups in the same room, but Hillbrook wants to measure whether the space is indeed having an impact on learning outcomes. Flores doesn't want to assume anything. "Not much research has been done on it," she notes.

In an attempt to quantify the impact of the iLab, Hillbrook and Bretford are working with HERO, a research and consulting firm, to evaluate similar educational activities and projects in traditional learning spaces and in the iLab. Observations, student feedback, teacher evaluations, and videos will be used to assess student performance, engagement, and confidence in both settings.

"I teach a fifth-grade class in the iLab and am teaching the same material to a class in a traditional classroom with the chairs bolted to the floors," Flores says. "We'll try to determine if we can see differences in student confidence in presenting material, in volunteering, and productivity--and also in use of the whiteboard, sharing ideas, and collaborating."

One thing she noticed right away was that taking the teacher's desk out of the room lends a feeling of equality. "With a desk, it is the teacher's room, with teacher's rules," she says. "But with no desk, we are all just collaborators. The teacher is not driving everything, but is there to help. It is very empowering."