Education administrators make buying decisions for furniture based on many factors. Cost, durability, functionality, safety and aesthetics represent just a few.
Those issues always will be important, but gaining greater recognition in recent years has been the role furniture plays in creating positive, high-performance learning environments. The sophistication and versatility of furniture today make the benefits of choosing the right solutions greater than ever. The right furniture can facilitate more effective learning outcomes, enhance teaching techniques, improve acoustics and lighting, and provide students with comfort.
At the K-12 level, flexible classrooms represent a growing trend. Schools are seeking ways to optimize space and maximize the learning experience. Designing classrooms with more flexibility means that by changing the placement of furniture, a teacher easily can vary instructional methods to accommodate different learning styles and course topics. Lightweight, mobile furniture allows teachers to quickly rearrange from a row setting to a circular arrangement, to curved arrangements.
In addition to switching the configuration and placement of seating based on lesson plans, a flexible classroom puts teachers closer to students. For example, whiteboards can be placed on opposite walls to use all available space and provide more information than the one board found in many classrooms. Students rotate their desks to face the board being used, in effect moving students from the back to the front rows. This yields positive results in maintaining attention and interest. Research from the University of Florida has shown that students farther back than the first two rows may miss as much as 50 percent of what is being said in a classroom.
To further extend the benefits of a flexible classroom for K-12 students, schools should pay attention to the functionality of seats and desks. Selecting models that provide height and depth adjustability helps ensure that all students have a comfortable learning environment. Children in the fifth and sixth grades, for example, can range in height from 4 to 6 feet tall. Just one standard-size seat and desk really can't fit this range of students, and could have detrimental effects on a child's ability to learn.
Flexible classrooms are an effective tool for moving schools from a “factory” to an “active-learning” education model. Active learning emphasizes instilling knowledge, rather than just delivering information. Instead of sitting in rows as someone lectures, students cluster in collaborative groups to foster teamwork as they work on projects and share ideas. Effective furniture for these environments is student-centric.
Little things mean a lot (of noise)
Acoustics, another important environment factor in a classroom, can be enhanced significantly through proper furniture choices. Poor classroom acoustics affect all students adversely, not just those with hearing and speech impairments or learning disabilities. In fact, as many as 15 percent of school-age children may have temporary hearing loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The younger the child, the more important acoustics become to effective hearing and learning.
Even low levels of background noise and reverberation make it difficult for many children to comprehend what teachers and peers are saying. The Technical Committee on Architecture of the Acoustical Society of America reports that many classrooms feature a speech intelligibility rating of 75 percent or less. That means that listeners with normal hearing can understand only 75 percent of the words read from a list.
Teachers report that noise levels have an upward spiral effect. As noise increases, students speak louder and can tend to become unruly as they strive to overcome the background noise. Noises from mechanical systems, adjacent rooms or the outdoors are common sources of classroom noise. However, many routine occurrences throughout the day, such as coughing, pencil sharpening and moving desks, also contribute to creating a difficult auditory environment. Desks and chairs with rollers, which make little or no sound when moved, can help reduce classroom noise.
Shades of learning
Proper lighting and color tones can make a classroom environment more conducive to learning. Schools have begun to recognize the importance of daylight in helping students perform better. Research has shown that children in classrooms with more natural light scored better on standardized tests in math and reading.
In addition to better test scores, children in rooms with more daylight had fewer absences and behavioral problems. Increased natural lighting also allows schools to downsize HVAC systems, saving money and reducing noise. Options for bringing more daylight into the classroom include installing skylights and side windows. East-facing windows should be avoided because of the glare created by too much sunlight at severe early morning angles.
Although furniture can't bring more natural light into the classroom, it can help maximize daylight that already comes into the room. Selecting furniture with lighter surfaces, for example, creates ambient light, accentuating incoming natural light and brightening the room. Proper furniture surfaces also can lessen the effects of glare and direct sunlight, and can minimize eye strain that can be caused by high contrast between the work surface and reading materials.
The right color tones on furniture and furnishings also can enhance the teaching and learning experience. The effect of color casts has been studied by research organizations. Among the various characteristics associated with different color casts: a yellow cast conveys optimism, a green cast denotes harmony, a brown cast signifies security, and wood grains represent nature.
Many factors influence effective teaching and learning, but the physical classroom environment ranks near the top. Thorough consideration must be given to every aspect and element that makes up the classroom space. A holistic approach to choosing furniture, lighting, sound barriers and other solutions — carefully examining how each works together to create the most effective learning environment — provides students and teachers the best opportunity to perform to their full potential.
Waldecker is K-12 Dealer Development Manager for KI, Green Bay, Wis., a manufacturer of furniture and wall system solutions.
Percentage of school-age children that may have temporary hearing loss.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Percentage of information missed by students who sit farther back than the first two rows of seats in a classroom.
Source: University of Florida research.