Part II. Flexible Physical Space Design

"The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences." Maria Montessori
Flip and Nest Table Configurations
Traditionally-
  • a classroom is a place where students are taught.
  • a library is a place to research, read or study.
  • a lab is a place for hands-on learning activities.
  • a studio is a place where things or performances are created.

Flexible Physical Space Design embodies the pedagogical change from teacher-centered learning to student-centered learning. A learner-centered environment starts within a constructivist school culture where students construct understanding by their own direct experiences and reflection upon previous knowledge, skills and values.

Here, the physical learning space itself plays a key role in students' mental and physical well-being and becomes embedded with a school’s overall social and emotional learning plans. Traditional learning spaces designed with a singular purpose are transformed to multi-purpose learning spaces. This transformation from 20th-century to 21st-century learning spaces uses a new lexicon to describe the metamorphosis from-
  1. Classroom to Learning Studio

  2. Library to Learning Commons

  3. Lab to Makerspace

The three and most common learning spaces in a K-12 environment now take on a more flexible function as all can become places for learning, collaboration, individual space and active movement contained within the same room. As classrooms and labs become more flexible, we start to look at the whole space laid out with groupings of 'micro learning spaces' and 'micro making spaces.' In libraries, we typically have more area space to work with and can craft larger groupings of 'learning zones.' These spaces may also be equipped with a variety of making materials and technology tools appropriate to the age group of students. 

Educators are empowered as interior designers to create a learning space that now includes a broader mix of hard and soft furniture made for:

  • school; 
  • office and work; 
  • hotel and restaurant; and, 
  • home and living spaces.

As you the reader explore these transformed learning spaces in the following three chapters, remember that we are all breaking the mold of what these spaces have traditionally looked like and have been furnished by central office decision makers. With that in mind, also realize that no two learning studios, learning commons or makerspaces are the same. For example, you don’t have to have a 3D printer and Lego® wall to be a makerspace. There are NO cookie cutter blueprints for any of these spaces. A teacher working with her/his students should be the designers of their space.

Our observations in recent years in face-to-face flexible learning environments reveal five common 'x-factors' for student engagement and well-being: 

  1. Sitting with mobile and modular seating and carpet options
  2. Standing with mobile and modular sit to stand tables and desks
  3. Collaboration in group work using mobile furniture and technology
  4. Walls enhanced with audio and visual communications
  5. Storage that is personal and mobile for both students and their teacher
    (from our FLEx Directory)

Teachers are the keepers of their learning spaces who come with a multitude of instructional styles and practices. Flexible space design in schools are not a fad or trend in education like ‘open space schools’ of the 1970’s. Flexible furniture is part of an individual teacher’s choice, regardless of any pedagogy, and have to be introduced and monitored by that individual in their own teaching space. 

Both Richard and I have come to believe that flexible space design helps provide a learning outcome that can raise the level of student creativity by providing a social and emotional safe nest for all individuals to thrive within a face-to-face learning environment.

The Learning Environment as an Evolving Process

May 24, 2009. This is the first actualized Learning Studio that I (Doug) ever saw in person and action. At that time, It was the only formal classroom of its kind (other than Montessori style Kindergartens) in my District (San Diego Unified). I know this because as an Ed Tech and Magnet Resource Teacher, I had traveled to the 180 schools in the District and been in many K-12 classrooms over 30 years. On this day, I had to step outside from the teacher, Pam Stahlak and her 4th grade students to collect my thoughts and contain my tears. Though a wall of tradition and procedures, Pam had created a beautiful, eclectic, cozy environment for her students made up of what I would later call, "micro learning spaces." I became inspired to the possibilities...

Why do learning spaces need to change?
  • Today, most of our K-12 classrooms in the United States are pedagogically founded and physically furnished in the reflection of mid-late 20th century schools.
     
  • The learning environment needs to reflect the curriculum. As the United States slowly moves to more of a inquiry/project-based curriculum, the focus is shifting from a teacher mostly standing in front teaching, to teachers facilitating the learning process. 

  • We are moving from single subjects being taught at a specific time period, to integrated subjects designed through projects as students work together. This approach models the real world and much of our current world of work. 

  • Learning Studios, Learning Commons and Makerspaces are all designed to optimize a face-to-face learning environment. Here, learning is:

    1. active and manipulative;
    2. understanding is experienced through projects (in a meaningful context); and, 
    3. learning is social through real-time conversations and collaborations.

Who are leading this change to Learning Studios, Learning Commons and Makerspaces?
  • Leading this transformation, one room at a time, are individual teachers who practice project-based learning, use technology and mix up how their class is physically set up on a regular basis. These teachers view physical space as a critical component for their students' well being and academic achievement. 

  • A Learning Studio, Learning Commons or Makerspace is an organic process, almost always created by a teacher or librarian in their personal teaching space. These are teachers who embrace how to teach and learn in the 21st century. We put my vision and passion here with these educators.
The Table and Chair Caster as a Game Changer in Education 

How could something so simple as caster wheels for desks, tables and chairs revolutionize current educational practices? Computer laptops/tablets and large interactive displays often are the first hardware items that come to mind when thinking of 21st century learning environments. 

If pedagogical foundations of project-based and collaborative learning are helping to shape progressive instructional strategies, then we should first look at replacing the dead-weight furniture that can't be easily moved around. Casters enable easy movement so that students and teachers can easily move and modulate the furniture to form a variety of large and small group learning spaces. Crafting engaging learning spaces start with a bunch of little plastic wheels!

Some advice regarding traditional classroom culture and the use of casters with desks and chairs

I (Doug) will repeat this message throughout this book; casters are a low tech feature with a high level of disruptive innovation to traditional K-12 classrooms. I've had many educators tell me how bad they are for classroom behavioral management. 

I was once part of a new middle school renovation of a computer lab. All the new tables and task chairs (with casters) arrived and were set up in rows. I came back one week to see that all the casters on all the task chairs had been removed. The chair legs now looked liked stumps on the carpet. 

For me, this was a good lesson in taking baby transitional steps to change. I should have had a conversation with the staff before we changed up a traditionally set up computer lab with rows of tables and chairs (with with glides), to task chairs with casters and a self-adjustable pneumatic cylinder height with side lever control.

My point is, change takes time. I've also had several teachers tell me over the years that they couldn't stand student movement during class. I believe this attitude often changes as teachers embark on more project-based activities. The 'moving furniture' has the essential function for changing up group work and providing a calming effect- causing the kid's to focus and work together in different activities.

In my experience, I developed a few instructional tips and tricks for any teacher with regard to student behavior and task type chairs with casters and a self-adjustable pneumatic cylinder height lever control.

For most K-12 students, task chairs in learning spaces are few and far between. At first this is a novelty for students who will by nature do several different things that I have given pet behavior names. First the tricks-

  1. Around the World - Basically spinning like a top
  2. Elevator - Continually pulling the pneumatic lever up and down to lower and raise one's self
  3. Bumper Cars - Self propelling with one's feet into another student, or just open space

Now for the tips-

  1. In front of class, demonstrate the disruptive behaviors above, believe me they already have had the idea and in a whole class conversation may share more gems. This is all good. 
  2. Talk about the difference between 'passive sitting' (no to little movement) and 'active sitting' (gentle movement and positions that do not disrupt the people around them). Discuss different ways students can actively sit or stand during class time. Once you get the buy-in, the disruptive behavior will fade away.
  3. But, and there is always a but, there are a very small number of students, who will still act out. By the way, your hyperactive kids (like me) will typically not be part of this as you have helped save them in class by providing 'fidget furniture.'
  4. For students, who can't handle the cool moving furniture just have several old blue chairs with some rust on the legs, still available as back up. Just always have options for your students and yourself as furniture like task chairs can be part of your strategy rather than a problem. 

As a side note- As I often write from the comfort of my home office. I have a self-adjusting electric table for standing and sitting. When I sit, I have a task chair and often sit with my knees bent back with my feet straddled and perched on my task chair legs as I'm gently rocking side to side... 

In a Phrase, Mobile and Modular or a word, Mobimod

One of Doug's great missions in life has been to help learning communities with flexible physical space design as a process to replace (20+ year old) traditional fixed furniture in classrooms, libraries and labs with a variety of mobile and/or modular furniture and technology. As the term, "flexible seating" has caught on like wildfire the past several years,  he coined a term around 2009 to encapsulate such flexible learning environments and called it, "Mobimod."

The sit or stand Mobimod style of using casters with chairs and nesting flip tables combined with some cozy furniture is a natural progression once teachers fully experience inquiry-based and project-based models of learning. From these experiences with students, many teachers then want to redesign their room layout to optimize how they now teach.

Having mobile/modular furniture within a project-based classroom changes how activities are set up and group behavior occurs for students. Mobimod is about student interactions, collaboration and movement. It physically alters the notion that learning best occurs while sitting in the same fixed spot everyday, listening to a teacher at the same front wall, teaching mostly in direct instruction mode. 

A Large Wave Coming: Transforming Classrooms, Libraries & Labs

We're part of growing movement that challenges the mindset that classroom physical space like the carpet or floor is for only the very young. Our objectives are to begin to change that mindset by providing alternatives to traditional stand and deliver classroom layouts. Imagine applying Montessori methods with moving furniture and floor matting designed for teenagers, then you are starting to get the picture of mobimod learning environments. 

Also, think about StarbucksPaneraBarnes & Noble and other consumer gathering spaces as eclectic models for 21st century study spaces. K-12 libraries can learn something to emulate here from these smart companies that sell comfort as a place to multi-task while you consume their products. 

Many American corporations have also transitioned from individual employees working in cubicles, to organized teams working in open collaborative spaces. In the last century, K-12 education modeled the factory-row workplace. We now just need to move American schools into this collaborative century and model our teaming-based workplaces.

As educators, before we can get into 'collaborative learning,' we first need to talk about 'social and emotional learning' as the heart and soul to student communication and collaboration. As technology has become so ubiquitous in the twenty-first century, many people have come to lean on technology to lead educational systems change. However, we're more encouraged by the growing movement to focus on crafting 'well-being' into learning environments as a social and emotional support for learning. In a word, think of 'cozy' to guide a teacher, librarian, administrator or architect in their design of a learning space or school. Students today, still need the human touch to facilitate their conversations and collaborations as they maturate in both physical and digital learning spaces. 

As a learning environment consultant, Doug works with clients to design from the inside out of a school building. Often, he begins at a school by working with staff to identify onsite innovative teachers along with a local champion of the change, the school Principal. Then, the team goes to work to transform their physical learning spaces.

By first changing the physical space, we get everyone excited and it rocks the student's world in a very positive and motivating way. And through planning, we connect the constructivist learning and technology design elements. 

In the 21st century, K-12 education has experienced a couple of large waves. First, the rise of technology in the classroom and second, national standards for the curriculum. Currently STEAM and the 'Maker Movement' are creating quite a swell. However, there are many educators who now see another large wave forming, the transformation of the physical learning environment itself. We advocate that we take this wave and make it a top priority in our nation's schools. Infrastructure and modernization funding needs to include the inside furnishings of the buildings too. We need to start looking at flexible furniture being as important as wireless networks with tablet computers.

So, let's create the biggest impact to children by transforming their physical space as the face-to-face learning space becomes an equal partner with technology to help drive an inquiry-based curriculum in this century. 

Think of flexible learning environments as the spark that leads to greater understanding of how to learn in the 21st century.

Traditional Desks in Rows 

Traditional Desks in Pods 

The "rebel" caster wheel

Task Chairs

Couch w/ Casters 

Tablet Chairs with Casters 

 Flip & Nest Tables

Gathering @ Starbucks 

 Mobile Whiteboards

Sofa Chair with casters
Wobble Chair

Mobile Storage Cabinet

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