New Flexible Classrooms in High School

It is a fact, space matters!!

Flexible Classrooms 

Flexible classrooms are complex, living systems

Studies have consistently shown that classroom design matters to how children engage, participate and ultimately stay involved in their learning experience (Fernandes, Huang & Rinaldo, 2011; Gremmen, Van den Berg, Segers & Cillessen, 2016 and Marx, Fuhrer & Hartig, 1999).

The California Department of Education (CDE) commissioned a study, which revealed that elementary students who participated in an outdoor science school raised their science scores by 27 percent.

In 2016, Steelcase Education funded a study, which showed that classrooms designed to support participative learning increased student engagement compared to traditional row-by-column seating (Scott-Webber, Strickland & Kapitula, 2016). Of course, it makes sense that if a classroom is intentionally designed to support different modes of learning, children are more apt to stay engaged – for example, individual study, group work, presentations, peer-to-peer discussion, and one-on-one instruction.

In 2008, Herman Miller carried out a study which revealed that “giving people some control over their surroundings adds to their sense of well-being.” Educators report that children take more ownership of the classroom (their classroom) when they can choose their seats and are given freedom to move around when needed.

Flexible Seating:Does it make the grade?

What I know for sure is that flexible seating is more complex than it sounds. If it was simply swapping desks for chairs, every contemporary teacher on the planet would consider it, but there are factors to consider such as: student’s age, teacher’s classroom management skills, special needs and/or mixed-ability students, and of course, the dreaded budget.

University of Salford researchers, in the United Kingdom, studied the effect of classroom design on academic performance on 3,766 British children aged 5 to 11. “We were trying to take a holistic perspective,” explained Peter Barrett, the lead researcher and now an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford. “In other words, we were trying to look at spaces as experienced by people. So, this isn’t just air quality, this isn’t just temperature, or an effort to measure the factors separately. This is the whole lot together.”

The Findings

The study looked at three dimensions of classroom design: naturalness (factors like light and temperature), stimulation (factors like color and visual complexity), and individualization (factors like flexibility and student ownership).

The big insight? Optimizing all of these physical characteristics of primary classrooms improved academic performance in reading, writing, and mathematics by 16 percent. The personalization of classrooms—including flexibility, which Barrett defined as “student choice within the space”—accounted for a full quarter of that improvement.

A few insights surprised even the researchers. Flexible, welcoming spaces had a startlingly large effect on learning in math—73 percent of the students´ progress that was attributed to classroom design was traced back to flexibility and student ownership. The reasons are a mystery, but Barrett and his team hazarded a guess: Academic subjects that provoke anxiety - in math, that’s a known issue - are better addressed in classrooms that feel comfortable and familiar to students.

And some of the air quality data came as a shock. Despite a 2015 Harvard study that showed steady declines in higher-order thinking when carbon dioxide levels exceed 500 parts per million—the gas is a by-product of human breathing, for those who’ve forgotten their biology—the researchers consistently recorded levels over six times that high in the classrooms they observed. That’s alarming—and fixable.

“If air quality is OK at the start of the class, it won’t be by the end unless you do something,” according to Barrett. “It’s an absolute fact. So, you have to open a window or a door. But you have to do something.”

Form, Function, and Flexibility

So, will lugging new furniture into your room improve student outcomes? Do Hokki stools and throw pillows drive up test scores?

The answer is no.

Barrett thinks it’s the old dictum that form follows function at work: Flexible classrooms are successful because they go hand in hand with a change in pedagogy. That conclusion never fails to emerge in teacher-led discussions on Edutopia. Flexible spaces, educators agree, alter the fundamental dynamics of teaching and learning, giving students more control and responsibility, improving academic engagement, and undermining the typical face-forward orientation of the traditional learning environment.

In other words, it’s not the inert fact of the furniture itself—the new couch in the center of the room or the standing desk near the window—but the dynamic use of the space by the teacher and students that pays, in the end. Changing the layout of your classroom will almost certainly have no impact at all—if you don’t change your teaching too.

The takeaway:Flexibility, combined with characteristics like acoustics and air quality, has a real impact on student achievement. If used properly, flexible classrooms produce better academic outcomes.


CAP Innovation and Curricular Design



Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Davies, F. & Barrett, L. (2015). Clever Classrooms: Summary report of the HEAD project. Retrieved from URL. http://www.salford.ac.uk/cleverclassrooms/1503-Salford-Uni-Report-DIGITAL.pdf

Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Davies, F. & Barrett, L. (May 2016). The Holistic Impact of Classroom Spaces on Learning in Specific Subjects. Retrieved from URL. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5394432/

California Department of Education. (2016). Flexible Learning Environments. Retrieved from URL. https://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/fa/bp/documents/bestpracticeflex.pdf

Earp, J. (March 2017). Classroom layout - what does the research say? Retrieved from URL. https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/classroom-layout-what-does-the-research-say

Healy, M. (October 2017). New Classroom Trend: Flexible Seating. Retrieved from URL. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-development/201710/new-classroom-trend-flexible-seating

Markle, B. (October 2017). A 7th Grade Teacher's Shift to Flexible Seating. Retrieved from URL. https://www.edutopia.org/article/7th-grade-teachers-shift-flexible-seating

Merrill, S. (June 2018). Flexible Classroom: Research is Scarce, But Promising. Retrieved from URL. https://www.edutopia.org/article/flexible-classrooms-research-scarce-promising

Miller, H. (2008). Rethinking the Classroom: Spaces Designed for Active and Engaged Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from URL. https://www.hermanmiller.com/research/categories/white-papers/rethinking-the-classroom/

Walker, T. (September 2016). Farewell, Desks, Here Come the 'Starbucks Classrooms.' Retrieved from URL. http://neatoday.org/2016/09/23/ditching-classroom-desks/




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