Education Interiors

Furniture Style and Selection: A Learning Process for Everyone

School furnishings

PHOTOS © BRANDON STENGEL

Opportunity breeds change, and many districts around the country are seizing opportunities to rethink their traditional academic settings. They are responding to factors such as evolving curriculum content, expanded availability of new technologies and a movement to accommodate of a variety of student learning styles through personalized learning efforts. Plus many of the schools built in the 1950s and ‘60s are coming to the end of their life cycle, providing districts with a chance to hit the refresh button on their outdated environments.

One particular district, Jordan School District in Minnesota, was facing a similar scenario. Superintendent Matt Helgerson recognized Jordan Middle School, constructed in 1964 with an addition in 1969, was in need of attention. However, he wanted to do more than add classrooms and replace mechanical systems. He wanted to improve the educational ecosystem of the entire school and use this redesign as a way to refresh educational delivery in the district. Helgerson knew this undertaking would involve more than simple space design. Selecting the right furniture became a critical component in the renovation design process.

School furniture work area

PHOTOS © BRANDON STENGEL

“I’ve done a lot of research into middle school programs and I believe the key is to provide students with the freedom to be more creative thinkers,” said Helgerson. “Our teachers are encouraged to experiment, to try new things, to explore opportunities for collaboration and interdisciplinary discovery. The emphasis is on collaboration and the right furniture can enhance that type of environment.”

DLR Group’s design is a modern facility that encourages interaction, collaboration and hands-on activities. Flexible breakout spaces with a variety of formal and casual furniture allow for more self-directed learning by students. These spaces can be used individually for small group work or be combined for larger scale projects.

“We knew the furniture had to be flexible, such as an all-in-one chair, and encourage mobility. Students had to be able to shift from one learning space to another, bringing all of their things with them,” said Helgerson.

Observing Existing Conditions

As part of the planning and design process, DLR Group’s design team had the opportunity to observe students in their existing middle school facility. Our observations would be critical in understanding how the students were currently using their school, the furniture and classroom spaces, and would influence the furniture selection for the new middle school.

classroom furniture groups

PHOTOS © BRANDON STENGEL

Our team quickly realized that the traditional 1965, vintage education building was hindering social gatherings and student/teacher interaction so crucial in the learning process. Middle school students are in a constant state of motion. Their restless changing of sitting positions from backwards to sideways perpetuates their movement. These students are often described as “wiggle worms” and “busy bees,” but the classroom furniture they were using did not embrace their active personas. Instead the furniture became a distraction.

On numerous occasions, our team witnessed students working together in small groups on the floor. Individual student desks within the classroom lacked the flexibility to accommodate this group activity. Even though some classrooms were equipped with tables, those tables were too heavy to quickly move without disturbing the entire class. Both of these set-ups were holding back the creative learning process.

furniture for student testing

PHOTOS © BRANDON STENGEL

Testing Alternatives

Over a period of three months, DLR Group led a team of forward thinking, handselected teachers ranging in experience and disciplines, through the furniture selection process for the new school. The team agreed that the furniture types should vary, offering options from soft seating group, stools, mobile tables with height adjustments, to large meeting tables that incorporate technology elements and durability.

“We visited other schools to see what they did and saw various chairs, tables and technology systems in action. We worked with our design team to narrow our choices, focusing on functionality, sharing and collaboration. Three vendors invited us to their showrooms, and we narrowed our selection even further,” said Helgerson.

The district proactively sought student and teacher input on the furniture selection. Two full classroom arrangements were tested for teachers and students in grades 5 to 8. Students tested the options through this “pilot” and provided feedback via Google docs and one-on-one conversations. They provided input on the pros/cons and preferred colors they would like to see in the new school.

“By engaging students in the process we were creating constituency buy-in along the way,” said Helgerson.

Our observations during that testing period were revealing. Right away we noticed different forms of interaction taking place within the classroom as students were free to move about the room. The new room configurations transformed within seconds from rows to groups. Chairs that swivel and move with casters catered to the learners as they worked together on assignments. By taking into consideration the varied ways students learn, the use of built-in marker boards allowed the sharing of information easily and quickly between learners.

multipurpose room furniture

PHOTOS © BRANDON STENGEL

Teachers particularly liked how the new furniture was able to move with the students and supported a personalized learning environment, while some students preferred the more static furniture. To compromise, we devised a solution that featured both flexible pieces alongside two non-rolling student desk chairs within every classroom. We also included standing desks, which were utilized by the taller students because previously they had not been offered a comfortable option for their body size.

Implementing the Solution

Our final furniture selections created open learning spaces with varying sizes, height of tables and chairs that easily move and form groups of eight to 12 students. Small break-out spaces feature media tables with integrated technology, allowing students to connect to their school issued tablets. Even the traditional cafeteria was transformed into a social space that can be used by students and teachers any time throughout the day. It serves as the primary community gathering area where students eat lunch, and also can be used for learning activities throughout the school day. An ad hoc “mountain top” serves as either a teaching environment or a formal performance area for students. Large gathering “Harvest” tables provide an anchor to the flexibility of the round, square and standing height tables, while the fun, durable chairs supply a pop of color.

“The commons has several built-in structures and furniture areas. A class can use the raised concrete platform to present a play to a group of parents or other classes,” said Helgerson. “Collaboration stations with LCD monitors ring the commons and allow students to plug in and share presentations with each other. The building also features several Genius Bars, which are raised countertops with multiple plug-ins for laptop use so that students can focus on individual work or share in small groups.”

school furniture selection

PHOTOS © BRANDON STENGEL

Flexible Furniture Plays a Role in Career Preparation

This exercise of classroom observations and furniture selection has provided additional insight into the natural progression from academic to corporate careers. It prompts the question ‘how do we, as designers, ensure continuity for learners as they graduate to the workplace?’

There is a direct and distinct connection of today’s successful and engaging learning environments with those of workplace. The commonalities of these types of spaces should not be surprising as we consider the numerous similarities of function and use in both corporate and educational environments. When designed well, spatial attributes and functions such as collaboration, teamwork, flexibility and personalization are prevalent in both types of environments.

We understand better now than ever before that every individual learns and works in varying ways. This individuality demands that we develop spaces that can meet the needs of those persons dependent on both the needs of the human being and the needs of the problem or problems they may be solving. The ability for a space or portion of a space to be self-adaptable to a specific person’s needs at any time is an incredibly important attribute in today’s environments.

“Physical building construction can be designed to meet user needs but furniture plays a critical role in the development of effective and impactful environments in both the educational and corporate worlds,” said Helgerson. “Great furniture pieces can be at varying scales to support different size groups and also be easily moveable to allow adjustment for both groups and individuals.”

The Jordan Middle School project was one of the most memorable design projects of my career. Three factors contributed to the success of this project: the opportunity to see how the middle school teachers and students utilize and interact with the school furnishings; a community and district seeking a new middle school educational program; and a district willing to invest time and financial resources in selecting the right furniture for their learners.

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

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