FURNISHING THE PERFECT SCHOOL

DESIGN FOR STUDENT ENGAGEMENT

01/24/2016
PERFECT SCHOOL
Mark Walters

Photos Courtesy Of Steelcase Education

Personal computers begat school computer labs. Online educational videos led to blended learning and flipped classrooms. And the start-up Maker Movement is driving the development of DIY “makerspaces” in schools and libraries, where people gather to create, network and learn.

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To furnish a school you should think about the needs of both current students and those a decade from now. Educational models are hard to predict, but planning for them as best you can will help you “future-proof” your investment.

With so many classroom models to consider, furnishing the perfect school means being faced with overwhelming options and considerations. What will you need to work with new technologies? How can you design for flexibility and mobility? How can you tell what’s the future and what’s just a fad?



To furnish a school you should think about the needs of both current students and those a decade from now. Educational models are hard to predict, but planning for them as best you can will help you “future-proof” your investment.

Yet it’s important to realize that as quickly as classroom designs seem to change, your school’s broader educational mission probably hasn’t changed very much and won’t in the near future: To teach students how to think critically, to solve problems, to empathize, to make good decisions, to become good citizens.

So rather than trying to anticipate the best technologies and furnishings for your school, think about how your students learn and how technologies and furnishings can best support that. Space and technology should support pedagogy, not the other way around.



Focus on who your students are, what they need and how they learn. Key insights to consider:

Student Engagement is Critical

When students are engaged in their education, they learn on all the levels described in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating and Creating. These levels of learning are often structured on a pyramid to encourage the higher, most active learning levels, such as evaluating and creating. But it’s important to recognize that lower levels such as remembering and understanding are important foundational skills. Student learning is fluid, with students learning on different levels throughout the course of a school day, and classroom design has to accommodate all levels or learning — and all sorts of movement.

Learning Happens Anytime, Anywhere

As more students learn online and expect technology to be available on demand, there is a growing acknowledgement that learning isn’t confined to the classroom. School furnishings in libraries, hallways, and lounges can provide learning cues both overt and subtle: hallways with bookshelves of age-appropriate books, lounge spaces that encourage collaboration, and comfortable, quiet spaces in the library where students can concentrate free of distraction.

Technology is Everywhere, But It’s Just a Means to an End

How well technology promotes learning — or whether it merely enables distractions like Facebook or Instagram — depends on the teacher, the students and the context.

Technology has changed so rapidly and expanded educational options so much that it’s difficult to predict what future technologies will bring. As pervasive as smartphones and tablets are today, it’s easy to forget that the iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) didn’t even exist a decade ago. Perhaps more significant than any specific technology is the trend toward personal devices and personalized learning. Tasks that would have sent students to the library or computer lab in the past are now done on their own tablets or phones right from their desk. And data analytics can track how much time an individual learner is spending on an online lesson and pinpoint more precisely what the student does and does not know.



Such insights have profound implications for how you design an environment conducive to learning.

  • Furnish for engagement. Consider the student behavior you want to see and how your space can influence that. If a school looks like a prison, with hard surfaces and cinder blocks, it may well encourage prisoner-like behavior. But if a school is well-lit and brightly colored, full of spaces for students to think and write down their ideas, it’s an invitation for them to fill the blank spaces. Whiteboards, whiteboard paint, corkboard panels, and bulletin board strips to hang student work are all possible ways to send the message that your school is receptive to students’ ideas. Giving everybody personal whiteboards may allow students to develop their thoughts privately before sharing them with others.

  • Furnish for flexibility and mobility. Create spaces flexible enough to support all levels of learning, classrooms easily converted from lecture-type seating to discussion groups to learning labs. Desk chairs on wheels not only allow students to move, but also let teachers easily change seating arrangements within class periods as needed.

  • Furnish for comfort and ergonomics. Look at how students sit, move, and use technology. Good design can help students avoid hunching over their keyboards and prevent them from developing repetitive strain injuries. Having chairs with enough space to store a backpack under them can make it easier for teachers and students to walk around. And finally, having chairs that swivel as well as roll can make it physically easier for students to engage in active classroom discussion. With a swivel chair, when you turn your head, your body will follow.

  • Furnish for collaboration — and for solitude. Students need to move, to interact and to be active — but they also need time to get away and think deeply. Today’s classrooms are often designed for activity and collaboration, but remember that students also need periods of deep focus. As digital natives, they have grown up with a constant media barrage, and even young students know they sometimes need to block out distractions. Outside the classrooms — in libraries, study halls, or lounges —think about providing quiet spaces that allow quiet and invite deep thought.

  • Consider future technology needs. With more personal devices being used in group settings, schools will need more ways to communicate and amplify information from a personal device to a larger group. Without well-designed sharing and projection tools, students will remain crowded around laptops at tables and desks.

    Although the “Internet of things” has brought Wi-Fi to everyday objects, it hasn’t freed everybody from being tethered to electrical outlets. No matter how technology is used at school, it is typically accompanied by the need for electrical power. Very often, students are working on older devices that don’t hold much charge or on newer devices that they have forgotten to charge. As a result, they congregate around the perimeter of the room in ways that isolate rather than engage. Design solutions that bring electrical power where it’s needed will solve a simple, yet vexing problem.

  • Don’t limit furnishing to classrooms, because learning is no longer confined to the classroom. In the perfect school, technology and space both serve pedagogy, and the end result is engaged learning.

As education continues to be less about what’s formally taught and more about what students learn through their own initiative, your ability to design spaces to promote learning is imperative. Think of it this way: to furnish the perfect school is to design facilities that truly facilitate student learning.

Mark Walters is the category product manager at Steelcase Education.
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Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

Southeast Education Network

Our Mission: to reinvigorate the spirit of American education