Collaborative learning is indeed the way of the future, but the concept is far from new. As humans, we’ve gathered since the beginning of time to share stories, love, and laughter with each other. Today’s students can do the same, but they’ll need collaborative classroom furniture sufficient for inspiration and advanced learning in order to do so. 

One question remains: Just how much do things such as modern classroom designs, blended furniture, and flexible seating support traditional learning pedagogies in ways that facilitate collaborative learning experiences? And further, how do we accommodate multiple types of collaboration—i.e. informative, evaluative, generative, and peer-to-peer learning—amongst many other emerging modes?

In tandem with our partners at Smith System, we asked an expert for her professional opinion.

Student Engagement First

Tami O’Neal is a Furniture Planning Specialist and licensed Interior Designer with Huckabee, a Texas-based architectural and engineering firm. They focus exclusively on education—primarily K–12—with the belief that a well-crafted blended learning environment develops more confident, engaged and accomplished students.

Before she weighed in on collaborative learning specifics, O’Neal provided some specific advice on selecting furniture: Make student engagement the first priority.

“Balance the need for individual student engagement with the practicalities of evolving curriculum and technology. Furniture is an important tool in the learning environment. We want it to help facilitate learning and, most importantly, not hinder it.”

O’Neal believes that what works for an individual student to fully participate in a blended learning environment varies greatly by student preference and age; there is no one right solution or classroom layout. In addition, schools have to keep an eye on the future. That means keeping classrooms (and furniture) flexible.

“We ask schools what it means to them to be ‘future-ready.’ They want flexible classrooms that can adapt to the changing needs of curriculum and technology for the next five, 10, or 15 years.”

Three Ways In Which Furniture Influences Collaboration

O’Neal then described how classroom furniture can maximize collaborative learning.

ONE: Boost Student Participation

Flexible seating: giving students a say in how they sit, where they sit, and what they sit on matters. Writing and work surfaces matter too, O’Neal said. “Student choice is critical. The reality is, every student works differently and will be engaged [in active learning] in a different way.” For example, with surfaces, she said having a variety of shapes, sizes and heights is important. “Standing height, for all ages, allows students to move as they need to and not feel disruptive.”

Surfaces: Be square. Or not. As a leading pre-K-12 school furniture manufacturer, Smith System offers various collaborative student desks, multimedia tables, and pod desks in all shapes and sizes. Students can quickly move them into groups of two, four, six or more. The school can further vary the mix by adding Smith’s café tables for standing huddles. What’s important is to allow students to move easily from independent work to group work. You want to set the stage for productive social-emotional connections, face-to-face interactions, and problem solving.

Seating: Keep it moving. Or not. Variety in seating heights and types is also essential, and not just for comfort. O’Neal added, “When students can select their seating, they learn self-awareness about which solution allows them to best focus. Some students need movement, some need to stand, some want to sit on the floor.”

Smith System has many durable, lighter-weight options. Its modular classroom furniture includes student chairs, stools, and rockers with no or varying degrees of movement and single or multi-directional seating to promote student collaboration.

“Students love three-position chairs that let them sit and turn around,” O’Neal said. This also promotes equal access for all students to see and interact with content, instructors and other students, often at a moment’s notice.

TWO: Make Collaborations Easier

Even if your classroom was designed last century, don’t wait for a new building to change to a collaborative model. Flexible classroom furniture—on wheels—makes up for the drawbacks of older square footage. “We want to remove the hurdles for student engagement.” O’Neal is adamant about mobile classroom furniture for several reasons.

Go (Recon)Figure. “Absolutely ‘yes’ for casters on tables and desks, and casters are a great option for chairs as well. It’s essential to keep things mobile for easy reconfiguration by students and ease of interacting with their peers.”

A common example is the think-pair-share (TPS) collaborative learning strategy.  Students work together to solve a problem or answer a question about, for example, an assigned reading. Teachers ask a specific question about the text, which prompts students to think (the “T”) individually. Each student then pairs (the “P”) with another student or a small group to discuss. Lastly, students share (the “S”) their thinking with their partner or group before the teacher expands the share into a whole-class discussion.

Student Ownership. “Many of our clients encourage students to take ownership of their learning,” O’Neal said. That includes participating in reconfiguring collaborative classroom furniture during exercises such as TPS. “Tables with casters can move out of the way for floor work in younger grades or group together for project work in all grades. This gives students a chance to take responsibility for their blended learning environment.”

Traveling Teachers. Mobile classroom furniture is important for teachers too, especially those who don’t own their classrooms. They want to quickly reconfigure the space for their collaborative curriculum needs and get to work.

Speaking of traveling teachers, a cornerstone of collaborative learning is giving teachers beeline access to raised hands in working groups. Smith’s streamlined, mobile classroom furniture removes the barriers. Casters are optional for most of its seating, desks, tables, book trucks, school carts and storage units.

THREE: Help Define Spaces

O’Neal is a big proponent of making furniture and spaces multi-functional. Even classroom storage—no longer a lowly afterthought—can play a role in the collaboration game. “We’re seeing less and less built-in storage in today’s classrooms,” O’Neal said, which is good in many respects. “Storage doesn’t have to be just storage. It can be used to divide rooms for group work and as a writable surface.”

Storage to Divide and Conquer. Smith’s Cascade Storage Units model how classroom storage can go to work. The units come in three different heights: cases, cabinets and towers. Students or teachers can easily position the mobile units into temporary space dividers. Schools can customize the units to hold items in a wide range of sizes and shapes, from sheets of paper and markers to laptops and circuit boards, with options like removable totes, shelves and drawers.

Write on. As an added bonus, Cascade offers an optional whiteboard back panel or large spiral notebook that sits atop the unit. Why does that matter? 

Collaboration, of course.

That’s according to a 2013 research article in the peer-reviewed journal, Planning for Higher Education. The article offered 12 factors for student-engagement; collaboration is number one. So in addition to shaped tables on castors and flexible seating, schools are populating their blended learning environments with plentiful writing surfaces. Here’s the gist:

“Educators have known for some time that when students are encouraged to show their work publicly in emotionally-safe environments, they move beyond a fear of failure and learn to iterate together in meaningful ways. Given the right tools and mindset, they become adept at problem-solving together. Building upon one another’s thinking, they learn to cultivate a culture of collaboration and the skills they will need for success in the 21st century.”

Coming Full Circle

Finally, when choosing new collaborative classroom furniture, O’Neal advised to keep an open mind.

“When you create a culture that allows a student to thrive by encouraging movement, engagement, teamwork, problem solving, self-awareness and social interactions, you get more value out of your investment than the furniture itself.”

For reference, you could say that modern classroom design is returning students to the ancient concept of collaborative learning around the primordial group circle—in the present day.

Contact us here to book a free education consultation to go over your classroom layouts and school floor plans with our educational design experts for customized feedback.