learning space furniture choice

Schools make some curious furniture purchase decisions. Often the caretaker chooses chairs on the basis on what stacks best, or they are all a matching colour, or... but none of this is about making Learning as good as it can be, and making life better for hardworking teachers. The furniture, the FF&E, has the potential to be even more transformative than architecture. Many beautiful new schools have failed for lack of vision in equiping them, many unpreposessing schools have achieved stellar outcomes by simply getting the details right.

Hence this 6 point guide. There are plenty of other places to look for ideas - Pinterest is full of current classroom layouts and ideas for example:

1. Why not just have standard desks and chairs, as shown below - the traditional 20th century "graveyard" layout - this is me (back row, second left) at school in 1961. Standard chairs, standard desks?

school in 1961

There are of course a mass of problems with retaining this layout into the 20teens:

short version: it only suits one ("stand and deliver") style of teaching - collaboration, shared problem solving, practical activities, quiet reading (almost no child chooses this kind of seating for their own voluntary reading), group work, technology rich learning, peer leadership, and much more that is useful are all poorly served by this layout. As a result the teaching is repetitive, disengaging and as well as poor learning, discipline problems occur. So much furniture in one space precludes other specialist furniture (sofas, standing-work tables, etc). Teacher circulation is limited and again discipline problems result.

2. Children are tall, short, wide, slim, like to stand, like to lay down, like to move, like variety. As the students say always in learner led learning design projects: "look at us; how could the same chair and desk suit us all, all the time?".

3. Pedagogy loves furniture diversity. As a teacher, having different colour chairs, having groups of contrasting furniture, having variety, having differing zones, all open up the opportunity to use that diversity in your teaching: "If you're on a green chair, come over here to me please", "The quiet reading-corner folk will be putting resources away at the end, thanks", "if you want to get you head down and work alone today, sit on a red chair"... and so on.

4. We should be preparing children for a lifetime of learning in today and tomorrow's worlds of new parenting, participative citizenship and creative collaborative workplaces. That "graveyard layout" with rows of desks as in ancient typing pools, or the old Victorian factory production lines are long gone; you are doing your children no favours by pretending that they haven't. Images from Google's many offices worldwide, or Digital Jersey's innovation hub look like some of today's cutting edge 3rd millennium classrooms! Some schools even use their learning spaces to signal perhaps aspirational stable home environments - learning to learn at home includes, for some, learning what home could be like too.

5. Education is not musical chairs. When the bell rings they don't all have to rush for a seat and sit on it. If a variety of tasks and activity are structured into their work, then they have choices and many of those choices won't need a desk and chair. If you need to speak to the whole group, tiered seating offers intimacy and engagement, without spilling across the whole floor space the way a graveyard layout does. Schools typically have way too much furniture - partly a reluctance to throw away (money is so tight this is understandable) but partly also a misplaced sense that if children are all sat down in orderly fashion discipline and behaviour will be fine. Typically the more "boisterous" a class are, the more corralling them into false "order" will result in child after child "kicking off". A simple example of behaviour gains on offer is that with a diversity of working places and spaces children arrive early to lessons - when choice is available, early arrivals get the best choices. When the whole space is unremittingly uniform it is a postive incentive to arrive late and minimise the agony.

6. And a late reminder that as STEM and STE(A)M labs and spaces grow, then designing and making your own furniture is wonderful project based learning task - lots of design files on-line to start you off, but the conversation with your students about what is actually needed, and why, triggers students' meta-cognitive reflective practice, and that is such a powerful propellant of quality outcomes. As so many schools have discovered, putting the learners at the heart of choices about space, furniture and usage, however young they are, brings engagment, ownership, huge behavioural gains and much enjoyment.

Finally, a couple of extras: here is a workshop manual of how to teach and learn in these agile spaces with their diverse furniture. Also, here is my daughter Melissa (who co-wrote that workshop manual) taking CEFPI colleagues on a remote tour of her learning spaces at IPACA's much visited Osprey Quay site.

And of course, some images to help you along and to show to your learners and colleagues.


Hope this helps, it is of course just a beginning...


this page created by prof stephen heppell 10/10/05, it started simply but has grown somewhat as we learn more and more; last updated Wednesday, June 1, 2016 8:37 AM