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Mobility in classrooms creates options for face-to-face learning—and a sense of belonging

March 15, 2021

Flexible furniture is helping districts achieve so much more beyond social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic has been grappling for administrators, teachers, students, and families alike. While the transition back to school has been full of ambiguities, one thing we know for certain is the traditional classroom may never be viewed the same way again. 

Portage North Middle School.

Getting back to school

The first major shift started when kids started “going to school” at home via online platforms. But for those returning to physical school, the classroom has become a very different space than what our teachers and students walked out of in the spring of 2020. Districts have each approached the face-to-face return differently, however social distancing tops the list of common adjustments. And as schools adapt to spaced-out learning, mobile furniture has proven to be the number one asset for flexibility, rearrangement, and engagement. 

Coincidentally, one school district in Western Michigan began to realize the benefits of mobility well before the pandemic, only to see far greater positive impacts today. With the 2018 prototype design of Portage Public Schools’ two new middle schools, our interior design team led a furniture pilot to determine what configurations would work best for students and teachers at the new North Middle School and Central Middle School. Reflecting on the pilot, students were empowered to embrace the flexibility of the new furniture in their classrooms and ultimately realized a renewed sense of belonging.

Portage classroom before the pandemic.

A pilot project in Portage

For the pilot, the district chose eight active-learning classrooms across its two existing middle school buildings before completely investing in the shift for its new buildings. Together with furniture manufacturer Steelcase, our team selected four subject learning environments: English + Language Arts, Science, Math, and Foreign Language. Then we worked with those teachers to select a variety of active learning furniture to support their instruction.

Students at both schools were able to kick the tires and try out the furniture, which was spread across four classrooms in each building. They were also empowered to voice their opinions through pre- and post-occupancy surveys. The quantitative and qualitative results highlighted the impact of the new furniture, not only on movement but on collaborative learning and critical thinking activities within the classroom.

What the surveys told us post-installation confirms an issue we have so desperately tried to mitigate during COVID: The need for belonging, which is foundational to wellbeing in certain age groups of young people.

It was no shock that movement within the classroom increased significantly between pre-and post-survey responses (students reported that moving the furniture to support learning increased 100%). In correlation with the reported increase in movement, collaborative learning indicators also increased favorably. In the active learning classroom, the percentage of students reporting they moved to work with others increased 77%. In addition to moving to work with others, students reported a 70% increase in receiving feedback from their peers. One student said: “I feel like it helps me to learn and focus better. At the beginning of the year when we had the ‘boring’ desks, I could not focus no matter what I did. But now that we have a little bit of color and we can move easily, I feel like I can learn better and focus better.”

What the surveys told us post-installation confirms an issue we have so desperately tried to mitigate during COVID: The need for belonging, which is foundational to wellbeing in certain age groups of young people. Studies consistently reveal that students who experience a sense of belonging in educational environments are more motivated and more engaged in both school and classroom activities. Students who feel they belong to learning environments also report higher enjoyment, enthusiasm, happiness, interest, and more confidence in learning activities. On the other hand, those who feel isolated report greater anxiety, boredom, frustration, and sadness during academic engagement, which directly affects academic performance. I’m sure this is something all of us can relate to these days.

One Portage student phrased that feeling of belonging perfectly: “I think that this environment impacts my learning experience in a positive way. How the classroom is set up, we talk in partners almost every day. The classroom is also set up in a way where everyone can see the screen and can talk to the teacher actively.” 

Classroom layouts to support mobility and belonging.

Smart, flexible design

It wasn’t just the students who realized the impact. Our study found that furniture mobility also allowed teachers to more effectively connect and collaborate with their students. One instructor said: “Active learning is holding every kid accountable for constantly being engaged, paying attention, thinking, participating, and at the ready to share their knowledge with one another, the teacher, or the entire class.”

Who would have guessed that just adding casters to furniture, in some cases, would make such an impact! Upon completion of its new middle school buildings in 2019 and 2020, Portage recognized the importance of investing in new “learning neighborhoods” for their middle school students. Moving away from traditional classrooms with static furniture, they envisioned transitioning to an active-learning style configuration that offers greater opportunity for engagement.

While this pilot and the stemming changes were implemented prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, mobile furniture has made the adjustments needed for face-to-face learning in a pandemic far more achievable for districts like Portage. Through smart, flexible design, we can break physical barriers, encourage a sense of inclusion, improve wellbeing, and create safe spaces at the same time. 

Portage North Middle School.

Putting mobility into practice

While replacing furniture may be lower on the list compared to major building renovations or HVAC upgrades, these changes pose significant investments for large school districts. One way our clients have been able to implement such improvements is through state and national programs that promote pre-negotiated, discounted pricing to publicly funded institutions direct through furniture manufacturers. On the state level, such programs include MiDEAL in Michigan and TXMAS in Texas. On the national level, our education clients benefit from the E+I program, offered to public institutions across the country.

When exploring investments in modern flexible furniture, districts can point to pilot programs centered on engagement and productivity, like that of Portage, as a primary, long-term justification. Being able to swiftly mitigate virus spread in learning environments, that’s added incentive.

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