Deconstructing classroom seating
(Mich.) Students file into a classroom and begin sinking into bean bag chairs, bouncing lightly on yoga balls or standing at tall tables. Relaxed environments like this – known as active classrooms - are quickly springing up across the country, replacing the standard, formalized setting.
Two high school teachers in Michigan replaced the traditional seating arrangements in their mathematics and history classes this year, opting for the freedom of a less stressful, more comfortable setting. In Florida, one district received nearly $2 million dollars in grants to bring in technology and furniture to develop active learning environments.
“The physical space can change the learning that happens in that classroom,” said Brenda Farmer, senior learning environment designer at the University of California Berkeley. “(But) there are a lot of different approaches. It really depends on the instructor and what kind of support they get so that they receive learn how to maximize that space and how it relates to teaching and learning.”
Active classrooms don’t have to include bean bag chairs or yoga balls. Some may use technology in ways conducive to student participation and discussion, and many are simply arranged so that desks are set up to allow students to sit and work in small groups.
According to Farmer, as students become used to sitting in groups regularly, discussion happens naturally, students tend to be more relaxed and willing to engage with one another, and the students will also teach each other. That level of collaboration, she said, is something reflected in the modern workplace.
“Students are learning by exploring, by asking questions and by having discussions between themselves,” Farmer said. “The faculty are guiding it in a way, but the end result is that students are having deeper, more engaging conversations with each other.”
One of the difficulties with small groups is the lack of space in many classrooms, which gives teachers less of a chance to be flexible and move things around to accommodate activities. Often times, the only way to accommodate all the students is with desks aligned in traditional rows.
However, what tends to be most problematic are the teachers, many of whom feel more comfortable standing up at the front of the room and conducting the class from the whiteboard instead of moving and engaging with students in different ways.
“It’s so foreign to instructors who have been taught that when they walk into the room they own the space,” Farmer said. “They don’t think that the space is about the students, or the students’ experience or what they take away when they leave that classroom.”
A number of studies have shown that what students do take away from active learning are increased content knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. They also show more positive attitudes toward learning than their peers in traditional settings.
Although the change is still new in Alcona, Michigan, the two teachers there say they have already seen a number of benefits in their students, including more focus and fewer students walking in late.
"We just wanted to create the most comfortable atmosphere,” history teacher Ashlie O'Connor told The Alpena News. “Comfort is focus and it makes instruction more successful and I think we have seen that. It's been great."