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This article first appeared in American School & University Magazine

The learning landscape is changing quickly and the existing academic facilities infrastructure is hard pressed to keep up with evolving needs of both teachers and students. How schools operate, teachers teach and students learn changes as quickly as the technology.

Within a universe of constant change, one thing has remained unchanged – furniture.

For many, funding cuts have placed a premium on the value schools get from investments in furniture. Built to last, furniture selection goes beyond color or size. Furniture must be flexible and functional while still supporting the needs of individual students. With so much at stake, forecasting the furniture needs in 2010 may seem overwhelming.

Whether considering a retrofit project or new school installation, furniture is important to the planning process. The overall design impacts how furniture will be used in the classroom, how the instructor constructs the curriculum, and the overall learning experience of individual students.

Advanced preparation can save time, increase school room efficiency and create a better learning environment for children of all ages. Armed with information on the room environment, the general purpose (library, computer lab, classroom, etc.) and the enrollment numbers, the first step is to evaluate needs based on three areas of discussion and discovery. Specifically, buyers should look for furniture that makes spaces more versatile, enhances the overall classroom space, and positively affects individual work environments.

By using these areas as measurement criteria when evaluating and selecting classroom and library furniture, you’re extending the longevity of the purchase and your budget.

Extending Furniture Functionality

As new trends in teaching styles emerge, it becomes more important for the entire classroom to be conducive to all types of curriculum. Today, furniture is not just a “thing” anymore, but a tool to aid in the learning process. The different teaching styles that furniture should support involve activities that are collaborative, traditional, self-paced, or one-on-one.

To be most efficient, classroom furniture should work with more than one type of learning. However, not all furniture is designed for this purpose. For example, there is a difference between desks designed specifically for collaborative learning and traditional learning. Although standard square desks can be pushed into groups, they do not support collaborative learning as well as those designed specifically for this style of learning. In a collaborative setting, the teacher moves around from group to group, and furniture designed to work with this learning style provides easier student-teacher interaction, allowing the teacher to address each student individually or the group as a whole.

One example of the need for versatility in furniture can be found when teachers use more than one type of instruction method or style throughout the day, or if the classroom is used by multiple instructors. During first period, students may be engaged in traditional learning where the teacher is lecturing and desks are separated, facing forward. In the afternoon, students may be working in groups to complete a project or to study collectively for an exam. And in the evening, the classroom may be used for community education. In this classroom, seating needs to be easy to move and rearrange to fit specific needs.

Another prevalent trend is the move toward “smart” classrooms and the integration of technology. With this in mind, furniture should accommodate the varied types of technology needed for learning activities. In addition to the dimensions of the work surface, consider power and cable needs.

Maximizing Classroom Real Estate

Through school consolidation and increased enrollment, many schools are finding that classrooms are reaching peak capacity. And as such, it becomes critical to maximize the square footage of the classroom. As one of the main components of a classroom, furniture should make the space comfortable and functional while working within the room’s limitations.

With this in mind, furniture should be conducive to the changing spatial needs of students and instructors. Therefore, furniture selected should be easy to move and store, allowing the classroom to be transformed to facilitate many activities. Whenever possible, desks and tables should be light and easy to safely move by instructors and students. Heavier pieces can be easily moved if they are outfitted with castors. Additionally, most chairs are stackable, which helps to open up the classroom when extra floor space is desired.

One example of this can be found in classrooms that need to be temporarily transformed for activities other than conventional learning. Elementary school classes that put on plays may need to rearrange the space into a theatre, with rows of chairs for audience members and plenty of open space for actors. Middle school classes may spend more time socializing, and therefore have needs to reorganize the classroom to facilitate holiday parties or end-of-the-year celebrations.

Selecting furniture that is easy to move and store makes creating these spaces possible.

Enhancing the Individual Work Environment

Students come in all different shapes and sizes. Some eighth graders may be reaching their adult height, while classmates have significant growing left to do. With such a discrepancy in size, it is important to look for furniture that accommodates these differences.

In the last few years, the number of seating options offered by classroom furniture manufacturers has increased significantly, all with a greater emphasis on ergonomics and comfort for students. This is becoming increasingly important, as it is a well-known fact that students perform better when they are comfortable.

In fact, a study performed by two researchers in the United Kingdom found that children improve in on-task behavior when using ergonomically designed furniture over traditional, less user-friendly models.

With overall student comfort in mind, it also is important to consider the impact that furniture has on classroom air quality. A leading third-party company determined that improved indoor air quality has a positive affect on student learning. Because of this, many classroom furniture manufacturers provide products that are GREENGUARD certified.

Additionally, it is just as important to consider the workspace needs of the teacher as it is the student. One essential – and often unaddressed – teacher need is having a space that is separate from the classroom. Many furniture pieces such as bookshelves, mobile whiteboards and freestanding wardrobe closets can help separate the teacher’s work area.

Putting Theory into Practice

School administrators at Aurora Elementary School in West Fargo, N.D., applied this strategy when they prepared for the school opening in fall 2007. For the staff and students at Aurora Elementary, libraries were not only about storing books; libraries were an extension of the learning environment, requiring tables, chairs, computers and workstations for students.

First, Aurora staff determined the number of books, the different types of stands, bookcase height requirements, the size of tables and overall vision for the library. Working with a furniture manufacturer and a school furniture dealer, Aurora Elementary created a design, layout and organization of its new library that would fulfill its vision.

For example, other libraries they surveyed at had a lot of shelving positioned close together and bookcases were often too high to fit elementary school age groups. For Aurora Elementary, height is not only important for ease-of-use, it’s also a necessary safety feature. By maintaining a height of 42 inches or less, all library spaces are visible so media specialists can spot suspicious behavior.

After only three months, students are enjoying all elements of the new space. Whether reading during the school day or participating in an after school homework program, it’s apparent that the library provides a comfortable environment that aids in learning.

Satisfying the Needs of Many

With so many ideas and a set amount of funding, it might still be a challenge to make the final purchase decision. The good news is that all of the mentioned furniture features can be found on a budget.

What many may not realize is that affordable solutions are available, and having a budget is a good place to start. Classroom furniture dealers can work easily within specified price parameters to outfit a room with furniture to suit the versatility, classroom and individual space requirements of both teachers and students, ultimately creating the ideal learning situation for everyone.