By David Stewart
This article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of American School & University
Classrooms are adapting to new teaching approaches, propelling the educational environment to new heights of learning. This ever-changing environment tasks school districts to take a serious look at purchases to ensure that each dollar spent positively impacts students immediately and into the future. With funding decisions scrutinized by teachers, parents and tax payers alike, purchases must align with district goals and maximize return on investment (ROI) regardless of how learning styles may change.
With purchases under a microscope, every component in the evolving landscape must be synchronized to help students thrive – from the instructors, to the technology and the furniture. So when it comes to one of the most fundamental teaching tools in the classroom –furniture – the investment needs to be smart; furniture supports students’ precious bodies and enables teachers to incorporate new learning approaches.
From a traditional perspective, it’s oftentimes hard to quantify the ROI of furniture in relation to student achievement. By looking at ROI from a different view using new terms, decision-makers can quickly see how the payoff of a smart furniture investment goes far beyond budget line items. The new view evaluates furniture investments according to the ROLE the furniture will play, the OCCUPANTS who will use the furniture, and the INHERENT CHARACTERISTICS of the furniture.
Beyond the tables and chairs that physically support student lessons, furniture can either enhance or detract from the curriculum’s impact on learning. Understanding curricular demands and how furniture works with it is a crucial for the furniture to enhance learning.
Over the last 20 years schools have made a substantial shift toward curriculums with collaborative learning that emphasizes group work. With collaborative activities, furniture gets grouped together whether or not it’s designed to. In these situations, desks geometrically designed to fit together in cohesive groupings of four, six or eight will ensure that the workspaces will enhance collaborative activities, not detract from them.
A great way to determine if furniture will meet curricular demands is to involve teachers in the classroom planning process. Teachers know the daily requirements of the learning landscape, and can help determine which furniture will maximize their ability to instruct. For example, when the 116-year-old Harker School in San Jose, Calif., began researching furniture for its new science and technology building, the facility manager involved teachers to confirm the furniture selected would align with the curriculum.
“Involving the teachers in the selection process was a crucial factor in picking the right furniture,” says Mike Bassoni, the school’s facility manager. “This ensured that the decision the school was about to make was satisfactory to those who would give the furniture the most use.”
In this situation, teachers needed the furniture to work within the broad range of courses taught in the new building – from lab-focused classes to lectures and everything in between. And within these classes, the curriculum often required easy reconfiguration of the room. Involving teachers in the selection process led the Harker School to select trapezoid-shaped tables that could be used individually or easily grouped together for collaborative sessions, allowing teachers to modify their teaching landscape to the lesson of the day.
“The furniture is easy to move, and allows us to seamlessly adapt to any given situation,” says Eric Nelson, teacher at the Harker School. “I now have a lot more options for those ‘teachable moments.’”
Curricular demands also influence the furniture solutions for spaces with designated uses, such as libraries and art rooms. If art projects require students to stand up while manipulating materials, tall tables and stools will have a greater impact on their ability to learn and participate than standard-height desks and chairs. Regardless of a district’s curricular requirements, investing in flexible furniture that is easily moved, reconfigured, stacked and nested will make the purchase more versatile as education continues to evolve.
The most important people to consider when planning a smart furniture investment are students. If students experience physical discomfort in the classroom due to improper seating, they become distracted and their ability to concentrate and learn suffers.
In one instance, a school district in Texas realized a noticeable increase in test scores and the only classroom variable that had changed was the furniture. While these results may be atypical, there are substantial anecdotal and documented studies supporting the position that furniture does have an impact on the overall success of the student.
To positively impact students’ ability to learn, evaluate seating for its ergonomic design, as well as its ability to allow students to move while seated. Students have high levels of energy, and if they can’t get the chair to move with them and support them at the same time, they’ll fidget and lose attention quickly. Flexible, ergonomically-designed seating also enables students to stay seated comfortably for longer periods of time.
“It’s important to give students the right tools to help them succeed immediately and in the long run,” says Cathy Shields, senior interior designer at DES Architects + Engineers who worked on the Harker School project. “Ergonomically-designed chairs allow students to succeed by making them comfortable and directing the focus back to the lessons – not on fidgeting or discomfort. Because of this, furniture can have a very positive impact on students not just now, but into the future as well.”
Furniture fit is equally important, as a furniture mismatch can actually take a physical toll on students. Research from theJournal of Adolescent Health implies that a disparity between school furniture and body size may be a cause of musculoskeletal problems among students.
While complete furniture customization for each student is understandably not realistic, there are choices available to create a more personalized fit. Select chairs in a series that have the same style but different seat shell sizes, and choose desks with adjustable-height legs for easy customization. For more mature classrooms, adjustable-height chairs with castors accommodate long and short legs.
To test furniture fit, have a cross section of the student population try the options in advance of a purchase. One middle school in Colorado wanted its furniture purchase to have a positive impact on its diverse student body, so it set up a furniture test room with options for student trial. The school recruited students of varying heights, weights and learning needs to test the furniture to determine where adjustments should be made before committing.
The Inherent Characteristics
Not all school furniture is created equal – the research behind the product, the design process, the materials used and the manufacturing standards all affect the final product. Knowing this, there are several furniture characteristics that not only illustrate a high level of quality but also make a long-lasting furniture investment. These characteristics are durability and sustainability.
Regardless of the dollars spent on furniture, it’s expected to last for years; however, not all furniture will. Many schools struggle with the temptation to buy inexpensive furniture without giving much thought to its construction. To ensure the purchase will stand up to daily use from active students, evaluate furniture for its durability and strength. The more durable the furniture invested in now, the fewer replacement desks and chairs will be needed in the long run.
Take the Harker School, for example. Administrators valued durability in the furniture selection for their new science and technology building, having learned the hard lesson of “you get wheat you pay for” in previous furniture investments. While cost remained a top decision-making criterion, the school weighted heavily the longevity factor: with nearly 7,000 students expected to use the many classrooms in the building each day, it was imperative that the furniture was durable enough to stand up to daily wear and tear.
“The furniture we had previously purchased aligned with the school’s budget; however, it didn’t provide the durability we expected,” said Bassoni. “We were open to considering other options because high-quality furniture for Harker was a must.”
After testing the options, the school selected long-lasting desks and chairs that would hold up to heavy teenager use.
When evaluating furniture durability, look for pieces made with high-pressure laminates and metals with baked-on powdercoat finishes. Structural elements also affect the durability of the furniture, so look for chair with glides that are securely fastened, steel chair legs with a heavy gauge, and tables with bumper edges that are securely fastened all the way around.
All things considered, the best way to determine furniture durability is to try it before you buy it. Getting hands-on with the furniture allows administrators, facility managers and maintenance staff to feel the strength and durability, and also to study the construction.
Durability isn’t the only inherent characteristic to look for in furniture. Beyond this tangible characteristic is the intangible aspect of sustainability – a critical furniture requirement for healthy classrooms.
According to the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, children spend about 85 percent of their time indoors where the air is two to five times more polluted than outdoor air. Indoor air pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), come from building and furnishing materials and can contribute to health conditions, including asthma and allergy attacks.
For a healthy classroom, select sustainable furniture products that meet or exceed all environmental and air quality standards available on the state and national level.
More importantly, all the certifications the furniture boasts should come from third-party entities. Be wary of “green” statements not supported by recognized certification programs. With proper due diligence on sustainability claims, the furniture purchase will contribute to student health immediately and in the long run.
Using the new lenses
Knowing what makes a smart furniture investment is one thing, but finding the perfect fit takes hands-on planning. Testing furniture before making a district-wide commitment will confirm that you new high standards are met, and that the investment will provide a lasting return.
Furniture manufacturers make samples accessible to decision-makers through education expos, furniture fairs and their own furniture showrooms. Some manufacturers also offer furniture samples that can be tested in the school for a period of time.
Districts that are serious about maximizing their furniture investment take it a step further by outfitting an entire classroom with furniture samples for weeks before making a purchase decision. This true trial run allows administrators, teachers, maintenance staff, and even students to test durability, comfort and flexibility, and most importantly ensures the furniture works with curricular demands to enhance both teaching and learning.
Regardless of how it’s tested, evaluating furniture according to the ROLE it will play, the OCCUPANTS who will use it, and the INHERENT CHARACTERISTICS of the furniture will maximize ROI and guarantee the purchase pays back for years to come.
Parcells, C, Stommel, M, & Hubbard , R. (1999). Mismatch of classroom furniture and student body dimensions: empirical findings and health implications. Journal of Adolescent Health , 24(4), 265-273.