For most people, the word “flexibility” conjures up images of impossible yoga poses. But in the K-12 education arena, that word has proven to be a perennial favorite on education trend lists, including those for 2014.

Take a quick scan and you’ll see education magazines, bloggers and other social media messengers flooding us with trend forecasts that stress the need for flexible classrooms. That voice will only grow louder as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) spread. To date, 45 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the CCSS.


Common Core Driving Design

Architects and their clients are using the CCSS to inspire new flexible classrooms. Case in point, the January 2014 issue of Architectural Record1 features an in depth story by writer C.C. Sullivan that details how CCSS is driving design. The goal: build creative, effective learning environments to support the ever-evolving needs of students, teachers and instructional methods.

This includes the need for flexible – yet controllable — physical spaces and furnishings. If you’re building to the Common Core, that means spaces that help maximize class time, help students to be engaged in their lessons individually and collaboratively, and spaces that incorporate technology into learning.

Yet the challenge remains. How do you design, build and furnish for a future that’s unknown? As Hillary Greene recently stated in her Jan. 21, 2014, post on Education Week Teacher2, “The key … of future design should be flexibility of spaces to account for the fact that so many factors of education — technology, pedagogy, funding — change too quickly to design for in any permanent way.”


Flexible Space Borne from Tragedy

For one school, change unwillingly and in seconds. Yet its leaders’ response inspired award-winning flexibility. Joplin High School in Joplin, MO, was one of 10 schools destroyed by the devastating tornado that struck the area in May of 2011. Faced with an urgent need to rebuild, the school district and designers had to move quickly. The resulting interim high school in a repurposed abandoned big-box store showed sophisticated, forward thinking that incorporated flexible design, despite a lack of budget and time.

Learning by Design3 magazine awarded the school a 2013 Honorable Mention award for impressive educational design described as incorporating, “large open spaces for collaboration and socializing, a variety of seating options, and unique, functional learning spaces.” Joplin’s new high school will open in the fall of this year. It will be interesting to compare what aspects of the interim school – a literal test site– were incorporated into the new design.


Furnishing for Flexibility

Building flexible classroom space meets only part of the demand for flexibility in 21st century learning. Classroom furniture must be easy to move and quickly configured into shapes that meet the lesson at hand – arranged together for collaborative work, pulled apart for individual privacy. Seating, tables and storage units must be highly adaptable and easy to store. And furnishings must accommodate the need for safe power distribution and connectivity with minimal fuss.

“Mobility is key,” said Molly Parnell, vice president of Smith System, a manufacturer of 21st century classroom furniture. “We don’t know where these classrooms are going 10 to 20 years from now, so we’re ‘future-proofing’ our designs.” For Smith System, that means designing classroom tables, chairs and storage pieces that are interchangeable, mobile, multi-purpose and durable.


Temper Trends with Common Sense

Despite the fact that “flexible” seems here to stay, approach it with common sense and trust-your-gut intuition. Charity Preston, author, teacher, parent, and creator of the Organized Classroom blog, recently offered this practical advice:

“While all k-12 education trends come and go, teachers have individual teaching styles, much as every student has a different learning style. Not all trends will ‘speak’ to all teachers; therefore that is why the latest beginning-of-the-year new idea will not work for the entire district. It may very well be a phenomenal tip that will work in wonderful ways for part of the staff, but perhaps not so well for others. Maybe the new start-of-the-school-year meeting should allow teachers to sort through all the recent trends and self-reflect on what will work best with their instructional methods to create a toolbox of effective strategies. Only then will districts have instructors that are ready to show others what great test scores look like!” 4

As you move into the new year, stay current with evolving educational trends. But don’t let the professional predictors trump your instincts. What works for one educator or student may not work for another. Which brings us full circle: Stay Flexible!

1 Sullivan, C.C., “School Standards and Design Advance.” Architectural Record. (Jan. 2014): p. 147.
2 Greene, Hillary, “Flexible Learning Spaces for an Uncertain Future.” Education Week Teacher (online) (Jan. 21, 2014).
3 Dangelico, Lia K., “Authentic Learning.” Learning by Design. (Spring 2014): p. 9 – 10.
4 Preston, Charity, “K-12 Education Trends.” Ezine Articles (online) (Feb. 14, 2014).