Collaborative learning isn’t new. Since ancient times, we’ve gathered, usually around fire, to talk, listen, negotiate and solve problems. Today’s K-12 students can do the same, especially with furniture suited to the task (and no fire).

Yet, the “burning” question remains: How much do classroom chairs, desks, tables and storage units support collaborative learning pedagogies and facilitate collaborative learning experiences? Especially when there are multiple types of collaboration, including informative, evaluative and generative, as well as peer-to-peer learning and many other emerging modes.

We asked an expert for her professional opinion.

Student Engagement First

Tami O’Neal is a Furniture Planning Specialist and licensed Interior Designer with Huckabee, a Fort Worth-based architectural and engineering firm. They focus exclusively on education, primarily K–12, with the belief that a well-crafted learning environment produces more confident, engaged and accomplished students.

Before she weighed in on collaborative learning specifics, O’Neal gave this bigger-picture advice on selecting furniture: Make student engagement the first priority.

“Balance the need for individual student engagement with the practicalities of evolving curriculum and technology. Furniture is an important tool in the learning environment. We want it to help facilitate learning and, most importantly, not hinder it.”

O’Neal believes that what works for an individual student to fully participate in collaborative learning pairings or groups varies greatly by student preference and age; there is no one right solution or classroom arrangement. In addition, schools have to keep an eye on the future. That means keeping classrooms (and furniture) flexible.

“We ask schools what it means to them to be ‘future-ready.’ They want flexible spaces that can adapt to the changing needs of curriculum and technology for the next five, 10 or 15 years.”

Three Ways Furniture Influences Collaboration

She described how classroom furniture can maximize collaborative learning.

ONE: Boost Student Participation

Our Oodle® Stool is perfect for any grade level, and features a patented rocking mechanism.

Flexible seating – giving students a say in how they sit, where they sit, and what they sit in or on – matters. So do writing and work surfaces, O’Neal said.

“Student choice is critical. The reality is, every student works differently and will be engaged [in collaborative learning] in a different way.” For example, with surfaces, she said having a variety of shapes, sizes and heights is important. “Standing height, for all ages, allows students to move as they need to and not feel disruptive.”

Surfaces: Be square. Or not. As a leading pre-K-12 school furniture manufacturer, Smith System offers various collaborative student desks and school tables in you-name-it shapes, like the Interchange line of contemporary classroom desks and tables. Students can quickly move them into groups of two, four, six or more. School can further vary the mix by adding Smith’s café tables for standing huddles.

What’s important is to allow students to move easily from independent work to group work. You want to set the stage for productive social-emotional connections, face-to-face interactions and problem solving.

Seating: Keep it moving. Or not. Variety in seating heights and types is also essential, and not just for comfort. O’Neal added, “When students can select their seating, they learn self-awareness about what solution allows them to best focus. Some students need movement, some need to stand, some want to sit on the floor.”

Smith System has many durable, lighter-weight options. Its classroom furniture includes student chairs, stools and rockers with no or varying degrees of movement and single or multi-directional seating to promote student collaboration.

“Students love three-position chairs that let them sit and turn around,” O’Neal said. This also promotes equal access for all students to see and interact with content, instructors and other students, often at a moment’s notice. (See Smith’s Flavors Noodle Chair for great examples of three- and four-position classroom seating.)

“Balance the need for individual student engagement with the practicalities of evolving curriculum and technology. Furniture is an important tool in the learning environment. We want it to help facilitate learning and, most importantly, not hinder it.”

TWO: Make Collaborations Easier

Even if your classroom was designed in the last century, don’t wait for a new building to change to a collaborative model. Modern furniture – on wheels – makes up for the drawbacks of older square footage.

“We want to remove the hurdles for student engagement.” O’Neal is adamant about mobile classroom furniture for several reasons.

Go (Recon)Figure. “Absolutely ‘yes’ for casters on tables and desks, and casters are a great option for chairs as well. It’s essential to keep things mobile for easy reconfiguration by students and ease of interacting with their peers.”

Interchange Wing Desks are designed to allow maximum flexibility for students collaboration.

A common example is the think-pair-share (TPS) collaborative learning strategy.  Students work together to solve a problem or answer a question about, for example, an assigned reading. Teachers ask a specific question about the text, which prompts students to think (the “T”) individually. Each student then pairs (the “P”) with another student or a small group to discuss. Lastly, students share (the “S”) their thinking with their partner or group before the teacher expands the share into a whole-class discussion.

Student Ownership. “Many of our clients encourage students to take ownership of their learning,” O’Neal said. That includes participating in reconfiguring classroom furniture during exercises like TPS. “Tables with casters can move out of the way for floor work in younger grades or group together for project work in all grades. This gives students a chance to take responsibility for their learning environment.”

Traveling Teachers. Mobile classroom furniture is important for teachers too, especially those who don’t own their classrooms. They want to quickly reconfigure the space to their collaborative curriculum needs and get to work.

Speaking of traveling teachers, a cornerstone of collaborative learning is giving teachers beeline access to raised hands in working groups. Smith’s streamlined, mobile classroom furniture removes the barriers. Casters are optional for most of its seating, desks, tables, book trucks, school carts and storage units.


To learn more about Smith System furniture,
download our collaborative classroom guide. 

collaborative classroom guide

THREE: Help Define Spaces

O’Neal is a big proponent of making furniture and spaces multi-functional. Even classroom storage – no longer a lowly afterthought –  can play a role in the collaboration game. “We’re seeing less and less built-in storage in today’s classrooms,” O’Neal said, which is good in many respects. “Storage doesn’t have to be just storage. It can be used to divide rooms for group work and as a writable surface.”

Cascade Whiteboard Units are designed to divide learning spaces and maximize their footprint’s usability.

Storage to Divide and Conquer. Smith’s Cascade Storage Units model how classroom storage can go to work. The units come in three heights – cases, cabinets and towers. Students or teachers can easily position the mobile units into temporary space dividers. Schools can customize the units to hold items in a wide range of sizes and shapes, from sheets of paper and markers to laptops and circuit boards, with options like removeable totes, shelves and drawers.

Write on. As an added bonus, Cascade offers an optional whiteboard back panel or large spiral notebook that sits atop the unit. Why does that matter? Collaboration, of course.

That’s according to a 2013 research article in the peer-reviewed journal, Planning for Higher education. The article offered 12 factors for student-engagement; collaboration is number one. So in addition to shaped tables on castors and flexible seating, schools are populating their learning environments with plentiful writing surfaces. The gist:

“Educators have known for some time that when students are encouraged to show their work publicly in emotionally-safe environments, they move beyond a fear of failure and learn to iterate together in meaningful ways. Given the right tools and mindset, they become adept at problem-solving together. Building upon one another’s thinking, they learn to cultivate a culture of collaboration and the skills they will need for success in the 21st century.”

Coming Full Circle

Finally, when choosing new collaborative classroom furniture, keep an open mind, O’Neal advised.

“When you create a culture that allows a student to thrive by encouraging movement, engagement, teamwork, problem solving, self-awareness and social interactions, you get more value out of your investment than the furniture itself.”

You could say modern collaborative furniture is returning students to the ancient concept of collaborative learning around the primordial firepit (with no fire and many more comforts).