Does your school’s furniture support learning styles and improve performance?
Choosing the best furniture for students means accepting that not just any chair will do.
When it comes to educational facilities, furniture becomes the last powerful element of a strong architectural statement. Furniture responds to function, but also helps create the feel of a space.
Students interact with furniture more than any other design element. They see it and touch it. They work, learn, eat, relax, socialize, and think on it.
Furniture can blend in with its surroundings so much that it becomes barely noticeable, or it can stand out as a focal point or even a talking piece. Furniture can bring students together, or intuitively and quietly separate functions. It creates zones, provokes conversations, personalizes spaces, offers choices, and helps students relax so they can think and focus.
Furniture tells a story.
Among the factors that impact school furniture selection are size, shape, color, scale, materials, height, ergonomics, movement, durability, performance, maintenance, flexibility, and comfort. As interior designers, we need to balance those factors while asking questions: What is the vision? The function? The overall design direction? Who will use the space, and for how long? All these questions and many others fuel the discussion of what we are trying to accomplish with furniture on an educational project.
To support teaching and learning, educational furniture needs to respond to instructional trends, technology interactions, learning styles, and pedagogies. Research has shown that furniture plays a big role in student engagement, health, focus, and interaction.
Following is an exploration of the connection between furniture and the four learning styles—visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing—described by Neil D. Fleming and Coleen E. Mills.
These spatial learners and observers are highly engaged by their surroundings. They thrive when they sense visual movement in furniture, color, whiteboards, and smartboards. Views of the outdoors are even better. Worksurfaces and wall surfaces allow them to express themselves and display their creations. Flexible, comfortable furniture helps them move throughout the space and observe from different perspectives. It also supports presentations.
Makeovers of two classrooms at Heartland Community College exemplify design for visual (and other) learners. The space not only supports teaching and learning but also creates prototypes for future renovations. All wall surfaces except windows have markerboards. The spaces give students more choice over their environment and improve faculty-to-student and student-to-student interaction. Low-tech and high-tech features and movable furniture allow for easy shifting between lecture-style, learner-led, and teacher-guided lessons.
As acoustic learners, these students speak out and learn through sound. Listening is their strength. They need spaces where they can hear their voices echo. Designers can use furniture to create sound zones that benefit auditory learners. These areas support loud presentations and fun group work discussions, as well as quiet study and deep concentration.
The STEM labs at Niles North and West high schools offer zones for both collaboration and individual study. Specific spaces include a “Think Tank” for multimedia presentations, a lab zone for problem-solving, and study carrels for independent work.
These are the tactile learners, the doers, the makers … the students who are always on the move. A still environment will never work for these students—they need furniture that moves with them. It must support, rather than obstruct, their energy and their desire to move and make.
Harper College’s The Make Shop, for instance, is located on the second floor of the renovated David K. Hill Family Library. Students use the movable chairs in this content creation lab while working with tools ranging from high-tech to no-tech.
Reading and Writing Learners
Whereas visual learners are drawn to images and colors, reading and writing learners focus on words. Strong in imagination and curiosity, they are fascinated by technology and are on the constant search for new information. This group, more than any other, appreciates areas that support concentration. Acoustics in furniture design and casual separations reinforce their type of learning.
Ergonomics also plays an important role in selecting furniture for these learners. While their kinesthetic counterparts are constantly on the move, reading and writing learners often remain still as they engage in intense mental activity. Therefore, furniture must comfortably support their bodies. Spending long periods in a chair with substandard ergonomics can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, and neck and back problems. And if something hurts, performance suffers.
Breaking Free from the “Any Chair Will Do” Mindset
Learning happens in a variety of ways … not just sitting in rows and listening to a teacher. I encourage school owners and architects to consider the role of furniture in educational environments. When we break free of the “any chair will do” mentality, learning improves.
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