Peek into the buildings in Pascack Valley Regional High School District and you’ll see diner-like booths to help with collaboration in one classroom, stadium seating in another, and in others, soft seating, including couches and bean bag chairs. The hallways are lined with bistro tables, and teachers are encouraged to take classes outside.
The northern New Jersey district, which includes two high schools, is on the leading edge of a nationwide trend that’s hard to miss if you’re an educator on Instagram or Pinterest: flexible seating.
Teachers are using their own money and scouring thrift shops for rocking chairs and mats, in order to give students a cozy alternative to desks in rows. Districts are pouring tens of thousands of dollars into revamping classrooms to get away from the traditional seating arrangements. A district in Colorado has even designed a professional-development course that helps educators make the most of their classroom spaces.
The idea behind the trend, which was partly inspired by efforts to make workplace seating more flexible for adults: to make students feel more comfortable, to create more opportunities for them to collaborate with peers, and perhaps, to get them more involved in their learning.
“It’s important for students, when they are spending hours in school, to be not just sitting behind a laptop, not just sitting in rows of desks, but getting up, moving, to increase engagement,” said Erik Gundersen, the superintendent of the Pascack Valley district. He’s such a believer in the idea that he’s spent up to $12,000 a year for the past five years helping three to four teachers annually remake their classrooms. He even conducted his doctoral dissertation research on the topic.
But other educators say the approach has led to classroom-management disasters. And some experts are skeptical that the approach is backed up by any meaningful research.
Changes to a physical environment could have an impact on students and teachers, said Dan Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. But it’s really hard to document just how much of an effect it has on student achievement or even on things like collaboration and communication, he added. That’s because there are so many factors that are likely to be more important, including the educator and his or her teaching style.
His advice to districts: Don’t shell out tens of thousands of dollars to consultants who say they can help change learning environments, which, in turn, will improve achievement.
Upsides and Downsides
Andy Calkins, the director of Next Generation Learning Challenges, which offers districts competitive grants to revamp their schools, had a similar take.
“Is there solid research that shows a direct link between different kinds of classroom setups and test scores,” Calkins asked. “There might be, but I couldn’t name one for you.” Instead, he said, the new types of design may be more likely to affect factors beyond traditional academics, such as student engagement.
That’s been the case for Tina Marchiano, an English teacher at Pascack Valley High School. She was among the first to take the district up on its opportunity to redo her classroom, replacing traditional desks with café tables that have white boards on top, so students can write on them. She added a couch and about 10 big, plush rolling chairs, perfect for curling up with a book. And she ditched her own desk, so that she could be “more of a woman of the people,” circulating throughout the room during lessons, she said.
She’s been teaching in this new environment for about four years. And while she can’t say for sure if it’s had an impact on student achievement, it’s definitely added to a sense of classroom community.
“Kids come in and feel a sense of comfort and belonging in there,” she said. “They own the room a little bit more because it is something different.”
The biggest downside: The close quarters may be great for collaboration and classwork, but they are less optimal when it’s time to take a big, summative assessment. Marchiano said she reserves the library on test day, so her students aren’t tempted to peek at their neighbor’s paper.
Another hiccup: It can get complicated—and expensive—to get replacement parts for this specially-selected classroom furniture. It’s also been a challenge for teachers who may have to share a classroom. What works for one might not work for the other, Gundersen, the superintendent, said.
But Gundersen is convinced that those struggles are worth it. In fact, for his dissertation, he explored the question of whether this type of arrangement helped bolster what he calls the four Cs: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.
What he found, after interviewing more than a dozen teachers in a suburban district outside New York City that also employs the flexible seating: The different arrangement did indeed seem to have a positive impact on communication and collaboration. But improvements to critical thinking and creativity need to be accompanied by bigger changes to curriculum and instruction.
Teachers of younger students are also exploring the strategy.
Michael Dunlea, who teaches a 3rd grade inclusion class in southern New Jersey’s Tabernacle Township school district, let his students design their own classroom last year. He brought in some special furniture—a rocking chair, bean bag chairs, and a couch—and let his students vote on what went where. The district provided a rug.
“My goal is to get the kids to love coming into the room,” he said. “The more you make it look like a fun environment to be, the easier it is to get them to come and be ready to learn and be less stressed because they are coming in the door with so much stress and anxiety.”
The St. Vrain Valley district, not far from Boulder, Colo., took a more formal approach: It offered teachers a course in what the district terms “neurologically sound practices and research,” including sensory integration and universal design for learning, which entails creating lessons and classroom materials that are flexible enough to accommodate different learning styles. The main purpose of the experience was to help educators rethink their use of space.
“Some kids like to stand, some kids like to sit on the floor, and giving up that control is hard sometimes for teachers,” said Emily Scott, the district’s special education coordinator, who has a deep background in occupational therapy and led the course. “You have 30 positions [for students in a classroom], you don’t necessarily have 30 seats.” Last school year, the district was able to find money in the budget—about $8,000 to $10,000—to help each participating teacher buy new furniture, including café tables, tall tables, and floor cushions. (A second cohort this year determined its classroom needs and then developed plans based on them.)
That inspired an ‘HGTV'-like redesign blitz, with teachers transforming their rooms to get rid of unused bookshelves and simplify what was on the walls. Before that, in some elementary classrooms, “it was very difficult to know what to pay attention to or to keep attention on any given task, given the visual noise that was present,” said Zac Chase, St. Vrain Valley’s secondary language arts curriculum coordinator.
Teachers made sure there was a quiet space in their classrooms, where students could relax, an atmosphere that is particularly important for children who may be anxious or are experiencing trauma at home, Chase said.
At this point, the district doesn’t have data to show that the changes have had an impact on student achievement because the overhaul is too new. But there’s anecdotal evidence that some students, and teachers, are more engaged in class, Scott said.
The approach doesn’t work for everyone.
Kayse Morris, a former 8th grade teacher who recently left the classroom to serve as a consultant and coach, was inspired by Instagram to try flexible seating. But it didn’t work out the way she had hoped.
She spent more than $500 of her own money on recliners, a couch, a few rocking chairs, a coffee table, bean bag chairs, and a rug. “I’ll be honest, I did it because the Instagram world made me feel like it was going to make me a better teacher,” said Morris, who at the time taught language arts at Coffee Middle School in Douglas, Ga.
The students took to the new furniture right away. “I was the coolest teacher on the hallway right out the gate,” she said.
But that actually turned out to be a bad thing. Students used the looser structure to cheat. Some fell asleep on the couch during class. Students in special education who joined the class through inclusion had trouble adjusting to the lack of routine.
And then, the day before the Christmas holiday break started, a student stepped through the coffee table. “That was the last straw,” Morris said. She and her husband spent the break getting rid of the comfy seating and putting the desks in her classroom back into traditional rows.
“The rest of the year was fantastic,” she said.
Some experts say educators trying this new approach should expect it to be a bumpy ride at first.
Generally, it can take roughly six months for teachers to get comfortable with new types of learning spaces, said Wesley Imms, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia. Imms has studied the impact of innovative classroom design on schools across Australia, which has experimented more in recent years with new types of learning spaces than schools in the United States.
Imms’ survey of 1,500 Australian educators has found that new types of learning spaces—which Down Under can mean everything from flexible walls to classrooms with outdoor seating, not just changes in furniture—can help students become more creative and collaborative. There is also emerging, but still limited research, that the new kinds of spaces boost outcomes in reading and math, he said.
But just making changes to a space isn’t enough.
“These spaces by themselves don’t necessarily guarantee a different type of teaching, a different type of learning. It has to come from an educational vision,” Imms said. “But we can’t expect the space to do all the work. Because it won’t. You can put a teacher in a brand-new innovative space, and that teacher may teach the way they’ve always taught, and therefore, the kids will probably learn much the way they’ve always learned.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2020 edition of Education Week as Popularized by Social Media, ‘Flexible Seating’ Is All the Rage in K-12