Is a Flexible Classroom Right for You?

In last month’s post my colleague Jon Rollins discussed some of the considerations at the intersection of space planning, room utilization and building programming.  In this post, we will look at an individual learning space and a few simple, but often overlooked, steps to maximize its use.  The flexible classroom is often considered a space panacea whether they reflect the actual needs of the teachers or not.  Flexible classrooms are extremely powerful, but only when the faculty desire them and are trained appropriately on their furniture and technology.

Faculty preparedness within a given room program varies greatly between schools and programs.  Sometimes faculty can select the room they teach in, sometimes they cannot; sometimes faculty are in a single room all day, and sometimes they move around.  In both cases it is the latter that can complicate the life of a teacher.  At their core, flexible classrooms are a fantastic idea.  They allow for a room to be set up in multiple configurations which in turn means that a person can teach in any manner they wish, and even in multiple ways in a single class, simply by rearranging the furniture (lecture, group work, individual work, Socratic, etc.).  Mark Hubbard at Paragon Furniture notes that “learning spaces that are flexible and can support a wide range of learning styles and activities – with furniture that can be rearranged to accommodate different groupings and flows of information quickly and easily – are critical in helping teachers navigate various modalities”. Challenges arise when teachers are not accustomed to teaching within a flexible classroom or are forced to contend with the previous teacher leaving the room in disarray.  Teacher and students may lose precious minutes reconfiguring the room if the furniture was left in a different setting by the previous class.  This is especially challenging when there are even small digressions of student discipline.

Technology within classrooms is changing rapidly; almost daily.  With the introduction of wireless technology in classrooms, the flexible classroom has become significantly less constrained.  Previously the teaching wall was tied to whatever wall the projector was pointed or wherever the screen was mounted.  This constrained the potential configurations by limiting the teacher’s ability to present to a single wall.  Today with wireless technologies, an instructor can present directly to students’ devices or even from mobile screens mounted to tracks in the ceiling (there are lots of options).  Although wireless data capabilities have opened many potential options, the “power problem” remains.  Students and teachers still need to charge mobile devices and plug in larger ones that do not have batteries. “When students’ mobile devices are not sufficiently charged, learning is interrupted.  Even when devices are fully powered at the start of the school day, that power can dwindle quickly with the kind of constant use so common in today’s classrooms.  One solution is to buy classroom furniture equipment with easily accessible power supplies, so students can charge their mobile devices as they work”, says Mark Hubbard.  Pushing students to the edges of the room to reach an outlet can defeat the flexibility of the classroom, and cords stretched across the floor are a hazard. Floor and ceiling outlets are possible alternative solutions, but bring with them potential maintenance, cost, and safety concerns. Another possible solution to the power problem is to provide enough outlets for the bulk of a class to charge at one time and structure the class so that blocks of time are not ‘device centric’.

So, what happens if your flexible classrooms are not working the way you had hoped and need help?  Call either me or Jon Rollins at GFF and we can help assess your current space and provide recommendations.  Depending on the situation, we can also involve experts in the field of instructional technology.  Whatever situation you find yourself in, we can help make it better or help you find someone that can.