Flexible seating, pillows, bean bags: Schools seeing if flexible spaces help students do better
Katie Burns has quite the mellow vibe going in her seventh-grade social studies classroom at Carl Sandburg Junior High School in Rolling Meadows.
Dim lighting sets the relaxed atmosphere. Students can get comfortable on the floor or at a little bar similar to what you'd find at a coffee shop.
"It just makes you happy," Burns said during a break in her room. "I can give you a million reasons of the benefits to students, but in this class, kids don't have behavior problems."
What's happening in Burns' classroom is part of an educational trend across the suburbs and country. Traditional spaces with rigid rows of old-time desks are being replaced by comfortable settings with flexible seating arrangements and other amenities, in an effort to boost student achievement.
Teachers at Scullen Middle School in Naperville say they have seen improved student engagement in three classrooms with features such as low coffee tables surrounded by pillows or bean bags. Buffalo Grove High School is part of a grant program testing classroom environments.
At Palatine Township Elementary District 15, Burns and another junior high instructor were tabbed for a pilot program this school year. Mike Heine, a teacher at Winston Campus Junior High School in Palatine, and Burns split $20,000 for the effort after administrators chose them from a competitive application process.
Colleen Seick, the district's instructional technology coordinator, said students sit wherever they wish in the two pilot classrooms. The test involves about 300 seventh-graders.
"They definitely feel a lot more comfortable in these classrooms that have the flexible seating," Seick said. "They like the option. They like that they can collaborate, not just physically sitting next to somebody, but also with their Chromebooks virtually."
Burns' classroom has tables that students can keep together for collaborative work or take apart to move into a space where they can do social studies assignments alone. Seating options include traditional plastic chairs, barrel-like seats or something similar to an exercise ball.
She helped create more classroom space by using a small table for a work space tucked in a corner, with enough room for a laptop computer, a couple of family photos and a cup with pens.
In a survey this month, Burns said students reported being more focused in the re-imagined classroom. Students at both schools in the pilot program will be polled periodically.
"There's a lot of kids that are super passionate about this," she said.
Student Nick Labbe of Rolling Meadows prefers Burns' classroom to the traditional setup, saying he appreciates being able to sit wherever he chooses.
"Sometimes I like to work on the floor, sometimes I like to work on the high table," Nick said. "Just whatever I'm feeling. And it depends if you're working in a group. Usually, I just sit at the table with a bouncy ball and work from there."
Student Ariana Vega of Rolling Meadows said having freedom to pick the type of seating and location that suits her has led her to produce some of her best work.
"I do prefer to work alone, but I find myself sometimes, when it's needed, working with others, and I find myself being better at that now that we have this seating," Ariana said.
Seick said it's too early to say what District 15's long-term plans might be concerning classroom furnishings.
District 15's administrators pursued the pilot program after reading the book "Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow's Schools, Today" by Eric C. Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray. Sheninger works at the International Center for Leadership in Education while Murray is director of innovation for future-ready schools at Alliance for Excellent Education.
Sheninger and Murray wrote that hard chairs often are the only type of furniture available for student use.
"As adults, we must ask ourselves if sitting in these chairs, for up to seven hours per day, sounds appealing," they wrote. "Would we do our best work sitting uncomfortably surrounded by solid surfaces? Of course not."