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Getting Started With Flexible Learning Spaces

Monday, August 06, 2018
Monday, August 6th, 2018 by Daniel Posthuma, ELB Education Consultant

The Dilemma

Uh-oh. It happened. You saw it.

Maybe it was a colleague’s post on Twitter, maybe it popped up on a Google search, maybe it was an email. Perhaps you just happened to walk by a certain booth at the latest education trade show. Regardless of the means, it caught your eye and now - newly inspired - you just have to have it for your classroom.

A flexible learning space.

One of the latest and hottest trends in education today is the shift to more student-centered, flexible learning spaces, which primarily include furniture and interactive technology. And there’s a very good reason for this. Not only is a differentiated learning environment more effective at meeting the diverse needs of students, but new careers and new work environments are changing the expected skill sets for future employees.

So, given its many benefits, I’m sure you want to bring this type of blended learning environment into your own school or classroom. But where do you start?

The purpose of this brief article is to answer that very question, and to assist you in making confident decisions by asking the right questions to help you assess your own situation. Recognizing that the number and types of categories that constitute “flexible” learning products can be overwhelming, the majority of this article will focus on what to consider when buying flexible furniture and technology solutions only. There’s no rule, formula, or quadratic equation that will tell you exactly what to do. Rather, the aim here is to provoke you to think about the various factors that come into play while making decisions - to help you separate what you want from what’s actually important. This way, come day one of school, you’re ahead of the game, ahead of your students, and confident in your new classroom.

As a trained educator, I believe the following are six considerations that are essential when planning the shift to flexible learning spaces.

Note: The language in this article is catered primarily towards teachers, but administrators can easily apply the same considerations, though on a larger scale.

1. Know Your Vision

It’s the most important, so why not start here? Do you have a goal in mind for your new classroom, or do you just want to have the “coolest-looking” room on campus? Assuming the former, what do you want to accomplish? Let’s help you answer that question with some deeper questions:

How do you want your new class to function?
The purpose of incorporating flexible furniture and technology is to create a variety of learning spaces for students - direct, small group, and self-guided instruction. Is that something you desire for your class?

How do you anticipate this new learning environment will impact your students?
When combined with proactive teachers, these new learning spaces open up the possibilities for students of all learning styles and abilities. Introverted students have the opportunity to work independently, but are also provided with opportunities to participate as a group. Some students will relish the regular opportunity to exercise leadership in small group settings. All students will learn the increasingly necessary life skill of being flexible and adapting to change!

How will flexibility help you to meet that vision?
Step into just about any classroom across the country today and you may see some of the valiant efforts made by teachers who - with regular desks and chairs - endeavor to make their rooms more flexible. There’s a reason for this - teachers already understand that it’s better for student learning! Truly flexible furniture that can be reconfigured by the students in under 60 seconds is the reality that matches this vision.

2. Know Your Layout

What does your classroom look like? How large is it? What is your learning space capable of? The size and layout of your class will greatly determine the kind of flexible learning space you should create. Some classes will have enough room for different spaces to be designated for different purposes; others may be smaller and need furniture that can serve multiple purposes in the same spot. The beauty is that, because the technology and furniture are so flexible, no class is exempt from their benefits!

In addition, it is critical to consider any existing technology, hardware, or furniture that you wish to remain in your classroom after the transformation. Dry-erase boards, projectors, and interactive whiteboards may still have their uses, but think about it - if you bring in new furniture, but you’re still relying on older, stagnant hardware for the bulk of your teaching, with students pointed in one direction for the majority of the day, you’re not creating a flexible classroom, you’re just giving your students something more colorful to sit on. A better use would be to utilize this hardware for direct instruction with larger groups throughout the day, then allow students to break off into small groups to practice and apply what they’ve been taught.

Regardless of your room, one recommendation would be to have a standard class configuration that the students can “reset” to whenever necessary. If you want to instruct the class as a whole, need to rein in rowdy students who are losing focus, or need a more “conventional” layout for a substitute teacher, having a go-to configuration - one that students are familiar with - is of great benefit.

3. Know Your Students

When it comes to furniture, it’s important to know your audience. Will these pieces be integrated into a kindergarten classroom, a middle school English class, or a high school library? Naturally, furniture going into each of these spaces would look markedly different. The key is in finding pieces that make each learning space uniquely flexible according to its purpose.

Younger students may enjoy pieces which allow them to move or even fidget while they learn, or that give them the ability to work spread out on the floor. Smaller and individual furniture pieces can help in this by meeting students’ individual learning needs. For older students, you may consider replicating the vibe of a college study space - booths and small tables. Allowing students more autonomy in their learning is important as they get older. This is true student-centered learning. Additionally, with the varied learning layouts, you can help these students discover and hone the learning habits that are most effective for them, especially as they prepare for college!

Lastly, the number of students in your class should also be taken into consideration. Don’t leave any student behind!

4. Know Your Teaching Style

The Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” comes to mind here, especially when it relates to maximizing the benefits of a flexible learning space and the part you will play in how the new class functions. First off, what subjects do you teach? Flexible learning spaces can be utilized in any subject area, but the furniture and technology choices, as well as the approach to instruction, will most likely vary.

Next ask yourself, “Am I a flexible teacher?” as you will assuredly have to do some adapting as well. Your lesson plans will need adjusting, your classroom management techniques will evolve, and you should be prepared to help guide students as they transition from one learning layout to another. Furthermore, consider what you will be doing in each type of learning layout. When students are working in small groups, how will you delegate responsibility? How will you see that everyone is staying on task throughout the day?

If you’re looking at pieces for a library, media center, or other common area, remember that these questions may apply to you as well. Are there times of direct instruction in this area, or is it generally self-guided? What type of furniture and technology will enhance the learning done in the space? Make sure to account for such questions.

Here are some important thoughts - it’s vital to imagine this new flexible learning space beyond just the picture in your head. Day in, day out; week in, week out; month by month - how will flexible furniture and technology support and enhance your teaching throughout a semester? Imagine what a week of teaching looks like, planning for transitions, tests, subs, etc. Also, it can be tempting to just imagine a new, shiny, futuristic classroom, but what will your classroom climate be like in November? How about in May? And with a less-visibly structured class layout, students will still need teacher-provided stability and reliability - will you be ready to guide them through these changes? If overwhelmed, simply creating a daily/weekly schedule of different learning layouts might be helpful!

5. Know Your Tech

Much of the focus thus far has been on furniture, but flexible learning is about so much more than just where you park your fanny. Many teachers today are in the unenviable position of seeing students work away on their district-provided Chromebook or tablet, while they themselves are saddled with classroom technology that oftentimes dates back to the 20th century.

Earlier in the article it was mentioned that your classroom may already be equipped with technology, such as whiteboards or projectors. While these can still be utilized in tandem with new furniture, let’s be honest - there are incomparably better solutions available for teachers who want a flexible, 21st century classroom. Whereas dry-erase boards, projectors, and interactive whiteboards are fixed in place - usually too high for younger students to interact or collaborate with- mobile and interactive tech, such as the Prowise solution, brings the latest in flexible technology right into your new classroom, and right into the hands of students.

Just imagine the educational benefits of implementing collaborative, interactive technology into your flexible classroom. With an integrated Windows 10 PC module and cloud-based presentation software, the Prowise panel allows educators to pull content from the web and collect student work instantly. Prowise Presenter software creates interactions between student devices to help foster collaboration and communication throughout the classroom in real-time!

Additionally, the mobility of the panel’s lift also allows teachers to transition between learning spaces seamlessly and the multiple points of touch keeps students focused and engaged. Need a giant screen for direct instruction? Want to give small groups the chance to ideate on a vertical digital canvas? Want to send and receive student work instantly, wirelessly, and without a giant stack of papers to take home at the end of the day? Interactive technology, such as the Prowise panel, gets you there. Combine that with quality professional development by trained and credentialed teachers, and it gets you there fast.

6. Know Your Budget

Of course financial restrictions will be a factor. But a small budget doesn’t have to mean the end of your dream. Irrespective of budget, the question to ask is - considering all the points listed above, what does the best “bang for my buck” look like? With a smaller budget, while you may not be able to check off every box on your wishlist, you could look for smaller pieces that make a BIG IMPACT on the way learning is done. If you have to, start small - maybe creating one unique learning space - and build later as more funds become available. With a larger budget, a priority should be on accounting for different types of learners, primarily through various learning spaces.

The Result

So the next time you’re online, looking at all the cool, new, and innovative classroom furniture and technology available, you now have a list of questions and criteria through which you can filter your options. An informed decision will give you a flexible learning space that enhances student learning, promotes creativity, and is customized to fit perfectly into your own classroom.

The future is flexible. Are you?

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About ELB Education
ELB Education has been providing innovative teaching technologies since 1986. With over 30 years experience, we are passionate about supporting teachers, providing a comprehensive range of technology solutions, training and information about the effective use of technology for 21st century learning.