The latest craze with my New Hampshire high school teachers is to supplement, or in some cases replace, their institutional, inflexible classroom furniture with more student-friendly options. In a school with a very tiny furniture budget, my staff has accomplished this task by soliciting donations, applying for grants, and in some cases, building their own furniture.

A walk through the few re-imagined spaces that we have completed thus far is reminiscent of a trip through a trendy Ikea showroom. Many of the individual student desks have been replaced with tables on wheels that can be reconfigured as needed by students, comfortable reading chairs and lounges, and even carpeted corners with bean bags and pillows.

Two of my ninth-grade math teachers actually purchased white board paint at the local hardware store to coat their tabletops so that students could work through their math problems right at their collaborative tables with colorful dry-erase markers.

The local chief of police helped them secure a donation of fancy executive leather chairs for student use from a nearby corporate office that was looking to downsize. After a year of use, the students in these classes seemed to be able to attribute increased engagement and excitement for math to their flexible environment.

Although these findings are mostly subjective and anecdotal, research is now starting to surface to back the claim that flexible learning starts with flexible classroom spaces.

According to this recent Edutopia article, the research on flexible classrooms is scarce, but promising.

As the article explained, the scarcity is due in large part to the fact that "flexible classrooms are complex, living systems. One flexible space looks nothing like the next, and often dozens of children and one or more teachers operate within them, pushing and pulling furniture into novel configurations, dimming or turning up lights, and otherwise reshuffling things to suit an almost infinite variety of personal preferences."

A 2015 study from the University of Salford in the U.K. measured the impact that flexible classrooms can have on learning. To complete this, researchers visited 153 classrooms in 27 schools across the country.

These schools ranged in size from small, remote village schools to large, suburban buildings in or near cities. In all, nearly 4,000 children between the ages of 5 to 11 were included.

Researchers considered three dimensions of classroom design: naturalness (light and temperature), stimulation (color, visual complexity), and individualization (flexibility, student ownership). It was observed that by optimizing these dimensions, academic performance in reading, writing, and mathematics improved by 16 percent.

What is more astounding is that the dimension of individualization, particularly student choice and voice, accounted for a quarter of that improvement. Other surprises came from the effect of learning on math.

In the study, 73 percent of student achievement was attributed back to classroom design that was traced back to flexibility and student ownership. Researchers theorized that thus may be due to the ability of a flexible classroom to better address anxiety provoked by academic subjects such as math. In other words, students perform better in familiar, comfortable environments.

Edutopia’s article reached this conclusion: "Classroom flexibility, isolated from other measured factors, appears to be roughly as important as air quality, light, or temperature in boosting academic outcomes."

The trend to move to flexible classroom spaces is not limited to K-12 schooling. This recent University of Michigan article discussed how flexible classrooms are positively impacting both teaching and learning at the University.

The school spent a great deal of its resources to provide flexible options to students in various classrooms across campus in an effort to encourage more instructors to use more active learning. According to the article, here is what has already been observed:

  • Faculty members made creative use the monitors throughout the room to show slides of the class material, have students work together on a Google Document, and collectively work through a problem.
  • Faculty felt the monitors throughout the room helped students focus on the task at hand and minimized distractions.
  • Faculty noted that in traditional lecture-based classrooms students tended to sit anywhere during class sessions with lecture, but in the flexible spaces gravitated toward their teammates. This was helpful in getting students to know each other better and build effective teams.
  • Faculty developed new activities that were specifically suited for the flexible classroom.
  • For many educators, it is an easy "sell" to suggest that students respond positively to classrooms that promote comfort, flexibility, and collaboration.

For many school leaders, myself included, school budgets simply can’t support the complete replacement of furniture for each classroom. Perhaps studies such as the ones mentioned in this article will help more schools justify the need for such projects in the coming years.