William Tonkinson, managing director of education furniture and fitout specialist Deanestor, looks at how furniture for schools is evolving to reflect the pace of social and technological change
Research has shown how children excel in stimulating, inspiring learning environments. With good design, schools can be much more than a place to deliver learning. They can be used to improve the education experience for both students and teachers.
Every inch of our schools is now scoured for the ability to contribute to learning. Corridors are being widened to become extensions to the classrooms; stairs can provide seating space; learning plazas encourage social interaction to replace under-utilised foyers; previously single-use spaces such as dining halls and libraries are being designed to have multiple functions, accommodating performances and group learning hubs.
Social spaces to develop knowledge
Secondary schools are moving towards a campus-style of design that is closer to a college or work environment to better prepare young people for higher education or the world of work.
Students now have more ownership of their learning and there is a clear move away from the teacher being the focal point at the front of the class. This is a significant shift driven by the curriculum but is also facilitated by new technology.
A range of different spaces such as learning plazas and hubs encourage collaborative learning and a more fluid approach to teaching with a higher level of social integration for all age groups. Furniture has to be more agile, mobile and easy to reconfigure to reflect this transformation.
Classrooms were typically separated by opaque structures such as walls and doorways. Open layouts now have glass partitions and uninterrupted lines of sight, using design ideas from cutting-edge workplaces such as Google and Apple campuses.
The importance of flexibility in school design
The pace of social and technological change is disorientating and modern learning environments are rapidly evolving as a result.
Fundamental to making educational spaces work is incorporating long-term flexibility so that as technology, curriculum and pedagogies continue to develop, those changes can be supported and not hindered.
Teaching staff need to be able to tailor the learning environment to allow for short-term changes of layout and use – and for long-term expansion and contraction as capacity fluctuates in line with local demographics. This means movable or modular furniture that allows spaces to be rearranged with ease to reflect curriculum requirements.
Furniture often has multiple functions. A bookcase would now be mobile and could have an integrated whiteboard so it can be both a room divider and a teaching aid. Lockers can have integrated booth seating or workstations, again encouraging social interaction.
Teaching spaces have to be more versatile than ever before. We often have to configure furniture to work both in individual classrooms and in a large double classroom that can be opened up using movable or retractable walls. Science super-laboratories can now accommodate two large classes working simultaneously on practical and written work.
The impact of technology
Technology in schools today represents a huge leap forward. It is invisible, personal and mobile. This reduces students’ dependence on the teacher, promoting peer-to-peer collaboration and widening the sphere of learning beyond the confines of the classroom to the whole school campus.
In many secondary schools, each child is equipped with a tablet and the majority of learning materials are digital, which reduces the need for physical storage. Modular workstations allow students to mirror screens, casting their digital work on to teaching walls, encouraging discussion and interaction.
Furniture needs to integrate with the latest technology and accommodate future developments – such as the transition from desktop computers to tablets, but also projectors and digital recording equipment. Considerations that impact on furniture specification include docking stations, decluttering, space-saving, disability access and device sharing.
Bringing nature into the learning environment
Nature has a calming effect and children’s cognitive performance can improve in naturalistic environments.
Research has shown the benefits of biophilic school design and we are now seeing more projects extending this theme beyond primary to secondary schools.
Biophilic is an interior style that recreates nature and incorporates nature-inspired features. Examples include the use of muted colours such as greens and blues replacing bright primary colours, wood finishes, soft seating, carpets rather than hard floors and high levels of natural light.
Making school design more personal
People are more invested in the environments they can influence. In schools, if you give students the opportunity to change their learning space, engagement is enhanced. This means increased choice and variation in furniture types, different seating arrangements and finishes within the learning environment.
In primary schools, children are given instructions and projects to work on independently, involving them more in their education and this needs to be reflected in the furniture design.
Collaborative spaces allow students to learn alongside and from each other. A quieter space for thinking or reading can improve concentration simply by making it easier. The flexibility of seating and desk or table arrangements allows students to create personalised learning spaces for the groups they are learning with – or for individual study.
In classrooms, students tend to choose the same desk every time, which restricts social interaction and the opportunity for shared learning. Removing desk barriers, for example with modular furniture, can bring a class together to enhance discussion and collaboration.
Lightweight chairs, soft seating, tables of different heights and moveable walls can transform alcoves into quiet reading spaces or to suit small group learning or instruction.
Early engagement for a successful school project
A typical new build school will be fully designed before the furniture specification is developed at a much later stage. The issue here is the M&E services are often installed before the furniture specification has been finalised – and the services may not then work with the furniture. This means an excellent building cannot be used to its full potential.
By bringing the team together at pre-construction stage – users, architect, contractor, M&E consultant, furniture and fitout specialist – every aspect is fully coordinated, leading to a much more successful project. Cost planning is more accurate and there are fewer design changes to the furniture, improving cost efficiency. Services should be located around the precise layout of the furniture – not vice versa.
Tips for specifying furniture, fittings and equipment for high quality learning environments
The furniture and fitout specialist should be willing to engage with the design team and user group at the outset of a project to provide support and expertise in product and specification. An extensive product range is also important to meet the differing educational needs – from nursery and primary schools to secondary education, SEN, colleges and universities.
Well-designed furniture should be appropriately sized for different ages of children – with sufficient adult-sized furniture where needed. For example, we are now being asked to provide teaching aids such as whiteboards at higher level for teachers and lower levels for primary school children to use.
All furniture has to be durable to stand the test of time. Samples should be checked and the warranty package designed for longevity. Warranties for school furniture are typically for five years but can be extended up to 20 years for secondary school seating, for example. Here, developing productive, long-term supply chain partnerships are important.
Room layouts should be carefully planned with lightweight, movable and multi-function furniture. Irregular layouts mean reconfiguring furniture can be difficult. Can power or data supplies be safely accessed in the required locations?
Good ergonomic seating is vital. Any discomfort wrecks attention and concentration so seating should be comfortable for longer, more focused learning sessions.
Writeable surfaces are now increasingly being specified in secondary as well as primary schools to give children the opportunity to express ideas through sketching. This has been proven to facilitate learning and enable memory recall.
Sample rooms allow user groups to assess the look and feel of the interior layout at the initial design stages. This helps to avoid the cost of late design changes.
We advise bringing in equipment specialists at handover to show the teaching staff how equipment works in areas such as science, SEN, craft design and technology and home economics.
The specification of high quality, adaptable furniture for schools emphasises the value placed on learning by children, teachers and the community. Well designed and robust furniture and fittings can promote high levels of positive interaction to help achieve education excellence.
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