In most elementary schools across the country, you see a variety of seating options, learning stations, carpet squares, and colorful wall panels displaying student work on the classroom walls and just outside the door. The teacher’s desk typically looks like another workstation, often surrounded by small chairs for students to sit on as they work closely with the teacher. There’s a mixture of direct instruction, movement, independent work, and collaborative group work-and the design of the classroom is conducive to this type of instruction—making it an engaging and active learning environment.  

In most high schools, you see the exact opposite. Standard secondary school design consists of rows of desks and chairs facing the front of the classroom (or where the teacher delivers content). However, today’s learners—Generation Z—want and need much more comfortable learning environments similar to the ones they experienced in elementary school, or in spaces like coffee lounges, comfortable sandwich shops, or local bookstores. 

Relaxed and Comfortable 

We now know that movement is necessary in the classroom. Thus, the physical environment should be relaxed, comfortable, and foster collaboration. It should be a space for students to think creatively, team up with a partner or small group, and have the option to work quietly on their own. To meet these needs, learning spaces should include flexible seating options and modular furniture—enabling students to organize per their needs.

Colleges, universities, and the professional work environment have begun to transform their learning and work spaces to increase opportunities for creative and critical thinking to flourish and for communication and collaboration to be a part of the learning culture. A number of K–12 educators are taking the initiative to transform their learning spaces to create comfortable environments that allow teachers to teach and students to learn. But how? What does the process look like? 

Designing Your Physical Space

It’s easy to think of reasons to not redesign a learning space; however, you don’t need a big budget to accomplish this task. Follow these tips to help you along the way:

  1. Talk with your students. Ask students to describe the environments in which they learn best. Ask them about where and how they complete schoolwork at home. What you may discover is that their voice will save you time, energy, and resources because you are soliciting feedback from one of your largest stakeholders. 
  2. Start with one space. If your budget is limited, which may be the case, consider redesigning an area in the library media center, creating a reading nook in a classroom, arranging some soft seating in a hallway or lobby, or putting some portable white boards in a common area or classroom. Then, observe changes in student learning. When students are more relaxed in school, they tend to achieve at higher levels. 
  3. Visit a local elementary school. For inspiration and vision mapping, visit a local elementary school to jot down ideas or capture images of the types of classrooms that are most comfortable for students. Then, share these images with interested teachers and implement the most feasible ideas.
  4. Think differently about your school. School should be an experience for all students, not just a place to go. With that in mind, consider ways to incorporate hallways and other prime real estate in your school redesign with the purpose of creating collaboration spaces and individual places for students to work. 
  5. Add different seating options. Reach out to PTOs or other organizations to see if they can help purchase exercise balls, rocking chairs, beanbags, or other soft seating to use in the classroom. 

Dwight Carter is the principal of New Albany High School in New Albany, OH.