Classroom Design

Flexible Seating: 4 Questions to Ask Yourself

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Is flexible seating right for you? 4 Questions to ask before you ditch the desks.

Many people have heard about “flexible seating,” but few understand what a truly flexible environment is–perhaps because it requires an enormous investment of time, patience, research and money to develop.

Over the past year, I educated myself on what flexible seating is, why it’s valuable, and how to achieve it in my own eighth grade Language Arts classroom. I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with you, and over the course of this upcoming school year I will continue to share about my experiences of implementing flexible seating.

I hate to oversimplify the complexities of a flexible classroom environment, but first I need to clarify what it is and isn’t.

A flexible seating environment is NOT:

  • A special chair designated as a treat or reward
  • A reading corner with a few bean bags
  • Replacing all the chairs in the classroom with a class set of yoga balls
  • The same thing as “personalized learning”
  • A new fad — Montessori schools have been using these concepts for years

Instead, flexible seating environments:

  • Provide all students with choices about to sit (or stand)
  • Can be reconfigured quickly and easily
  • Involve a wide variety of seating types
  • Uses the physical environment of the classroom to improve learning
  • Are grounded in research about classroom design

My initial inspiration came from the Cult of Pedagogy post “Classroom Eye Candy: A Flexible Seating Paradise” that featured Rebecca Malmquist’s gorgeous high school English classroom. I revisited that post many, many times during my own process towards flexible seating. In December of 2015, just before Winter Break, I emailed my principal and asked permission to get rid of the desks in my classroom and to bring in flexible seating. She responded enthusiastically–and yes, I know how fortunate I am!

Each of the questions below mirrors an essential part of the process I went through in designing my flexible classroom. I scoured the Internet for pictures and articles–about the elements of classroom designhealth risks associated with sitting and the pros and cons of standing desks, learned about the Third Teacher, read books about classroom design, and browsed Pinterest and YouTube for other secondary classrooms that used flexible seating. All of the links to these resources are included in this Google Doc.

Question One: How do you envision your classroom? 

What is your teaching style? What are the main activities that your students do on a regular basis? What is practical for your space and for your content area? 

Classroom design starts with the teacher. What works for one classroom and teacher will not necessarily work for another. If a class involves many hands-on projects and experiments, the room needs large work surfaces for collaboration. If there are frequent lectures and whole-group discussions, then the design can focus on varying seating types.

This video series from Remake Your Class was incredibly helpful to me as I considered how my content, my teaching style, and my classroom environment could work together. It features the story of how a team of designers transformed a math teacher’s classroom in an amazing way! (View Part 2 and Part 3)

Even though this is a math classroom and the design shouldn’t be replicated for my language arts classroom, it models the process that teachers should take to improve their classroom design.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted my classroom to feel like a coffee shop.

The main activities that my students do on a daily basis involve some combination of reading, writing and discussion. College students and adults tend to use places like Starbucks for those same activities: reading or studying, writing an essay, participating in a book club. It was a natural choice, and Google searches for images of coffee shops were very similar to my vision:

Bookstore inspiration for flexible classroom design

Coffee shops as inspiration for classroom design

Coffee shops as inspiration for classroom design

 Question Two: Walk around your current space. What zones are in your classroom?

What is the flow of movement through the room? What spaces are crowded or not used? How could your zones be set up differently?  

Analyze the zones in your classroom. What is designated as “Teacher-Only” Space? What are the “Student-Only” spaces? What is “Shared” space between the teacher and students?

I created this simple diagram in Power Point so that I could visualize my classroom and map out the zones. (There are a few apps out there that will create a floor plan for you by scanning your walls if you want it accurate). The ovals in blue represent the six groups of four desks. As you can see, there was quite a bit of wasted space in the back of the room, and crowded in the middle. The counter along the left (underneath large windows) was practically unused because no one could access it very well.

As you develop a flexible classroom design, consider your current zones and how you can improve them.

I also wanted to improve the flow and movement around the room–something that was very difficult to achieve with 24 rigid, fixed desk-chair combos. In the diagram above, it’s easy to see that movement across the back and front of the room was pretty good, but movement from the back to the front was limited. I was always tripping over student backpacks and the legs of desks–a problem for a teacher who rarely sits during the day.

I created a new set of zones based on what I envisioned for my classroom–with more student and shared spaces. Now, the zones fill the room. Semi-private groupings would be perfect for students to read, write or discuss in small groups. The counter becomes more accessible, freeing up valuable real estate. Standing height cocktail tables would allow for visibility even from the back of the room.

As you develop a flexible classroom design, consider your current zones and how you can improve them.

Think about your existing furniture and technology: where are the bookshelves and cabinets? Where is the printer located? What cabinets do you need access to? Can you live without a teacher desk–and if so, where will your items be stored? Design your zones to maximize the space, and be intentional about how each will be used.

Question Three: What specific design elements will achieve your classroom design goals? 

If money were no object, what would be your ideal set up? What specific items do you need? 

When designing a flexible classroom for middle school or high school students, it's important to have their input!It was important to me that I would be able to seat every student at a table if necessary (conference table style), but I also knew that I wouldn’t need it daily. One day it hit me: extendable dining tables. Even better, extendable dining tables with casters added, which would enable me to quickly and easily reconfigure my classroom.

Another key component was to add tall tables so that active, fidgety students could stand–and hydrualic lift standing desks are expensive. By happy accident, I stumbled upon these cocktail tables that convert from regular table height to bar height! That added another flexible dimension and greater control over my design.When designing a flexible classroom for middle school or high school students, it's important to have their input!

Tables are important, but I also really wanted to get a couch and put that on casters, too, to really help create the “coffee shop” atmosphere.

This is the part of the process that is very important to involve students with, especially in middle school or high school. Students brainstormed ideas for a classroom layout, cut butcher paper to the size of different tables so we could see them to scale, and read articles related to classroom design. Together we worked to develop a plan to ditch the desks and convert the classroom into a flexible learning environment. This eventually turned into a student-led Donors Choose project and the students wrote the grant themselves.

Question Four: Can you commit to the investment? 

Are you willing to put in the time to write grants? Research methods? Ask for donations? Spend your own money?  Spend lots of time at thrift stores? Find creative solutions? If so, you should take the leap and design a flexible classroom! If not, think about how you can improve your classroom design using the furniture you already have.

I’ll be honest: actually moving the desks out of the classroom was the easiest and fastest part of this process. Everything else? Time consuming and expensive.

I literally spent hours dreaming, researching, planning, brainstorming, reading, and working with my students (who had all kinds of ideas) to develop a vision of what my classroom could be.

It can also be emotional. Right after my students wrote the Donors Choose project and it was posted, funding for a half-off match offer ended. In a second, the amount we needed to raise went from $800 to $1,600. I cried. My students were so disappointed when I told them. But, somehow, we found the donors and got it funded with a month left of school.

I’ve also spent weeks over this summer browsing Facebook groups and thrift shops for used furniture I’ve spray painted old stools. I’ve spent money out of my own pocket to buy chairs, coffee tables and lamps. It wasn’t easy, but I believe the end result is worth it.


Is flexible seating right for you? 4 Questions to ask yourself before you ditch the desks.

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