Miranda Bennett’s first-grade students have had their new classroom furniture for only a week, but the swivel chairs, whiteboard tables, wobbly stools and movable cushions have already changed the way her students engage in the classroom.
“Interestingly enough, I thought it was going to be my really, really squirmy ones, but it’s actually my calmer kids who are moving more. I’m getting more out of them, because they’re the ones who are usually bored because we need to extend their learning,” Bennett said. “I have noticed they’re able to focus for longer periods of time rather than just two minutes. It’s 10 or 12 minutes now because they’re a little more comfortable.”
Her class is one of four flexible learning environments at Midway Independent School District’s Spring Valley Elementary School that researchers from Baylor University, Region 12 Education Service Center and Huckabee are using for a semester-long pilot program to follow up on two years of work in the lab.
Huckabee is a Fort Worth-based architecture and design firm that developed the furnishings used in the classrooms.
In fall 2015, Baylor and Region 12 partnered to study how students learn in different flexible environments within the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative’s Learning Experience Laboratories, or “LEx Labs.”
The new study stems from a planning and evaluation phase and observations made during another pilot program with eighth-graders at La Vega Independent School District in those two years, said Todd Buchs, Baylor’s assistant vice provost for research.
Known as the Student Engagement Research Project, the study will measure how the environment in each classroom can impact student success and learning levels, Buchs said. Researchers will spend nine weeks in each classroom observing, conducting interviews and more, Buchs said.
The team will evaluate behavioral responses, natural body movement stimulation, psychological engagement and academic engagement, said Jorge Carmona Reyes, assistant director and research coordinator at Baylor’s Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research, which will gather the information in the classrooms through interviews and observation.
“When we started doing the initial research, we were looking at defining what student engagement was because we had conversations with researchers and several people interested in the field. Everybody had their own opinion or interpretation of what student engagement is,” Reyes said.
“Part of the research is actually developing the narrative that will help us determine what are those components that make up student engagement in light of what everybody’s opinion is and in light of what the literature says about student engagement.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests flexible learning environments have a positive impact on students, which led researchers to want to take a closer look in a quantifiable way, Buchs said.
A quick Google search reveals numerous retailers selling flexible classroom furniture and numerous headlines from media outlets throughout the U.S. touting how flexible furniture is helping students stay focused and on task.
“It’s actually helped (their social skills) a lot,” Bennett said of her new furniture. “I actually have a little boy that doesn’t talk a whole lot, but since he’s gotten into the red chairs that spin, and they’re real tall, I don’t know if he feels like he’s more at a restaurant, he’s just talking away with his friends at his table.”
Depending on what researchers discover, the results could change the way teachers operate in the classroom, how schools are designed and even how lawmakers approach student success and academic accountability, Midway ISD spokesperson Traci Marlin said.
The researchers already have gone through their first set of interviews with students, and the findings have made observers even more curious because the students are bringing perspectives to the table that the researchers never would have thought about on their own, Reyes said.
“I’ll give you an example: cup holders. We never thought of that being a need for the students at this age, but they were talking about how the tables they have don’t hold their cups well,” Reyes said. “They sometimes spill it, and it gets in the middle of their work, and, actually, it gets into their neighbor’s work. They hadn’t seen the furniture at the time of the interview, and they were asking if they were going to have cup holders.”
Making changes to the furniture is important but is only one part of the overall effort to measure student engagement, Reyes said. Researchers are just hoping to have a larger scope of understanding about how student success works with flexible learning environments by gathering information from the different professional perspectives involved in the collaboration, he said.
“This is why we think this research is different than anything we’ve done before, because of this collaborative and all these different perspectives looking at this,” Buchs said. “We think we’re going to get a very, very holistic view of this.
“When they talk about cup holders, it seems small, but a big part of this is student choice. We have found, again in the literature and other anecdotal evidence, that when children have choice in how their learning environment is presented to them, they start to take ownership of their own learning, which guides us more over to that student-centric learning versus teacher-centric.”
The four Spring Valley Elementary classrooms aren’t the only flexible learning environments in local public school districts. A few years ago, the Midway ISD also made flexible creative spaces at Speegleville Elementary and Woodgate Intermediate School, which use similar furnishings as their classrooms.
In September, the district also transformed Midway Middle School’s 40-year-old library into The Studio, a $500,000 makerspace concept with furniture that helps students focus on the four C’s in the district’s daily curriculum — creation, collaboration, communication and critical thinking — to help build a different kind of student, Marlin said. Overall, the district has about a dozen flexible learning environments, she said.
Farther north in the county, an entire campus in West Independent School District has been decked out with flexible furniture, including sliding walls. Classrooms at the combined West High School and West Middle School building have sliding whiteboard walls that combine or separate rooms for collaboration, and each room also has a whiteboard wall with a projector to give students more interactive capabilities.
Seats and whiteboard desks also are easily movable, and collegelike lounge areas with sofas are scattered throughout the campus. The campus also has a science, technology, engineering and mathematics lab that uses flexible furniture to encourage hands-on learning.
At West High School, where students were once conditioned from kindergarten to enter a classroom with a pre-established routine of coming in, sitting down and either turning in homework or listening to a lecture, the atmosphere has changed, Principal Don Snook said. There was an adjustment period, but after the first semester in the new school, students now spill out into the study areas and use the pull-back walls daily, he said.
“What we’re trying to do with them and with teachers as well is show that’s not how students engage anymore,” Snook said. “As teachers, we would love to think they learn from us, but research shows they learn more from each other.”