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Intentional Classrooms That Incorporate Student Voice and Wellbeing

By Jessica Schultz
Intentional Classrooms That Incorporate Student Voice and Wellbeing

Students participated in designing the classrooms in which they now collaborate, moving about in a comfortable, flexible environment (photo: Schultz).
Each year in my role as Middle School Principal at a private international school, I was tasked with reviewing classroom furniture needs for our division. For seven years, I felt proud of our evolution in improving protocols that would equip us with the furniture needed to best prepare our classrooms. It was only in my eighth year in this role, however, that I realized I was actually stocking classrooms with newer versions of old furniture rather than conscientiously improving the learning environment for students.
This realization came while visiting a physics classroom, where I saw students using furniture in relatively untraditional and what looked like uncomfortable ways. Some had even given up on the furniture altogether and had left to work in another location.
Although teachers are encouraged to move their classes to any appropriate area that supports learning, having students in many different areas simultaneously reduces access to other students and their teacher for timely feedback. What troubled me most was that all the work going into the furniture purchasing process was not actually meeting the needs as intended. This “perfect” protocol was not taking into account the opinions of those for whom it was intended and meant to inspire.
So began the hunt for the “ideal classroom.” I thought with a few simple internet searches a ready-made, 21st-century classroom furniture package would just pop up. What I found instead were expensive configurations more appropriate for offices or university settings. So I changed my focus to our school’s mission vision of learning. Since as educators one of our goals is to guide students in becoming strong problem solvers, the proposal needed to ensure that decisions about classroom environment involve the students themselves.
To involve students in exploring classroom design, I devised a strategy that involved tossing out a question to our student population during weekly assemblies, then followed this up with an online survey, the results of which we would publish. Students expressed a great deal of interest in having their voices heard. The nature and tone of their comments evolved as we pursued this approach.
When the deadline for renewing furniture came near, students were invited to respond to the question: “What would your ideal classroom look like?” Some students offered design advice, others shared what the environment should feel like. The data acquired from student perception and research were used to create the classroom design proposal.
During the design phase, our team explored popular work and social spaces to determine what made them appealing, then we brought the information to students to generate ideas. We noted that the engaging kindergarten classrooms featuring different centers that students can visit during choice time had been replaced, at the middle school level, with traditional rows of desks and a determined “front of room.” This caught my attention, since the “rows of desks” model was originally designed for efficiency in order to educate large groups and basically ready them for factory or military work where assembly lines prevailed (Slatterly 2013).
Currently we are witnessing great shifts as workspaces are becoming more diversified and more entrepreneur-driven. We now have a huge opportunity to improve classroom design, since schools no longer serve the purpose of preparing students for the workforce of the 1900s.
Working with student ideas, we created a space that could adapt to each day’s learning, with all pieces on locking wheels for safety and flexibility. We analyzed student feedback and found that students reported major improvements in social emotional aspects as well as creativity.
We noticed a connection between the comfort level expressed by students while learning in the space and recent research on adolescent brains and stress. Though a certain level of stress can stretch us to take on new challenges, some forms have negative effects. The negative stress-related feelings are more concerning for adolescents, since they are more susceptible to its effects than adults are. As stress factors are uniquely personal, providing options so that those experiencing symptoms of stress or anxiety to make choices that better support their comfort is a great advantage.
Throughout this journey, research and reflection have been our priorities. Other research considered came from a study conducted by the University of Salford (2012), which concluded the environment in the classroom can impact a child’s academic progress by up to 25 percent over the course of a year. This means that having options for furniture that offer comfort and can be used flexibly for learning is a great support.
We continue to engage students with ongoing feedback cycles. We believe that by empowering learners as users and designers of the classroom environment, we are inviting them to transform not only furniture and room arrangement, but also to create a purposeful space with the potential to inspire learners while respecting their individual needs.
Jessica Schultz is Academic & Curriculum Director at San Roberto International School.

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