Collaborative Learning Spaces Around the Triangle

Schools are redesigning classrooms to accommodate a student-centered environment
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Courtesy of The Studio School of Durham
The Studio School of Durham allows students to move from rugs and couches to group tables.

You may remember being told by your childhood teachers to “sit still” in upright, rigid chairs attached to desks that were lined up in neat rows. How things have changed! These days, you might not recognize what Sherwood Githens Middle School in Durham calls a sixth grade language arts classroom. There’s a couch, beanbag chairs, inflatable seats and long tables where students sit beside each other. Evette Clark-Rawls’ nonlinear classroom is a stark contrast to the traditional learning environment today's parents may recall. 

Many educators agree that modern-day classrooms are not always where students learn from a teacher. Instead, they often serve as a collaborative environment in which students are actively engaged in what and how they learn. More and more Triangle schools are transforming the furniture and design of their classrooms to fit this student-centered learning philosophy.

“The movement over the last 10 years to have more open learning spaces not only reflects how the students want to learn, but also what the workplace demands,” says Barbara Berry, media coordinator at Sherwood Githens Middle School. “The idea of the corner office is not the working structure of today. I think now we’re trying to look at how our school’s architecture supports that goal of collaboration.”  

Beyond implementation of a collaborative environment, the student-centered approach recommends that schools provide comfort for individual learners. This often involves movement and variety. 

“Most adults don’t sit in hard, plastic chairs at work all day. Why should kids?” asks Hannah Elly, part owner of Hillsborough-based Nugget, a company that provides flexible furniture to many Triangle area schools. “We know children can learn better if they are comfortable. They should be able to make the same bodily adjustments that adults get to make all day.”


Student-Centered Learning Approach Should Determine Classroom Design

According to the book “Blueprint for Tomorrow: Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning” by Prakash Nair (Harvard Education Press, 2014), the traditional school setting many parents visualize was built to model an assembly line. Students were prepped to enter the manufacturing-based economy by learning how to follow instructions from a person in charge, without offering any input. 

Nair points out that progressive educators pushed back against this form of teaching, even when it started. Pioneers like Maria Montessori and John Dewey believed children should have a say in the learning process and develop skills to solve a variety of real-life problems. Many schools in the Triangle, including The Raleigh School, were built on this progressive philosophical foundation. 

“Our classrooms are centered around collaborative work with a focus on STEM activities and project-based learning,” says Mary Golden, director of school programs at The Raleigh School. “In order to help our kids and educators succeed in collaboration, we need the right setting. We believe furniture is part of the foundation of classroom management.” 

Keith Sawyer, the Morgan Distinguished Professor in Educational Innovations at UNC-Chapel Hill, advises older schools with more traditional teaching methods to focus on the type of education they offer first, and the infrastructure adaptations will naturally follow.

“My best recommendation is to start by changing your pedagogy to be research-based, for better student-learning outcomes,” Sawyer says. “Once the new pedagogy has proven to be effective, then it will be increasingly obvious that the classroom design and furniture are getting in the way of effective learning.”


Versatility and Movement for Better Learning

Megan Teis’ son attends The Studio School of Durham, where students move from sitting on large area rugs on the floor, to couches, to chairs at group tables, to standing. “They also spend more than an hour outdoors each day and do more than two hours of environmental exploration every other Wednesday,” Teis says. 


Top: Sherwood Githens Middle School students have access to group tables and exercise bands. Above: Ravenscroft School makes use of accordian seats. 

She believes this emphasis on movement has helped her high-energy son during his first year of elementary school. “I do feel that if he were in a more traditional environment, I’d have gotten a report on this wiggly behavior, or his inability to sit still,” Teis says. “The Studio School has really welcomed the ‘wiggles’ while also teaching even the youngest learners that there are certain times when it’s important to sit still.”  

Ravenscroft School in Raleigh has also embraced flexible seating and allows students to collaborate on how it is used and managed in the classroom. 

“We have many options, including accordion seats, standing desks, ergo stools, stability balls and Nuggets,” says Crystal Keefe, a fourth-grade teacher at Ravenscroft School. “The students take ownership for how the seating will be approached. They brainstorm in groups what the expectations are for the seating and what the consequences will be if it is used incorrectly. This eliminates any chaos that could come from the furniture.” 


Resources and Funding Challenges

“I really wish I could do what I actually want with the classroom, which would be [to add] more variety,” says Kendyl Bethune, a seventh-grade math teacher at Sherwood Githens Middle School. “If I had all the resources I could dream of, it would be very cozy, almost like a coffee shop.” 

Despite falling short of her ideal setting, Bethune has found ways to accommodate a student-centered learning style through the “hunt and gather” method. She has collected a wide variety of chairs and tables from the school’s storage area and from other teachers, but most of the furnishings came via donations made through, a website dedicated to helping public schools achieve success by allowing teachers to crowdsource for classroom materials, including flexible seating. “I’m hoping to collect donations for a few inflatable chairs, wobble seats and exercise bands because the students love them and I can see the benefits they bring to the classroom,” Bethune says. 

While individual teachers work hard to collect donations, Sawyer believes schools should start shifting more resources toward flexible furniture and collaborative design. 

“School budgets are limited, and there are almost never funds to buy new furniture,” he says. “However, if a new school is being built, then that’s the perfect opportunity to buy furniture that’s aligned with the way children learn today. If you’re not building a new school anytime soon, I recommend choosing one room to reconfigure where a project-based learning method is being used.”

As those old-fashioned, rigid desks become relics of traditional schools, teachers like Maryanne Ross at Durham’s Kestrel Heights Charter School adapt their classrooms to the ever-changing needs of students. “Each year I keep adding to my collection of furniture and my students are respectful of what I do in my classroom because I do it for them — to help them grow, be comfortable, and be the best they can be.”


Mick Schulte is a Parenting Media Association award-winning writer and photographer in Durham, where she lives with her family of six. 


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