How Clever Furniture Can Change Your Classoom

  • How Clever Furniture Can Change Your Classoom

Is there really any point in investing in new classroom furniture? Research shows that classrooms have a discernible effect on learning, but that effect is largely tied up with the built environment: noise levels, temperature, the amount of natural light a classroom receives. However, that doesn’t mean furniture itself can’t improve learning.

“There is consistent evidence to show that poor air quality increases absenteeism,” says Steven Higgins, Professor of Education at Durham University. “A room’s furnishings have a part to play in this because too many surfaces and too many soft hangings build up dust, which negatively affect air quality.”

That argument – for less being more when it comes to the amount of ‘stuff’ in a room – is backed by different research, this time from the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute. Princeton’s researchers found that clutter (‘multiple stimuli present in the visual field’) impacts negatively on our ability to concentrate.

One small word of warning here, though. While the evidence makes it tempting to strip away unnecessary furniture, that very minimalism could cause another problem: an echo-y room. Soft furnishings can help to dampen sound. As poor noise quality also impacts on learning, the trick is to find a balance between these two extremes.

On the move

And noise versus clutter is not the only issue that requires balance. Another key consideration when buying school furniture is the degree to which it allows movement. Here, what needs to be juggled is the child’s need to sit and work, with the health benefits gained by standing and moving.

“When children sit for a long time, they get tired,” says Levent Caglar, head of ergonomics at FIRA (the Furniture Industry Research Association). “You want to have furniture that allows them to work standing up as well as sitting down. There are standing height tables, which are great for children to use when they’re doing work on screen.”

And when they are sitting you need furniture that’s spacious enough for them to move comfortably in their seats.

“If children are in a fixed posture it’s bad for their spine and it makes it harder to breathe effectively,” Levent explains. “You want their chair backs to be a little bit flexible so they can lean back and move position. They’ll be more comfortable and they’ll find it easier to stay alert.”

Tall order

Another ergonomic no-no is furniture with proportions that don’t suit a child or a mismatch in chair and table height. Make sure whatever you buy complies with the right European Standard Size Mark. Sizemark 5 is designed for children aged between 11 and 14 years old and Sizemark 6 for children aged between 14 and 18.

“It’s possible to buy furniture with alterable heights,” says Steven. “But there are issues around how to embed them into schools. One school in Liverpool bought in adjustable chairs. Unfortunately the lever to adjust the height was at the back of the chair, so during lessons the lads at the back of the class would kick the lever of the chair in front of them and send it plummeting down. If chairs end up being a distraction teachers decide it’s easier to have fixed furniture, which can’t be moved.”

It’s a cautionary tale about what to consider when you’re looking to buy. Any item is only as good as the people using it. The same caveat applies to flexible design: pieces that can be easily moved around so that the learning space can be reconfigured. This type of furniture can support learning because different seating arrangements do facilitate different learning styles. If you want children to work on their own, they’re better off sitting in rows. If you want them to be able to collaborate and communicate with the teacher, the best arrangement is a horseshoe shape, with the teacher having a clear stance at the front. But flexible design is only beneficial if people take the time to reconfigure the spaces – and the evidence says they don’t. It gets laid out in a particular way… and that is how it remains.

A room of their own

A waste of time? Not necessarily. There is an argument to say that if flexible furniture is bought and configured in a way that encourages or maintains a change in teaching style, that in itself can be effective. And its other advantage is that with flexible furniture, teachers have the option of giving their students a degree of ownership over how the room is designed.

“Giving a cohort ownership of a space can have a positive effect on how they feel about the room, which arguably has a positive effect on how they feel about the learning they do within it,” says Steven.

Psychologist Kate Nightingale agrees. “This doesn’t have to be done with pieces of furniture,” she says. “If a cohort has a form room, you could give them control over one wall: allow them to decorate it in a way that reflects who they are. Or suggest to them that if there’s a piece of furniture they’d like, they can work together to raise the money to buy it. If they do it, not only will it develop their business and teamwork skills, it will create a sense that they have invested in the school and in themselves.”


Katie Masters is a journalist who wishes someone would invent a bed that would propel her upright in the morning, Wallace and Gromit stylee…