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Designing a Flexible Classroom on a Shoestring

Creating an agile classroom is an in-depth process that looks deeply at changing the dynamics of the learning space to become more student-centered. One part of this is physically changing the learning space. Last year, I decided to design an agile classroom with students for as cheap as possible. I was amazed by how making small adjustments to the physical classroom space helped me transform my teaching practice.

The best part of this type of experience is that it is always a work in progress. Learning from mistakes has been great, and doing it cost-effectively always has quality control challenges. However, that is what makes this kind of project fun!

All of my solutions were low cost and built by our learning community. Having basic carpentry skills helps, but it is not needed. Most of these solutions can be fabricated if you have a school handyman or if you are ready to step out of your comfort zone and give it a try.

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Discover the “Why” for Flexible Classrooms

First things first, having an agile and flexible classroom doesn’t mean that your students are actually going to magically learn or be more engaged. This is where building in research-based solutions into your classroom design is of the utmost importance. Using design ideas and research from Stanford’s is a great start! They have a book titled Make Space that is full of ideas that have been tested and prototyped over and over. These ideas can provide inspiration.

Making changes to the physical space of your classroom is important, but the first critical step is to change the dynamic of your classroom. The focal point of traditional classrooms has been the teacher. The sage on the stage passing information to the students. A shift that places students at the center of that learning and moves the teacher to a facilitator role is of the utmost importance.

Being able to quickly reconfigure your classroom is a great way to start. Agile tables, chairs, and setups for classrooms help greatly. As a class, we decided on a few different “go-to” setups. These were printed, laminated, and hung up in the classroom. After practice, students could reconfigure the room in under two minutes.

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Build it Cheap

There are a multitude of options that you can try in your classroom that cost very little or are even free. One great option for writable surfaces may be the tables you already have. Most tables are coated with a clear gloss that allows students to write with markers right on the desks! It is a fun and easy win. If you are lucky enough to have cupboards with the same gloss coat, these become writeable surfaces as well.

Photo Credit to Amy O'meara

You can also raise your tables or desks if they have different heights to make them more flexible. After some trial and error, our class (4th grade) found 80 cm to be the optimal height. Students could choose to stand or sit while working. The addition of stools for seating encouraged movement and discussion between students. As a teacher, you can visibly see when they have been sitting too long as they squirm, stand up, and adjust themselves which can be a great indicator of when a breakout time is needed.

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Go hunting for cheap or free furniture to fit out your classroom with alternative seating. These options can be used in a multitude of activities. Small group discussion, sitting during teaching times, and even just a comfy space to read. Caster wheels with locks are a great option to quickly maneuver the furniture to meet your needs.

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Another great budget option is laminated MDF, shower-board, or a similar material. Look for high gloss sheets for a surface that is easy to write on and easy to erase. They normally come in 4’ X 8’ sections and can easily create an entire whiteboard wall for under $100 USD.

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On top of this, they can be cut in half to create new writable tables. I was fortunate enough to have classroom tables, so the students took the legs off and added them to the laminated MDF pieces to create tables that could be moved and reconfigured rapidly. Slice tennis balls with an X on the bottom and attach them to the legs, and you have a cheap, functional whiteboard table. There are always ways to fabricate great, cheap solutions to create an agile learning space.

Engaging Students

Another important step when changing your classroom is engaging students in an authentic way in order to garner their support for the new classroom design. In addition, they will have better ideas than you! Students tend to live without the same reservations and real-world limitations as adults.

In our learning space, students helped with the design. They helped physically construct the tables, choose couches, chairs, and cupboards from the school furniture storeroom. They also designed table arrangements and helped establish classroom agreements around the learning space. Another way to involve students in co-creating your classroom is using a modified version of a Design Sprint (Knapp 2016) described here (Co-creating Authentic Change).

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When done successfully, creating an agile classroom or learning space should be a process in Design Thinking. Your learning community won’t get it right the first time. You may make some things that do not work, have limited uses, or can be made better. Redo it, have the students go through the design process again. If you don’t take chances and try new things, you stay stagnant. Failure is the only way to make true, meaningful change.

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