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Inspiring Student Success Through Classroom Design

Steel Case active learning center solutions

Students collaborate in an active learning center.

When you peek into today’s classrooms, they often look like the ones you studied in many years ago. This raises an important question: Is the physical classroom limiting innovation and holding students back?  

One middle school’s dramatic turnaround is raising eyebrows and challenging long-held assumptions about the importance of classroom design.

More than a change of scenery

In 2016, middle school teacher Dr. Julie Marshall was a recipient of the Steelcase Education Active Learning Center grant. The grant funded a classroom makeover specifically tested and designed to support teachers and students engaged in active learning.

At Saluda Trail Middle School where nearly 40 percent of students are below grade level, students were previously constrained by traditional classroom furnishings: heavy metal desks that didn’t move, unstable bookshelves, and poor projection tools. As a result of the grant, a conventional space for 7th grade Language Arts class was converted into a more active, mobile environment.

Over the past two years, Saluda Trail conducted a mixed method study to determine whether there is a correlation between the active learning approach and student motivation and engagement, as evidenced by changes in achievement.

The results are striking:

  • During year one, the percentage of completed assignments increased dramatically from 53 percent to 96.92 percent. In year two, the average continued to increase to 99.91 percent
  • Year-end grades have increased an average of 9.6 percent per student –equivalent to a full letter grade
  • The number of students exceeding their Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) goal has increased 30 percent while the number of students not meeting their MAP goal has decreased by 18 percent.

“I have never seen my students so excited about learning; they are choosing to own their educational experience. Going into my fourth decade of teaching, it’s energizing to see the kids get excited about what we do in class every day,” said Dr. Julie Marshall, teacher at Saluda Trail Middle School. “Active learning puts students in the middle of the decision-making process, they become focused on process and not just the product. This classroom has brought new life to my teaching, I’m able to be the teacher I have always wanted to be. We can move around, work on projects together, and apply learning strategies that weren’t possible before. As a result, I’m seeing kids enjoy their lessons and it’s having a remarkable impact on their academic and emotional success.”

Rethinking the Classroom

For the last century, the classroom space has remained largely the same – desks arranged in rows and columns with the teacher lecturing from the front of the room. Despite this, lesson plans have evolved to include activity, group projects and technology. There remains a disconnect between today’s forward-thinking curriculum and our outdated classroom furniture.

It may seem simple, but the ability to seamlessly transition from individual work to group work to partner work gives teachers the flexibility to engage students who have different learning styles and build stronger connections.

For their part, students are able to improve their communication, attention and drive, which results in higher rates of success from middle schools to universities.

Chairs and tables with wheels, accessible technology portals and individual learning tools like white boards set the stage for an interactive classroom. Even comfort and color help students stay actively engaged while learning.

Preparing Students for the Future

Active learning space design goes beyond classroom success. It helps prepare students for the future by fostering communication skills, critical thinking, and creativity. Teachers today are preparing students for career paths and jobs that don’t exist yet.

By helping foster these skills as early as middle school, the next generation of students will be prepared for the future workforce. Employers are looking for flexible employees who are good problem solvers. They need to hire people who can work well both individually and in teams. Technology is changing the job market rapidly and the landscape will change within five, ten or twenty years and beyond.

Steelcase Education is seeking partners in active learning who are ready to use their physical classroom space to advance learning in new and important ways. Submit your proposal by Friday, February 2, 2018. The fourth Steelcase Active Learning Center grant cycle application is now open and available here.