The power of flexibility

by Fellowship Agency October 10, 2017

By Murray Hudson


There is evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, that the learning environment can have a significant effect on children’s progress and development.  Murray Hudson, Managing Director of Gratnells, looks at some of the innovative ways that environment is changing for the better


A teacher on his or her feet is worth two in the seat. It’s the latest call to action from an education world in the midst of transformation.

Things are on the move. Indeed, there is no more front of the classroom, according to the new wave of educationalists. Among them is Alan Rheault, Chief Furniture Designer at Fleetwood Furniture, a Holland, Michigan-based manufacturer of school furniture since 1955 and one of the industry’s early adapters.

“There’s a legacy of innovation here,” says Rheault, pointing to Fleetwood as one of the first companies to make school furniture mobile by using wheels.  “And today, schools want teachers interacting with students and moving around different spaces,” he explains. “There’s also a strong desire for standing height desks. Sitting is the new smoking.”

The benefits of flexibility and mobility in the classroom are well documented, placing teachers in a better position to inspire students and create an environment conducive to achieving excellence.

“Good teachers know that however much they have learned in the past, today is a different day and you cannot ride yesterday’s horse,” commented Sir Ken Robinson, New York Times bestselling author, TED speaker, education and creativity expert. “This sort of responsiveness can rarely be achieved by standing in front of a room talking at a group of 25 or 30 kids for lesson after lesson…Such an approach to teaching by its very nature limits the possibility of connecting with each student individually.” (Creative Schools)

Another trend shaping the modern classroom takes its cue from those staple features of daily American life — the main street and the mall. Collaborative design is on the rise — library and cafeteria layouts are blending together and common areas like cafeterias are becoming the new study areas. This trend reflects an understanding that students learn well from other students. “It’s funny we’re catching on so slowly to this,” observes Rheault. “If you’re a parent trying to teach your child something, you see that as soon as they watch another kid do it they learn immediately. The question is how do you support that behavior?”

Supporting peer-to-peer learning by increasing flexibility in classrooms and study areas is one in a series of innovations already gaining traction. An increase in the flipped classroom — one that focuses on learning and study at home, followed with homework and collaborative projects at school — is changing the educational dynamic, as well.

“In the flipped classroom, rather than having a teacher stand in front of a group of students and lecture on a topic, the students get online instruction at home,” explained Sir Ken Robinson. “The class time is then used by the teacher for peer instruction to help students individually if they are having trouble, to engage students in conversation about the topic, and to challenge students who are already showing mastery.” (Creative Schools)

An increase in project-based learning is also blending disciplines together, creating a new climate that demands maximum flexibility in classroom design. Cabinet manufacturer Whitney Bros of Keene, NH, is responding to the trend. “Mobility trends are very popular and all the cabinets we’re making now are mobile,” says owner David Stabler. “Putting cabinets and storage on casters and organizing classrooms so you can put things away easily and change learning disciplines quickly — that’s where Gratnells trays come to the fore in terms of quick pull-out and put-away.”

Whitney is just one member of a community of progressive American manufacturers recognizing and responding to innovation in the learning environment. Similar innovations are occurring at Paragon, where are desks customized with front casters, permitting students to wheelbarrow stations across the room to fit the needs of the subject or project. Teacher desks are also mobile so they can be moved around or into other rooms by the teacher.

“Learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom,” observes Cindy Eggebrecht-Weinschreider of Paragon. “It can happen anywhere.” For this reason, Paragon’s entire product portfolio is mobile, reconfigurable and customizable to enhance learning, allowing teachers to engage students and students to become more engaged.

“It is remarkable what you can do if you’re given the right kinds of furniture,” commented Chicago-based architect Trung Le in the ground-breaking book The Third Teacher. “How agile you can make the space, how media-rich you can make it, how you can engage different modes of learning.”

One of the design world’s best-known disrupters, Le has been designing remarkable schools around the U.S. and the world for more than 25 years. He collaborated on the research project that became his internationally-regarded book on how design can transform the ecology of learning.

“It opens up many things’  — says Le who we met at The Art Institute of Chicago  ‘ We create places of learning like this and only once in a while do we take our kids there, ninety percent of the time they sit in a square room. My perfect vision of a classroom is that there are no classrooms. Maybe we can go back to the idea of sacred spaces like churches and plazas that connect people together. Imagine if a school is not a series of self-contained closed classrooms but a place of exploration and wonder. We create these spaces all the time, we just don’t call them schools.”

It’s quite clear that we all need space to learn. Professor Peter Barrett is the lead author of Clever Classrooms, an authoritative report on the link between the learning environment and academic improvement. “There is clear evidence that the physical characteristics of primary schools do impact on pupils’ learning progress in reading, writing and mathematics.”

In 2012, I set up the Learning Rooms project — — to investigate and promote best practice in the classroom environment. What we’re seeing now is a fundamental shift in attitude which has rapidly taken on a global context. As the organization sponsoring the appearance of Sir Ken Robinson at EDspaces this year, we are seeing a positive response from the U.S. market to our Learning Rooms philosophy within the classroom and beyond.

Education is happening everywhere and being everywhere demands flexibility.

Murray Hudson is Gratnells Managing Director and Chairman. He was Chairman of the British Educational Furniture Manufacturers Group from 2012 -2016. He spent a decade as a news and current affairs producer and reporter for the BBC, covering three U.S. elections and joined the family business in 2000.



Creative Schools Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up – Sir Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica ALLEN LANE; Penguin Random House 2015