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GVSU study: activity-permissible classrooms lead to more student engagement

  • Photo of activity-permissible classroom

Posted on August 18, 2017

The typical classroom has taken the same shape for more than 200 years — students sitting in rows and columns of desks facing the front of the classroom while the teacher progresses through a lesson plan. A newly published study by Grand Valley researchers argues that this classroom design may not be the most beneficial for students and teachers.

“Typically, students spend from 1st grade through college in fixed, row and column classrooms staring at the back of someone’s head,” said John Kilbourne, professor of movement science and principal investigator for the project. “Our study tells us that this is not the most advantageous setting to promote quality teaching and learning.”

For more than three years, Kilbourne, Laura Kapitula, associate professor of statistics, and Lennie Scott-Weber, former director of Education Environments Globally for Steelcase Education, have been studying how establishing an “activity-permissible, evidence-based design” classroom can positively support higher levels of student engagement.

The study was conducted during the 2014-15 academic year in a 4th grade classroom at Mary A. White Elementary School in Grand Haven, and followed 28 students and their teacher, Andrew Ratke.

“Our efforts strongly affirm the importance of providing young children with opportunities to move and to be allowed to make individual decisions about their ‘place’ in the classroom,” said Kilbourne. “At its core, this is really about providing a more playful environment for the children.”

To test this more playful environment, Kilbourne, Kapitula and Scott-Weber partnered with Steelcase and Custer Office Furniture to outfit the classroom with node chairs, buoy chairs, stools, moveable tables, chairs with personal desks attached and small whiteboards. The classroom redesign was made possible by a $10,000 grant from the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation.

Ratke said the classroom furniture dramatically changed his teaching style. 

“I found that I was no longer tied to the front of the classroom,” he said. “All of the walls became learning surfaces, so I made a point to have the students work on the walls and on personal whiteboards. In the past, I was hesitant to move furniture because of the time it took, but that is no longer an issue.”

Kapitula said this was the first time this particular design solution was placed in a 4th grade classroom for scientific study, expanding on previous work at other grade levels.

To collect the data, Kilbourne and the research team observed more than 250 behaviors to create what is known as behavioral observation mapping. In addition, they conducted student surveys, interviewed the teacher, and collected observational photos of the students and teacher using the space and classroom furnishings.

The observations revealed more opportunities for movement, enhanced choices about where and how to work, more efficient use of class time, and more control for Ratke to orchestrate experiences.

Ratke said that two of the biggest changes he noticed in his students over the course of the research were the amount of ownership they took in their own learning, and an increased level of focus.

“We know that kids and adults have a hard time sitting for long periods of time, and the seating allowed students to move, swivel, fidget and stand, all while being focused and not disrupting their peers,” said Ratke.

The redesigned classroom additionally allowed Ratke to provide a more meaningful method of providing his students with feedback.

“I was able to easily move around the room and meet with students where they felt comfortable, leading to more relaxed conversations,” he explained. “In many cases, giving feedback to a student at a group table led to other students asking questions as well. I believe that students can learn a lot from their peers and these types of discussions help move the students along.”

Toward the end of the study, Kapitula said 96 percent of responding students reported greater support for group work in the new classroom, and about 85 percent reported greater ability to engage with the subject matter.

“I am the mother of three children and I have witnessed how furniture and teachers that allow for movement of the body and classroom reconfigurations can help children stay engaged throughout the day, strengthen relationships and improve interactions,” said Kapitula.

The full study, “An Activity-Permissible Classroom: Impacts of an Evidence-Based Design Solution on Student Engagement and Movement in an Elementary School Classroom,” was recently published in Children, Youth and Environments.

For more information about the study, contact Kilbourne at