ANDERSON – Working on an absolute maximum problem, Anderson High School junior Jai Jackson writes 4x-7=0 on the dry-erase table as seniors Siraj Elbey and Marissa Merritt wait.
Welcome to the classroom of the future, where students can work their equations directly on their tables, on the doors of the storage closets and even on the floor. They can sit on the backs of chairs, on cushions on the floor or in bean bags.
“I think I’ve sat here the whole entire year at this table,” said Jackson, 16.
Installed in pieces since the summer, the classroom is one example of the ways schools are accommodating the learning comfort of students.
Elbey, 18, says the new set-up in Richard Ziuchkovski’s calculus class makes him want to do his classwork.
“When I’m at ease more, I feel more comfortable to do work,” he said. “I can concentrate better, too.”
The wall-to-wall experiment was assembled at the suggestion of Erin Jennings, interior designer and graduate architect at Anderson-based krM Architecture. The firm historically has done quite a bit of work for Anderson Community Schools, she said.
She said it’s not unusual for a manufacturer to want to create a prototype space in which to test out new materials or the use of existing materials in new ways.
“We really like to do these prototype classrooms to see how receptive they are to these products,” she said. “Until we really bring that product into our market and our communities, that’s where we start to understand what’s going to work. Every school is different in their culture and their pedagogy.”
In this instance, it was the manufacturer of a vinyl tile flooring product, Jennings said.
“The intent was that schools would be able to retrofit their heavy traffic areas with a terrazzo look without a terrazzo cost,” she said. “They’re always looking for cost-effective solutions on the interiors.”
The idea for the evidence-based design started with the notion that the flooring could be used as a large whiteboard where students could work their long calculus problems that require a bit of space to work, Jennings said. Cushions were provided so students could lounge comfortably while they worked.
“The intention was that we would be able to transform all the surfaces of the classroom to a markerboard surface,” she said.
But as sometimes happens with prototypes, theory doesn’t always match up to reality. The surface of the flooring and the ink didn’t work well together, Jennings said.
“I’m actually working through the manufacturer for the next best solutions for that. It would take things to the next level if we could do that,” she said.
But in formerly carpeted room that felt heavy and dark, the vinyl tile is an improvement, Jennings said.
“There’s definitely a lot less maintenance associated to that floor,” she said.
In addition to the flooring, the classroom was outfitted with new furnishings donated by Noblesville-based Binford Group of Indiana, which specializes in educational furnishings. The chairs – some of which allow students to sit on the backs — are all new, but the tables are gently used showroom models, Jennings said.
The configuration of the furniture allows students to sit where and as they please.
“It allows the student to sit on the chair in a 360-degree orientation,” she said. “We configured his room so he doesn’t really have a front of the classroom anymore.”
The furnishings generally have warranties that last 15 to 10 years, but the furniture can last up to 30 years because most schools can’t afford new furnishings until they have a bond referendum, Jennings said.
“Students are sitting on things that they shouldn’t be sitting on, and they’re standing on things they shouldn’t be standing on, so they’re putting their weight in places it shouldn’t be,” she said. “It’s a big investment for these school communities to commit to. They are looking for things that will stand the test of time.”
Though he’s not sure it would work for a younger group of students, Ziuchkovski said he believes at least part of the experiment is a success.
“I think the students like the idea of sitting in their more comfortable zones,” he said.
Ziuchkovski said one of his initial concerns is this particular new learning environment might invite socialization that isn’t particularly educational. But he said the students have managed to remain on task, even as they created their preferred learning groups of three to four companions.
The seating arrangement, Ziuchkovski said, mimics the way people work in office environments.
“The collaboration is huge today in industry,” he said.
The new set-up also has led to more individualized instruction, Ziuchkovski said. One student may be working on an AP practice test while another masters a certain type of problem.
“It’s less me giving them assignments and more spending a certain amount of time,” he said. “I like the ability to keep it open so they can work on things they need to work on.”