Flexible Classrooms: Providing the Learning Environment That Kids Need

We have coined an acronym for new age classroom transactions as TICTOC. In a classroom of the 21st century, one must witness the following:

T- Tiered learning

I- Investigation and inquiry

C- Collaborative tasks

T- Technology integration

O- Ownership for learning (by students)

C- Critical thinking opportunities

It would surely create an enabling environment if students are allowed to work under, behind, beside any safe piece of furniture in the class. The case in point is a wonderful example showing how all the TICTOC elements can be incorporated in these flexible classrooms.

Flexible classrooms give students a choice in what kind of learning space works best for them, and help them to work collaboratively, communicate, and engage in critical thinking.

Since implementing flexible classrooms, Albemarle County Public Schools have noticed that:

  • Their students’ grades have improved.
  • Their students seem happier and more engaged.
  • Their students are participating more and having more invigorating conversations.

How It’s Done

Giving Students a Choice in How They Learn

“From day one, I’ve said, ‘You may sit anywhere you like as long as you’re safe in our classroom,'” says Katie Collins, a Woodbrook Elementary School second grade teacher.

Becky Fisher, the director of educational technology at Albemarle County Public Schools, is interested in learning about the thinking that drives student choice. “What we’re really striving for are those choices that have a lot of thought behind them. We want kids to really be strategic about where they go,” Fisher says.

She painted the picture of walking into a classroom and seeing kids:

  • Lying on the floor
  • Sitting at low tables on their knees
  • Standing up

Fisher once heard a kindergarten student articulate that she was a belly reader. She loved reading on the floor while lying on her belly, her class was reading, and that’s why she was sprawled out on the floor. “That’s awesome that, at five or six years old, you know your preferences,” Fisher says. And that’s critical to their work.

Justin, a seventh grade student from Sutherland Middle School, was also able to articulate his preferred learning environment. He chooses a table and chair, unlike the couch that many of his fellow students choose. “When I get down into a couch and am more comfortable, it’s almost like it’s a bit distracting. It’s not exactly the environment I want to be working in, but for the other people, clearly they have their optimum working environments,” Justin says.

Krishan, also in seventh grade at Sutherland, likes that his teacher gives him a choice in how he works. “Since she lets us choose, we ultimately choose what’s best for us. We work better together and individually,” Krishan says.

According to Lisa Molinaro, the principal of Woodbrook Elementary School, the first thing that needs to happen for Albemarle teachers to successfully create a flexible classroom is:

“We’re really looking at how we support kids working collaboratively,” Fisher says. “And we can’t do it if we’re isolated in rows and every kid is an island.”

“You’ll see flexible bookshelves that can be moved so that the room can be totally opened up — or little nooks and crannies can be created — so that everybody can see everybody, and we can participate as a community,” Fisher says.

“My kids love to be under things, behind things, around things,” says Collins about her second grade classroom. “We have five-gallon buckets in my room that we sit on. We sit on crate seating that I made in my backyard out of a crate and some plywood and some foam. And I also just threw a lot of pillows on the floor.”

Over the past ten years, Albermarle district leadership has been very intentional in changing the physical nature of classrooms. Although not every classroom in its 26 schools has gotten a makeover, when the district budgets for a furniture-replacement cycle, there are some core pieces to redesigning a classroom. Before picking those core pieces, teachers need a vision for redesigning a classroom, and they should be willing to get rid of the traditional school furniture for more innovative pieces.

How do we provide the environments that kids need? Sometimes to be in their caves and be private. Sometimes to be at the watering hole, and working in small collaborative groups. And sometimes in a cross-pollination where they’re able to really share their work and work with each other.


Becky: We’re really looking at how do we support kids working collaboratively? And we can’t do it if we’re isolated in rows, and every kid’s an island.

Lisa: The first thing that has to happen is the teacher has to have a vision for their room, and a willingness to say, “I’m going to throw out some of this stuff. I don’t need this traditional schooling equipment.”

Becky: When you walk into a room that we have done, you’ll see tables. You don’t see individual student workspaces. In some classrooms, you’ll see at least three kinds of seating. You’ll see flexible bookshelves that are mobile that can be moved, so that the room can be totally opened up, or little nooks and crannies can be created.

Becky: How can you do it on a dime? What we found is teachers are really hitting the streets the week that college kids leave town, and seeing what they can buy for their classroom.

The beginning of the year is a good time to ask, “If any of you have a couch or a chair that you have just sitting around, the kids would like to read on it, and it could be a Reading Corner.” And that’s how I started. And then it grew and grew, because it was so successful.

Justin: When I like get down into a couch and more comfortable, it’s almost like it’s a bit distracting, like it’s not exactly the environment I want to be working in. But for the other people, clearly they have their optimum working environments.

Krishan: Well, Miss Harris lets us like choose. And also since she lets us choose, we ultimately choose what’s best for us. We work better together and individually.


When Albemarle “does” a room, you’ll see:

    • Flexible seating: Albemarle provides at least three different choices of seating for students — so you might see a stool, a beanbag, or chairs that look more traditional but allow kids to rock without tipping over.
    • Teacher stations, not teacher corners: Instead of a teacher corner taking up 25 percent of the classroom, teachers have workspaces similar to students’ workspaces. The amount of real estate teachers now use is minimal, giving more space in the classroom for creating student corners, or the ability to move furniture around.
    • Flexible tables: Many tables have wheels on them, making it easy to reconfigure a room. Albemarle also chooses big tables, round or rectangular, to support collaborative work. Tables can be written on, as well as flipped up, converting them into whiteboards. They also come in different heights — some are standing desks, others are more traditional heights, and some are low to the ground.

Evolving the classroom space to meet students’ individual needs impacts how they learn, how they interact, and the entire classroom experience. Moran has noticed that when a learning space evolves, students’ work improves immensely, their grades improve, and “just the conversations they have with each other are so invigorating to hear,” Moran says.


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