Back to School

Education experts tell us that kids today learn in fundamentally different ways. Why haven’t our classrooms changed to reflect this shift? A new student chair and learning lab from Steelcase look to bridge the gap.

Anyone who has studied or taught in a college will be familiar with what might be called a Botox Building: a creaky structure with outdated facilities that has been renovated around the edges, making the lobbies and offices clean and capacious but leaving the classrooms and lecture halls untouched. It’s a one-building demonstration of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture: students enter a 21st-century structure and find themselves sitting in the 1960s, perched in rows on small wooden chairs, blinking under fluorescent lights bouncing off pitted vinyl floors.

This month Steelcase is introducing Node, a smart swiveling seat designed by IDEO for high-density classrooms, as part of a concerted effort to bring campuses up to speed with current teaching and learning styles. Along with LearnLab, Steelcase’s technology-enabled classroom, which is being tested in 50 locations around the country, Node is the manufacturer’s leap of faith into the higher-education market. Construction has taken a hit in education, as it has everywhere, but U.S. colleges still managed to spend $10.7 billion on building work in 2009 (down from $14.5 billion in 2007). Having traditionally focused on administrative offices on campus, Steelcase is betting that schools and colleges around the world are starting to recognize that the classroom has some catching up to do.

Node is intended to replace the old-school “one-armed bandits”—the rigid steel-framed plastic or wood seats, with tiny tables attached, that have populated campuses since World War II. Node’s big, curvaceous, bright-colored polymer seat, with storage space and an ample work surface, is partly a response to size issues. Students today need a lot more space than their postwar forebears. Books tied with string have been replaced by giant backpacks stuffed with food, iPods, clothes, books, and laptops. Try to take notes with a laptop on the tablet of a one-armed bandit—the experience is akin to typing in an economy-class seat: there’s room for nothing else. More poignantly, students themselves are larger. Node is tested to support 2,500 pounds of static load, the equivalent of a 300-pound student flopping into his seat. “Students have changed,” IDEO’s design project leader, Thomas Overthun, says. “Somewhat sadly, the trend is bigger, wider, heavier.”

Node and the LearnLab project were also prompted by thinking about how students actually learn. Educational psychologists have argued for decades (following the pioneering Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky) that students learn not by sitting and absorbing information but by finding things out for themselves, by “constructing” knowledge in social contexts. This has led to the adoption of “active” rather than “passive” learning in schools—class research projects, studio-based assignments, small-group discussions, and an emphasis on doing over lectures. Yet classrooms are still commonly designed as they were during the industrial revolution, with rows of seats facing the figure of authority. Regardless of a teacher’s intentions, the space itself establishes certain expectations. “As soon as we open the door to a traditional lecture hall, students are conditioned to the idea that they don’t have to do anything—they’ll just take notes,” says Lennie Scott-Webber, chair of interior design at Radford University and a researcher of environmental behavior. “We’ve conditioned people to sit in rows for passive learning.” LearnLab abandons the traditional classroom in favor of a triangular layout; the teacher is in the center, armed with a cordless lectern, and three ceiling-mounted projectors point to screens in three places in the room. Seating is configured to maximize eye contact and to allow the teacher to wander freely around the classroom. After testing a prototype in 2003 at its (grandly named) Steelcase University, the company oversaw the construction of another LearnLab in 2006 at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan. “Because of the openness of the classroom, I don’t have people sleeping or doing anything inappropriate,” says Jeff Chamberlain, a historian at Grand Valley State who regularly teaches a seminar in the LearnLab. “I can walk across the room in ten seconds.”

Given that the prevailing approach to higher education can be described as “stack ’em deep and teach ’em cheap,” the market opportunities for high-tech collaborative learning spaces might seem limited. Enter Node. According to Sean Corcorran, who leads Steelcase’s Educational Solutions team, the brief for Node emerged in part because Steelcase’s president, James Keane, had simply asked why furniture and technology that accommodated active learning wasn’t already everywhere. “It was a great question because it acknowledged that there’s a gap between knowing the stuff and doing something about it,” Corcorran says. “Why hasn’t it changed? There’s a lot of inertia, a lot of barriers. This had a big impact on us doing Node, because one of the barriers is classroom density. Can you make the customer not have to choose between an active classroom and density?”

Node’s swiveling seat and attached work surface allow students to take notes and also to turn to one another and discuss a topic. In a sense, it embodies some of the thinking behind LearnLab in compact, analog form. The teacher can switch, without much disruption, from lecturing to discussion, from passive- to active-learning modes. Cathryn Rowe, a design student at the University of Texas at Austin, observes that rows of one-armed bandits institute a forward-facing, me-and-my-backpack-against-the-world mentality that precludes collaborative learning: “You feel isolated. You don’t have a good sense of who’s around or behind you. My purse doesn’t even fit on the under-seat shelf. Everyone puts their stuff on the floor, which gets cluttered.” In a smaller classroom, Nodes and backpacks (which can hang off the arm or go under the seat) could be wheeled around for discussion groups without anyone tripping over anyone else’s belongings. A double-hinge mechanism allows the work surface to pivot separately from the seat for easier egress. “In the old tablet chairs, you had to wiggle your way in there, and you’d get stuck,” Corcorran says. “With Node, movement becomes a key attribute of the chair. The seating shell and tablet arm move relative to each other.”

IDEO’s mantra—“fail early and often to succeed sooner”—drove the fast-paced development of the chair through the first part of 2009, including a substantial revision when Steelcase’s engineers found that the proposed structural tray base was too costly to assemble, forcing a more streamlined solution that incorporated structure into the tripod leg base. Cost was also kept down by eliminating upholstery; the flexing, curved form of the polypropylene is designed to be durable and comfortable and to accommodate movement and a variety of seating positions. To reduce shipping costs, the chair can be packed into an eight-cubic-foot box and assembled in less than 30 seconds, with no tools. “We can fit 50 percent more on a truck this way, but we couldn’t burden the installers or customers with assembly,” Corcorran says.

Despite such attention to cost, the chair still lists for $599, four times the average price of a one-armed bandit. A LearnLab with all the bells and whistles could set a college back $60,000. Steelcase’s gamble—that there will be enough higher-education institutions willing to invest in forward-thinking classrooms—requires some persuasive rhetoric. Its strategy has been to summarize the lessons of some 80 years of educational theory and argue that the solutions to our problems are not complex but can simply be purchased off the shelf as well-designed seats and gleaming smart labs. For example, LearnLab mixes high- and low-tech solutions to support different learning styles. Portable whiteboards allow students to work in groups, and a CopyCam captures their notes. Math students distracted by having to scribble equations can rest assured that the CopyCam will scan them on the whiteboard and distribute them via the RoomWizard software. Visual learners will appreciate the possibilities of three independently wired projection screens that can be hooked up to any laptop in the room. Much learning depends on what Elise Valoe, a Steelcase researcher, refers to as “contextual memory”—when a classroom epiphany is tied to an image, a smell, a handwritten note, a scrawled diagram, or a particular space. Interactive whiteboards allow students to take some of those memory triggers home. Eno, an interactive-whiteboard system developed at Steelcase’s subsidiary PolyVision, can be used in analog mode with markers, or combined with a projector in digital mode. The Eno pen functions as a cursor (clicking links on a Web page, for instance) or as a digital marker (annotating what’s on-screen). A save function will record the annotated image for distribution to students during class.

Technology on its own will not solve our educational problems, of course, and neither will design. A generation of students raised on MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter have little problem multitasking (e.g., texting) in class but are less able than their predecessors to evaluate their sources, now that “research” can be performed with a few taps of the keyboard on Google. In Chamberlain’s classroom, the technology allows groups of students to research on the fly, check for accuracy, and pull up their findings on the screen for comparison. But the bigger issue is that smart classrooms need smart teachers. “Students take to it naturally,” he says. “Faculty takes longer.”

And that is unlikely to change, since faculty members are commonly hired for their expertise rather than their teaching skills and are rewarded for their research while they trot out dusty slide lectures in perfunctory performances to halls of yawning students. You might think that resistance to technology would diminish as older generations of teachers retired, but it is just as easy to deliver a tired, dull lecture in a newfangled classroom as it is in a 1960s-era lecture hall.

As Scott-Webber sees it, the greatest barrier to bringing the classroom into the 21st century is not so much cost as communication. “There’s a huge gap between facilities managers, teachers who know what works, and designers’ knowledge of the learning environment. We haven’t gathered enough research on how we learn.”

It may be, as Scott-Webber adds, that there aren’t enough opportunities to tell the upper-administration officials, who decide where the money is spent, about the importance of learning environments. But the design of higher education is a truly wicked problem. It extends from the seats to the way in which donors are solicited to build high-profile, glamorous spaces like galleries, high-tech research labs, and concert halls rather than mundane classrooms. It even includes how we define education—in terms of achievement and testing rather than learning. Alongside our seats and classrooms, it seems we need to update our concept of education. It is still rooted in the 19th century, back there with the one-armed bandits.

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