Classrooms are adapting to new teaching approaches, propelling the educational environment to new heights of learning. In this changing environment, education institutions need to make sure that each dollar spent is beneficial to students. With funding decisions scrutinized by teachers, parents and taxpayers, purchases must meet an institution's goals and maximize return on investment (ROI), regardless of how learning styles may change.

When it comes to one of the most fundamental teaching tools in the classroom — furniture — the investment needs to be smart; furniture supports students' bodies and enables teachers to incorporate new learning approaches.

From a traditional perspective, it often is hard to quantify the ROI of furniture in relation to student achievement. By looking at ROI from a different perspective, decisionmakers can see quickly how the payoff of a smart furniture investment goes far beyond budget line items. This different perspective evaluates furniture investments according to the role the furniture will play, the occupants who will use the furniture, and the inherent characteristics of the furniture.

The Role

Beyond the tables and chairs that physically support student lessons, furniture can either enhance or detract from a curriculum's impact on learning. Understanding curricular demands and how furniture interacts with them is crucial for the furniture to enhance learning.

Over the last 20 years, schools have made a substantial shift toward collaborative learning that emphasizes group work. With collaborative activities, furniture gets grouped together whether or not it is designed to. In these situations, desks geometrically designed to fit together in cohesive groupings of four, six or eight will ensure that the workspaces will enhance collaborative activities, not detract from them.

One way to determine if furniture will meet curricular demands is to involve teachers in the classroom planning process. Teachers know the daily requirements of the learning landscape and can help determine which furniture will maximize their ability to instruct. For example, when the 116-year-old Harker School in San Jose, Calif., began researching what kind of furniture it would acquire for a new science and technology building, the facility manager involved teachers to ensure that the furniture selected would align with the curriculum.

"Involving the teachers in the selection process was a crucial factor in picking the right furniture," says Mike Bassoni, the school's facility manager. "This ensured that the decision the school was about to make was satisfactory to those who would give the furniture the most use."

In this situation, teachers needed the furniture to work within the broad range of courses taught in the new building — from lab-focused classes to lectures and everything in between. And within these classes, the curriculum often required easy reconfiguration of the room. Involving teachers in the selection process led the Harker School to select trapezoid-shaped tables that could be used individually or grouped together for collaborative sessions. Teachers were able to modify their teaching landscapes to the lesson of the day.

Curricular demands also influence which furniture is chosen for specialized spaces, such as libraries and art rooms. Art projects may require students to stand up while manipulating materials, so tall tables and stools will be a better fit than standard-height desks and chairs. Regardless of an institution's curricular requirements, investing in flexible furniture that is easily moved, reconfigured, stacked and nested will make the purchase more useful.

The Occupants

The most important people to consider when planning a smart furniture investment are students. If students experience physical discomfort in the classroom because of improper seating, they become distracted, and their ability to concentrate and learn suffers.

To enhance students' ability to learn, evaluate seating for its ergonomic design, as how much it enables students to move while seated. Students have high levels of energy, and if they can't get the chair to move with them and support them at the same time, they will fidget and lose attention quickly. Flexible, ergonomically designed seating also enables students to stay seated comfortably for longer periods of time.

Furniture fit is equally important, as a furniture mismatch can take a physical toll on students. Research from the Journal of Adolescent Health indicates that a disparity between school furniture and body size may cause musculoskeletal problems.

Complete furniture customization for each student is not realistic, but choices are available that can create a more personalized fit. Select chairs in a series that have the same style but different seat shell sizes, and choose desks with adjustable-height legs for easy customization. For classrooms with older students, adjustable-height chairs with castors accommodate long and short legs.

To test furniture fit, have a cross section of the student population try the options before a purchase is made. One middle school in Colorado set up a furniture test room and recruited students of varying heights, weights and learning needs to test the furniture and helped determine where adjustments should be made before buying any products.

The Inherent Characteristics

Not all school furniture is created equal — the research behind the product, the design process, the materials used and the manufacturing standards all affect the final product. Some furniture characteristics not only illustrate a high level of quality, but also make a long-lasting furniture investment. Among these characteristics are durability and sustainability.

Regardless of the dollars spent on furniture, it's expected to last for years; however, not all furniture will. Many schools struggle with the temptation to buy inexpensive furniture without giving much thought to its construction. To ensure the purchase will stand up to daily use from students, evaluate furniture for its durability and strength. The more durable the furniture, the fewer replacement desks and chairs will be needed in the long run.

When evaluating furniture durability, look for pieces made with high-pressure laminates and metals with baked-on powdercoat finishes. Structural elements also affect the durability of furniture, so look for chairs with glides that are fastened securely, steel chair legs with a heavy gauge, and tables with bumper edges that are fastened securely all the way around.

All things considered, the best way to determine furniture durability is to try it before you buy it. Getting hands-on with the furniture gives administrators, facility managers and maintenance workers an opportunity to feel the strength and durability, and study the construction.

Sustainability is another critical furniture requirement for healthful classrooms.

According to the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, children spend about 85 percent of their time indoors, where the air is two to five times more polluted than outdoor air. Indoor air pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), come from building and furnishing materials and can contribute to health problems, including asthma and allergy attacks.

For a healthful classroom, select sustainable furniture products that meet or exceed all environmental and air-quality standards available on the state and national level.

More important, all the certifications the furniture boasts should come from third-party entities. Be wary of "green" statements not supported by recognized certification programs. Administrators that conduct due diligence on sustainability claims will be able to determine whether a furniture purchase will contribute to student health immediately and in the long run.

Hands-On Planning

Knowing what makes a smart furniture investment is one thing, but finding the perfect fit takes hands-on planning. Testing furniture before making a commitment will confirm that your new high standards are met, and that the investment will provide a lasting return.

Furniture manufacturers make samples accessible to school and university officials through education expos, furniture fairs and their own furniture showrooms. Some manufacturers also offer furniture samples that can be tested in the school for a period of time.

Institutions that want to maximize their furniture investment take it a step further by outfitting an entire classroom with furniture samples for weeks before making a purchase decision. This enables administrators, teachers, maintenance staff and students to test durability, comfort and flexibility. It also ensures that the furniture complements the curriculum and enhances teaching and learning.

Stewart is western regional sales manager for Smith System, Plano, Texas. davids@smithsystem.com

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