High School World History teacher Marie Jane Panzer interacts with her students in a non-traditional classroom setting that she’s confident helps them with learning while preparing them for their futures.
The classroom that Panzer shares with technology teacher Jonathan Redeker has no student desks. Instead, repurposed round and rectangular tables — with writable surfaces — fill the room’s space. In the classroom’s front left section are two small couches, a chair, and a coffee table.
They have adopted the concept of flexible seating.
Gone are traditional student desks aligned in semi-perfect rows. There are no assigned seats and students sit with whom and where they choose. The arrangement lends itself to students being more engaged and active, and often students don’t stay seated for long, they said.
Communicate and be active in engagement
“Our vision was to make this a 21st century classroom,” said Panzer. “Education has changed, thanks to the technology we can access. At least in the social studies class, it’s not about the memorization of facts like it used to be. Rather, it’s about working together and talking things out. It’s how to communicate effectively and be active in engagement. We are creating global citizens.”
Students also know it’s equally important to rotate their seating choices.
“It’s comfortable, more modern and it makes everything easier,” said freshman Chloe Callahan. “It keeps you more focused on listening to new ideas from people.”
Redeker approached Panzer with the idea of changing their classroom’s seating structure.
“Gen Z or the iGen (people born 1996 and later) prefer to collaborate and work together, which contrasts the traditional school classroom,” he said.
“This is Jon’s vision,” Panzer said. “It’s changed the way I teach. It’s changed the way I approach content and thinking skills. We’ve upgraded our room and I’ve upgraded my approach to teaching.”
Redeker felt the new seating structure allows for more comfortable, attentive and meaningful conversations that focus on course curriculum and current events.
An new environment conducive to synthesizing and creating
“The highest level of learning is to synthesize, or create,” he said. “This environment helps to facilitate that. ‘Ask questions. Talk to each other,’ we remind them. This provides a cultural shift in the classroom.”
While Panzer knows the seating structure is different from traditional classrooms, she avoids using the word “flexible.”
“I tell them, ‘This is your home for the year, this is your space,’” she said. “I want them to feel this is ‘our’ room.”
During a recent lesson, students were chatting about land and water routes connecting East Asia with East Africa and South and Southwest Asia. They used their table top writable surfaces to compose answers to questions Panzer posed as part of a class game focusing on classical China.
“We can now all work together in different groups,” said freshman Megan Salte. “We get to know people better. I like this better than alphabetical seating.”
Redeker believed this simple classroom seating change offers huge long-term benefits.
‘It’s about empowering students.’
“This gives them the skills to exist in a global world,” he said. “They get to problem-solve and ask good questions, which they facilitate. This is what happens in the real world. It’s a paradigm shift. It’s about empowering students.”
Access to instructional technology, a changing student population and a fast-paced society has begun to inspire great change, Redeker felt, adding he and Panzer were grateful to the Board of Education, Central Administration and the high school’s administration for their support in re-envisioning teaching and learning.
“Instructional technologies are good,” he said, “but they can never replace good teaching. If students have a cell phone or a Chromebook, they have all the information in the world at their disposal. The role of modern teachers is to help students search, sift, sort and synthesize knowledge. The setting and the access to instructional technology have started a cultural shift among teachers and people are getting excited about facilitating learning in new ways for our modern students.”
The room is not cluttered with storage space but provides other amenities for students, such as a charging station for their phones.
“But, we’re not done with this space,” Panzer added. “It’s a work in progress. This open space allows the kids to feel more open, and that’s very conducive to learning.”