Why Hong Kong secondary classrooms need designing for active learning

Many secondary schools are moving away from rows of single desks

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 4:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 4:46am

My daughter starts secondary school next year. At her primary school the children sit around tables in groups and they can interact and discuss ideas. When she visited her new school last term she said most of the tables were set out in rows facing the teacher and she is worried she won't be able to sit with her friends and work in groups. This layout sounds a little old-fashioned. Is this the best way for children to learn?

Until recently, how the furniture and layout of a classroom might help or hinder learning and achievement was rarely considered. But research has shown that classrooms designed to encourage active learning have a significant and positive effect on student engagement. So educators are now working with engineers, architects and others to design inspiring learning environments where the physical space and furniture supports and enhances learning.

Secondary schools, which have traditionally had a more formal style of seating than their feeder primary schools, are also beginning to see the importance of thinking more carefully about the layout of furniture. Many are now moving away from rows of single desks. In fact, those that follow the IB curriculum, in particular, have had to rethink their classroom configuration as subjects have become more integrated, demanding interaction and collaboration among students.

Whether this is the case in your daughter's situation will depend on the ethos of her school, individual teachers in it and the requirements of different subject departments.

Ultimately, however, the experience of secondary school will be different from primary school and it is natural for her to be anxious about this transition and want the emotional support of her friends around her, including being able to work alongside them in the classroom. The good news is that transition arrangements between schools have generally improved; often pupils visit their new school at least once before embarking on their new adventure.

Educators have known for a long time that when children are encouraged to share their findings and ideas in an emotionally safe environment their confidence and ability to learn increases enormously. These days, education is more about interactive problem solving and communication skills, so seating arrangements need to allow for this. The key is flexibility so furniture can be arranged according to task while also catering for different learning styles.

 These days, education is more about interactive problem solving and communication skills, so seating arrangements need to allow for this

The general increase in knowledge and acceptance that children learn in different ways has led to the design of many different styles of furniture. Some schools now have standing tables or low kneeling tables as well as easily movable tables allowing for a variety of activities and groupings. There is a much greater range of chairs available, also at varying heights, some which swivel and allow for movement to help children with comfort and attention. All these innovations cost money so schools may have a strategic plan to phase them in.

Of course, some children need more guidance from the teacher than others and may get distracted if near a window or out of the direct sight of the teacher.

Active listening is a key skill that many teachers complain is deteriorating as children constantly multitask and focus on technology. So it is important that students are able to face the teacher at certain times during the lesson when important learning or instructions are being imparted.

An appropriate learning space is important in ensuring a successful education for your daughter. A comfortable and stimulating environment can help to set high expectations that can be translated into high standards of student work and achievement. The physical conditions of classrooms are important but the quality of teaching and the effectiveness of the interactions between teachers and students are likely to have a greater impact.

Julie McGuire teaches at a local primary school