Metro Detroit school using flexible classroom to help students learn

Posted at 1:44 PM, Oct 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-08 14:53:22-04

Sometimes small ideas have big impacts. Inside Novi Middle School, that idea is being put to practice with the use of “flexible furniture.”

It sounds like something so simple, but it’s had a major impact inside classrooms.

Flexible means two things: students can fidget and sit in a way that is comfortable and unique to them and teachers can flip a classroom configuration in a matter of moments.

In some classrooms, you’ll find chairs made to sit in backwards, sideways or traditionally on wheels — kids can follow a teacher with their eyes or their bodies with ease. Other classes have stools that look like a top – students balance themselves rather than relying on four legs. 

The desks themselves are on casters, some can be drawn on with markers and flipped to double as dry erase boards. They even stack with ease, meaning a teacher can tell the kids to move the desks aside and shift into a group circle with chairs only in a matter of minutes.

“Now you’ve got 30 kids in a circle having a conversation,” explained Dr. R.J. Webber, the assistant superintendent of academics at Novi Community School District. “There are no phones or something to distract because you and I can’t have them out in the open — that means nothing to play with, we’re out in the open. There’s nothing to distract so we’re learning listening skills, we’re looking at each other with body language and you can turn to talk to someone.”

If this isn’t clicking it’s not surprising — when Webber first pitched the idea one of his colleagues hummed the theme music to the Jetsons. The question nearly rolls off the tongue: “How could this possibly help?”

Webber is quick to point out: changing the environment isn’t the lone answer — anyone that tells you that is trying to sell you lies — instead, he’ll explain that it’s one of many factors that increases the ability to students in the Novi-area to learn. In other words, don’t knock it ’til you try it.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Rayan Khan, a seventh grader. “You can actually move around instead of those old stools — you can’t move in those! You just sit still.”

Khan attended school in Ohio before he came to Novi Community School District. He admits that he likes to move around a lot while in class. In a traditional desk that meant he could become a distraction, but inside his new desk, that means that he’s simply interacting with the “flexible furniture” the way it was meant to be.

As for shifting a classroom, Webber said it changes how teachers interact with students. He was a teacher himself and admits he didn’t move his classroom around. Webber said looking back he feels like he short-changed students and himself. Now kids are able to sit in traditional rows, pair up in groups or make giant circles to have a different form of lesson plan. Theoretically you could do some of these things with a traditional desk, but it could take minutes — by the end of the year that’s hours worth of educational time lost.

“Our teachers, with their kids, can reconfigure a classroom in 60 to 90 seconds,” he said. “You can go from traditional rows to group settings to no tables — all these things happen quickly.”

Seeing it in practice starts to change your mind, in fact, other school districts are now spending time inside Novi Community School District exploring their own options. Would it turn around test scores overnight? Likely not, but could it be a piece of the puzzle that makes that possible? Webber now has a growing number of district employees who would willingly argue that, and you won’t hear anyone humming Jetsons music these days.