Flexible Classrooms: Making Space for Personalized Learning

How you arrange your seating can be an asset for differentiating instruction. Summit Prep uses different seating configurations for independent work, collaborative work, mini lessons, and large-group discussions.

February 14, 2017

How you arrange your seating can be an asset for differentiating instruction. Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, California, uses different seating configurations for independent work, collaborative work, mini lessons, and large-group discussions.

Through scaffolded guidance from their teachers—which includes a personalized learning platform, daily goals, and a culture of formative assessment—students understand how they learn best and what resources they need, enabling them to choose and set up the seating arrangement that works best for them each day.

Summit uses furniture with wheels—trapezoidal and rectangular tables and soft fabric lounge chairs with tablet arms—to make it easy for students to move the furniture. Used furniture networks, like The Reuse Network, can be great resources, says Myron Kong, a Summit real estate team member, who adds that another way to lower costs when purchasing furniture is to aggregate all school orders into one.

Here’s how Summit creates a flexible learning environment to support differentiated instruction.

Understand Your Students’ Needs

Before you can plan your physical space, you need to know the needs of your students, and surveys can you help you figure those out. Try questions like “Do you want to work independently or with a group?” and “Do you want to learn from a Socratic discussion or a video?”

To learn more about creating surveys—and to learn about other free tools Summit uses to differentiate student learning—see “Challenging Every Student in the Room.”

School Snapshot

Summit Preparatory Charter High School

Grades 9-12 | Redwood City, CA
388 | Charter, Suburban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$8917 School$9658 District
Free / Reduced Lunch
60% Hispanic
25% White
6% Asian
3% Multiracial
2% Black
2% Filipino
1% Pacific Islander
Data is from the 2014-2015 academic year.

Plan Your Physical Space

Design different seating configurations students can choose from when they come in. Chris Kelly, a history teacher, suggests asking yourself about the best spaces for independent and collaborative work, and how many students will want mini lessons.

“Have a clear, data-driven objective for why you want students to rearrange the space in the classroom. It is easier to articulate, get buy-in, and have students appreciate the personalized ways that you are helping them to learn,” explains Cady Ching, a biology and AP environmental science teacher.

Post-it Note Goals

Post-it notes with academic goals written on them posted on a whiteboard.
© Edutopia
Students’ Post-it note goals

Before breaking out into the different seating options, Kelly’s students write their goals for the day on Post-it notes and stick them on the whiteboard. They write down what they want to accomplish for the day, noting specific tasks or what they hope to achieve by working alone, with a group, or in a mini lesson. The goals can be things like helping their fellow students after they finish a chapter or unit, understanding specific skills, or reaching certain checkpoints. 

This increases transparency and allows Kelly to better help his students. It also enables students to make the best choices for their own learning, choosing their seating arrangement and their collaboration partners.

Independent Work

Have your students move tables against the walls. Their backs will face you, increasing transparency. “If they’re working with their computers [or other materials], I can see specifically what they’re working on at a given moment,” says Kelly. This transparency enables you to check in on your students, offering encouragement or guidance when needed. This table configuration also limits distraction, moving students away from others’ discussions.

Collaborative Work

Have your students move tables to the sides of the classroom and work in groups of two to four students per table. With one group per table, your students will be able to make direct eye contact with each other and share their screens or resources with each other, says Kelly. For larger groups of up to six students, push two tables together. Make sure there’s enough space for you to walk around each table so you’re able to check in with every student. 

Four high school students are talking to each other, sitting at a trapezoidal table with laptops in front of each of them.
© Edutopia
Summit students collaborate.

Mini Lessons

When doing mini lessons for small groups of two to three students, have them move a table to the middle of the room. “For a larger mini lesson, place students at the center in collaborative seating, preventing a ‘teacher-at-the-front-talking’ mode. Facilitate think/pair/shares during the lesson,” suggests Kelly. When doing mini lessons for larger groups, resources such as overhead displays can be a factor in determining the placement of groupings. Media carts with a projector and speaker can create more flexibility, or a projector can be ceiling-tracked to save floor space. 

A teacher is standing by a projector talking to three students who are sitting at two small tables pushed together. A group of six students are working together at the side of the room, and three students are working by themselves at the back of the room.
© Edutopia
Three Summit students receive a mini lesson from Kelly while others work on their own and in groups.

Large-Group Discussions

For group discussions, like Socratic seminars or fishbowl discussions, group students in the middle of the classroom. “They sit in a circle, facing each other, usually with no tables so that open body language is encouraged. It gives them an opportunity to both show knowledge they researched in preparation for the Socratic seminar and to have the quiet space for discussion,” says Ching. Aukeem Ballard, a Habits, Community, and Culture teacher, uses this same table-less circle configuration for whole-class discussions. In fishbowl discussions, 15 students sit in a circle at the center of the room and discuss a topic, and the other 15 sit outside the inner circle, listening and taking notes on the discussion. 

High school students are sitting in a circle made of trapezoidal desks at the center of the room, while another student works by herself, facing the wall.
© Edutopia
Summit students and Ching circle up for a discussion.

“No matter what the physical space might be, it’s the students making decisions to learn that marks a culture of learning,” says Kelly. “It matters more on who is in that space and the kinds of decisions that educators make to set students up to make positive choices for their learning.”

Why We Chose Summit Prep for Our Schools That Work Series

Summit Prep is a high-performing charter high school that leverages a personalized pedagogy and smart use of technology to help a largely underserved demographic achieve impressive results and success in college. With 68 percent minority enrollment and 41 percent eligibility for subsidized lunch, the school boasts a 95 percent graduation rate, which is 12 points higher than the national average for all students. And Summit Prep has a 99 percent four-year college acceptance rate.

In 2015, 58 percent of 11th-grade students in Summit’s district, Sequoia Union, scored proficient or above on the Smarter Balanced Assessment for English language arts. At Summit Prep, 82 percent of students scored proficient or above on that test. Summit students similarly outperformed both Sequoia and the state of California on the Smarter Balanced Assessment for math in the same year.

Furthermore, the school has a replicable model of instruction, as evidenced by its continued expansion—there are now eight Summit schools in California and three in Washington, and more communities have requested that Summit open schools in their areas. And Summit makes its innovative personalized learning platform available to other schools for free.

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  • Learning Environments
  • 9-12 High School

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