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Tomorrow’s work environments will likely bear little resemblance to the office spaces of yesterday and today. Open floor plans, co-op workspaces, and remote work are becoming the norm, and more employees are leaving the corporate world to freelance. The rise of the “gig economy” requires our schools to rethink how our students learn and interact with their peers and educators. One way that schools are tackling this challenge is by adopting flexible classrooms.

But how can a flexible classroom design inspire students to be critical thinkers? Critical thinking requires one to be able to “think on his or her feet,” so to speak; to be able to reflect, analyze, and evaluate, based on the question or challenge at hand. Sure, this can be accomplished in a traditional classroom model. However, flexible classroom environments have some particular features that encourage students to exercise their critical thinking muscles.

Flexible Classrooms are Multipurpose

Much like the open floor plans and co-op workspaces defining the modern office environment, flexible classrooms provide students with a variety of options to learn and collaborate. Movable tables and chairs make it easy for students to work in groups or work solo. Workstations can be set up so students can rotate around the room and work on different projects throughout the class period. Functional furniture makes it easier to plug in and use laptops, tablets, or other types of technology to support learning and facilitate discussions.

Flexible Classrooms Promote Collaboration

Collaboration and communication, two other 21st century skills, are essential in helping students think more critically, and flexible classrooms make both possible. Flexible spaces make it easy for students to gather in groups, large or small, to discuss a novel, work on an engineering problem, or debate a current event. These interactions stimulate conversation, sharing diverse perspectives, and thinking outside of the box. Students learn how to listen, to articulate their position on an issue, to respect the opinions and ideas shared by their peers, and to solve problems as a team.

Flexible Classrooms are Student-Centered

Flexible classrooms give students a voice and a choice about where and how they learn. Empowering students to take ownership of their learning allows them to feel more confident about expressing their ideas and gives them more freedom to explore questions or topics of interest to them. It’s no wonder that flexible classroom spaces lend themselves well to personalized learning, which is gaining favor in schools and school districts.

Hopkins Public Schools in Minnesota is implementing flexible classrooms as a way to deepen student engagement and critical thinking. Desks have been traded in for a variety of learning spaces that allow students to move freely and choose learning spaces that meet their needs. According to third-grade teacher Justin Ingham, “The goal was to give students choice. I want to increase the engagement of my room to 100 percent, and with a flexible classroom, I am getting more quality work from all my kids, and the engagement is much higher.”

Natural Pod works with schools and early learning centers to create learning environments that inspire critical thinking. Some examples of recent collaborations include Taylor Park Elementary School, Elsie Roy Elementary School, and Voyager’s Community School.