The Making of Active Classrooms

Rethinking classroom furniture

Justin Jay Wang
Mar 1, 2014 · Unlisted

Learning at school used to be fun.

Don’t remember? Think back. Way back. Maybe even as far back as Kindergarten. School was a place where you would learn things by doing, being active, and interacting with others. The classroom was an environment where individuality and creativity were nurtured.

Then somewhere down the line, things changed. You’re told to sit still, be quiet, and pay attention to the teacher at the front of the classroom. They confine you to a personal chair desk, along with each of your classmates. And school becomes boring. Slowly, but surely, your curiosity for knowledge dwindles and the joy of learning disappears.

Active Classrooms was a project for Introduction to Product Development at UC Berkeley in the Spring of 2011, co-taught by Alice Agogino and Clark Kellogg. It pushes to make learning fun once again through classroom furniture that encourages interaction.


At the start of the semester, the course provided the opportunity for each student to pitch a different project that derived from a need. We then all voted on these pitches and formed groups of 4–5 around the most popular.

I teamed up with Soo Hark Chung, Anastasia Chvets, Katherine Duong, and Lingmiao Wang to work on Katherine’s original pitch for better lecture seats.

Mission statement

As a group, our first task was to clarify the scope of the project by drafting a mission statement to identify primary markets (schools, offices), key business goals, users, stakeholders, and assumptions (classroom infrastructure would be unchanged).

Needs assessment

We collected user needs using various methods: one-on-one interviews, surveys, storyboards, personas, observation. In translating user statements into needs, we also discovered a number of latent needs—needs expressed indirectly.

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Many of the interviewees mentioned the notion of comfort. They talked about the chairs not being comfortable for sitting (and even sleeping). The statements often highlighted one important fact: learning in schools had become an extremely passive activity, where students sat and listened for hours at a time.

Instead of focusing on what users said they wanted (more comfortable chairs), we wondered if we could address the underlying issue and create furniture that encourages regular movement. Then, students wouldn’t be uncomfortably sitting in one place for long periods of time (or tempted to sleep). Going to class might actually be fun. And when stimulated and free to move around, they’ll ultimately learn better.

Our top 3 needs:

  • Product stimulates learning.
  • Product facilitates collaboration and communication.
  • Product adapts to different user preferences.

Concept generation

We iterated through multiple rounds of concept generation, with the objective being the quantity of ideas, no matter how wild.

Benchmarking, where we identified potential competitors and similar products (such as the Node chair by Steelcase and foam cubes used at Stanford’s Design School), proved helpful by allowing us to identity the areas in which we can differentiate our product.

We were also able to use metaphors to aid in concept generation. Influenced by wanting to make learning collaborative and fun, we used notions such as the classroom is a campfire and the classroom is a playground to spark new ideas.

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Concept selection

We narrowed down concepts by performing concept screening and scoring against our benchmark products.

The top 3 concepts were presented at the midterm trade show, where we gathered feedback from our instructors and classmates. Based on this feedback, as well as referral back to our top needs, we would ultimately pursue the modular furniture concept.

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We used lo-fi prototyping to refine the concept even further, by adding handles and a detachable whiteboard that doubles as a cover to the five-sided box.

Our final prototype would be full-sized, functional, and constructed from plywood, whiteboard sheets, and colorful cabinet liner.

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Final presentation

Our final concept and prototype were presented to classmates, instructors, and industry guests at the end of the semester. During the presentation we handed out brochures for Active Classrooms that featured the slogan:

Learn to play again.

We wanted to emphasize that in rethinking classroom furniture, we wanted to rethink the way we learn too. Why should students be relegated to sitting and listening to a lecturer for the entire class period? We think there’s a better way to learn, where students are actively engaged, collaborating, and are able to create their own ideas. Learning can be (and has always been) fun. Our product supports this notion.

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The final prototype was a set of three multi-functional furniture pieces with detachable whiteboards that can be stacked and arranged build a variety of learning environments.

The simple form allows freedom of movement (enhancing learning), facilitates choice of seating postures (allows you to sit the way you want), and encourages creative use of classroom space.

Other benefits include the mobility of the cubes (they are light and have carrying handles), storage capacity, and personal whiteboards that allow you to quickly and visually share ideas.


Introduction to Product Development would go on to be one of the most worthwhile courses I took during my time in school. The course itself was inspiring and liberating—a Mechanical Engineering course, but far different than others you’d find in the department.

The idea at the heart of Active Classrooms—that learning should be active, hands-on, and divergent—was mirrored in the course itself and how it was run.

As a team, we challenged ourselves to think outside the box throughout the entire process in order to come up with a truly innovative solution. While assessing needs, the greatest insights were found by looking beyond what the user says to the meaning behind what was said. And while tasked with generating novel concepts, we were pushed by metaphors such as the classroom is a playground.

Finally, we came to the realization of just how difficult it is to disrupt the status quo, in any industry. This includes affecting cultural and social norms related to traditional teaching methods. Many people who saw our project and heard our ideas weren’t sold (teachers need to lecture students, they insisted).

But I still do believe that rethinking education will be beneficial in the long run and that change will come, eventually. It starts with just one idea.

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