The teacher's performance at the front of the classroom is impressive: an encyclopedic command of the facts, a clear voice that projects to every corner of the room, an engaging delivery peppered with the right amount of anecdotes and humor, and an organized way of driving home key points.
Yet, as students fidget and squirm at their desks and steal glances at the clock, it is evident that the lesson is not connecting with its audience. Left too long in uncomfortable seats, the students have lost their concentration, and a learning opportunity has been wasted. Compound that by the mountain of hours that students are sentenced to sit in ill-fitting desks and chairs in the nation's schools and universities, and it adds up to a critical challenge for education administrators.
Just as instruction has evolved to embrace the different ways students learn, classroom furniture also must change. Rigid rows of standard desks with attached chairs aren't necessarily the most effective method of engaging students, especially if children are confined to those desks for hours on end. Chairs suitable for listening to a lecture or doing table work might not be appropriate for working on the personal computers that are common in the modern classroom.
A successful student-centered classroom must have furniture that allows students to work comfortably, that can be adjusted to meet the needs of a variety of user sizes and shapes, and that offers different kinds of seating for different activities.
“You want to fit the environment to the student rather than fit the student to the environment,” says Cheryl Bennett, an ergonomic specialist at the Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., and chair of the Ergonomics for Children and Educational Environments committee of the International Ergonomics Association.
In the past, some may have thought that because the classroom is a place for students to work, providing comfortable seating was a way to pamper students and distract them from learning. Some schools may have opted for standardized seating and less expensive chairs and desks as a way of saving money.
But most educators now realize that uncomfortable, inappropriately sized furniture can detract from learning.
A survey of teachers conducted in 2001 by the Carpet & Rug Institute found that 85 percent of teachers believed that comfortable seating and student work spaces had a very strong impact on students' learning and achievement. Sixty-seven percent said that having flexibility to rearrange the classroom had a very strong impact on students' learning and achievement.
Lisa Miller, a teacher at Lafayette High School in St. Joseph, Mo., believes strongly that choosing appropriate furniture and other decorations in a classroom can create a space more conducive to learning.
Together with her sister, Jenny Moore, a former teacher, and their cousin, Beth Zahnd, a kindergarten teacher in St. Joseph, Miller also operates a business, Redefining Class, that helps schools and individual teachers design their classrooms to make them more conducive to learning.
“Flexibility is what kids really need,” says Miller. “Not every kid learns the same way. Classrooms need to accommodate different learning styles.”
In her classroom, Miller has chosen round tables. “I went with round tables to facilitate group work,” she says.
Many teachers, especially in elementary grades, prefer individual flat-top desks.
“Teachers like them because of the ability to move them around,” says Miller. “They can be put into all different kinds of configurations — pods, U-shaped.”
Bennett says that classrooms with tables should have different sizes available to accommodate the different sizes of students. Children in the same classroom can have significant differences in age and size.
“Schools often don't take into account the vast range of sizes of students that can be in a school,” says Bennett. “Adjustability is what's really needed.”
To provide the greatest flexibility, she adds, a school should set up tables that are adjusted for larger children, and provide footrests and cushions for smaller children. Smaller students may not be able to sit against the back of their chairs with their knees over the front edge, and the cushions can provide additional back support.
A touch of home
In a paper “33 Principles of Educational Design,” Jeffery Lackney, an architect and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recommends using “comfortable living-room-type furniture” to help create privacy niches or counseling spaces for one-on-one or small-group meetings.
Many teachers create those niches by dividing rooms into activity centers, where students can work individually or in small groups. Schools can use equipment such as portable partitions to create those spaces, or if those aren't feasible, teachers can use bookshelves or tables to provide some separation between spaces. Miller says that however the space is divided, the teacher must be able to maintain supervision over the entire classroom.
“You never want to block a teacher's view of students,” she says.
Miller has recommended that teachers use couches, pod chairs, beanbag chairs, lamps and area rugs to establish a pleasant nook for quiet study.
“It creates an inviting atmosphere,” she says. “The personal touches give a feeling of home.”
In some cases, says Bennett, the best furniture choice is no furniture.
“You want to have areas where there are no chairs at all, where students can sit on the floor,” she says.
The goal is to unchain students from their desks and chairs, and offer them a change of pace and scenery throughout the school day.
“Kids spend so much time sitting,” says Bennett. “You want to facilitate kids moving as much as possible.”
One of the key differences in today's classrooms compared with those of 15 to 20 years ago is the presence of personal computers. The campaign in the 1990s to provide every U.S. classroom with computers has largely succeeded, but in most cases, has not been accompanied with a push for the proper furniture.
“I think schools buy what is sold as computer furniture, but often it doesn't really serve that purpose,” says Bennett.
Bennett elaborates in a report, “Classrooms and Computers: An Elementary School Case Study.”
“Funding designated for computers usually cannot be spent on tables, keyboard trays or wrist rests,” Bennett states. “Parents may push for more computers in their children's schools. However, they do not push the schools to have teachers trained to teach their children good ergonomic habits, or to provide computer stations that are sized for children.”
In some cases, teachers do not realize the tables in their classroom are adjustable, or the heavy load on a table and the tangle of wires behind it makes it difficult to take advantage of adjustability.
Some schools have addressed ergonomic concerns, but Bennett says most administrators still need to be persuaded to recognize the importance of ergonomics for student health and learning.
“It requires a champion to get it done,” says Bennett. “It could be a teacher or an administrator, or a parent.”
Sidebar: Getting on the ball
For some students, the best seating choice may be no chair at all.
For fidgety students, especially those diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), using inflated exercise balls as seating can be an effective way for students to improve their posture and cut down on their restless movement. They can release pent-up energy by moving slightly on the ball.
“It's a more active form of seating,” says Cheryl Bennett, an ergonomic specialist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. “It requires students to focus more to maintain their center of gravity, and it enables them to maintain a good alignment of their spines.”
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported earlier this year that in one fifth-grade class in Snohomish, Wash., all 27 students sit on exercise balls instead of chairs.
Proponents of using exercise balls, also known as fitness balls or Swiss balls, say they are found frequently in classrooms in Europe. Some studies have indicated that sitting on the exercise balls help students stay seated longer and helps them concentrate more effectively on their studies.
Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.