Better chairs for better learning?

Better chairs (and desks) for better learning? On Slate, Linda Perlstein looks at readers’ suggestions for improving school furniture, which typically is designed to be cheap and indestructible.

Ergonomists recommend adjustable classroom seats and desks, but schools rarely fit the desk and chair to the student and keep them together, Perlstein writes.

One ergonomist recommends letting short students sit on a Swedish air-filled cushion that has the added advantage of bounciness. Movement is good for the body and the mind.

. . . ergonomists who have watched well-behaved children at standing-height tables or in bouncy chairs in Sweden or New Zealand or Canada insist that innovative furniture makes students pay more attention, not less.

Galen Cranz, a Berkeley professor of architecture and design, and author of “The Chair as Health Hazard,” thinks students shouldn’t sit at all.

She recommends higher, tilting tables that allow students to perch or stand, or exercise balls, which have the added benefit of keeping kids awake. There seems to be agreement among ergonomists about the value of perching, with the legs at a 120-degree rather than 90-degree angle—keeping the hips above the knees is good for the body, and the position has been adopted in some European schools. They disagree, though, about the balls.

Many children and adults will manage to find weird ways of sitting in the most ergonomically correct furniture, Perlstein concedes.

Slate is soliciting classroom redesign ideas from its readers.

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  1. The standing-desks and balance balls might rhelp the ADHD kids do better.

    When my daughter is working on a new, difficult skill, she fidgets like crazy–bouncing, rocking, jumping, etc. If I force her to keep still, she can’t learn– all her mental energy has to go towards sitting still in the chair instead of to mastering new material.

    I know I was in a similar boat as a kid– and I imagine many other folks with ADHD were too….

    SO– if we remove the need to concentrate on sitting well in an uncomfortable chair, we’ll free up working memory for something else!

    (One thing I’ve realized with homeschooling– as adults we often forget how much mental and physical effort the early grades actually take– when you’re not USED to reading and writing, the work is all-consuming. And sitting still is tough, too. )

  2. An addition to the litany: blame the furniture.

  3. Allen– well, it can’t hurt. If I let my daughter work standing up, she can do her work in 1/3 or the time! And studies have shown that sitting for long periods is pretty unhealthy.

    Of course, a cheaper alternative might just be to go back to the sort of recess they had 25-30 years ago, when I was a kid. We had 6.5 hours of school, but 3 recesses. (20 minutes mid morning, 30 after lunch, 20 mid afternoon.)

    So we’d start at 8, have recess about 9:30-9:50, Lunch at 11:30 another recess about 1:30, and we’d leave around 2:30. If kids today had a similar schedule, the furniture might be less of an issue–because they wouldn’t be spending much time in it!

    Oh– and sometimes, if we were REALLY good and efficient, we’d get extra recesses!

  4. Many of my big ninth and tenth grade boys don’t fit the desks. Too tall, too wide, just big growing boys. And for my lefties (and I am one) the normal one piece desk with the arm rest and support on the right side is murder. You have to sit at a weird angle to write and I get pain across my shoulder blades if I have to sit in them for long.
    One or two person tables with more comfortable chairs would make a difference, especially when we require kids to sit for 6+ hours a day. I get my kids out of their seats as much as possible.
    Deirdre: Do you think that so many of our boys who are on medication for ADD or ADHD wouldn’t need it if they could only get out and run, play, get rid of some of the excess energy? I grew up with recesses and we were all a lot healthier and physically stronger than today’s kids.

  5. I’m lucky this year – I have a science lab, with room for traditional desks, a table, and the lab tables. My last class is 30 kids, and I have (after the first week or so) let them choose where and on what they want to sit.

    Most choose the desks, a few just love the table (they circle the chairs around it for maximum face time), and 6 of them love the lab tables – funnily, I only have 2 lab chairs; they use regular chairs, and 1 uses the step ladder. As long as they work well, and are content, I don’t mind how they sit.

  6. I’m overenrolled and have kids sitting on the floor this year (I can’t fit enough desks in the room) — the big boys love it. I’ve always got kids trying to escape the desks. I’ve had good results with kids sitting on exercise balls, too.

    FWIW, my desk chair is one of those ancient wooden specimens with the two carved grooves for the butt cheeks. I don’t sit as much as the kids, though.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to blame chairs for achievement levels, and I doubt a cost analysis of value added test scores linked to furniture would come out in favor of $80 chairs, but it would be nice if some .com millionaire dropped some cash on something practical.

  7. dangermom says:

    I did buy a big ball for my daughter to sit on for schoolwork (we homeschool). I envisioned her bouncing and moving a bit as she worked, but instead she nearly always kneeled on it, which gave her a precarious seat and bad posture. She had to hang on to the desk to keep from falling, and sometimes she fell anyway. She did like it, but when it developed a leak we couldn’t afford to replace it and haven’t gotten around to it yet.

    I like the *idea!* 🙂

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’m with Sal — desks are ridiculous. Their only virtue is that it’s easy to move them — allowing cleaning staff to more easily get at the floor, and allowing new configurations on the fly. A table, where you can put your book, your note book, a few extra pens, both your elbows if need be, and some coffee or water on the surface in front of you all at the same time is so far superior a setup that I have trouble imagining why anyone would continue to use desks.

  9. Michael– good point about workspace. No ADULT would deign to work at what passes for a ‘desk’ at most schools. Heck, when my FIRST GRADER is working, she takes up half the dining room table! Or the entire living room floor, if it’s a ‘sprawling’ kind of a day. And actually, we tend to do reading on the couch…

    Sal– I DEFINITELY think the increase in seat-time, reduction in recess, and lack of a walk to and from school is part of the problem with modern ‘ADHD’– We’re expecting kids whose brains are not yet fully developed to spend more time in a seat than your average office worker! (Have you ever WATCHED how much offices work? People work for a little, get up to get a cup of coffee, stop to talk with a buddy on the way back to their cube, discover that something REALLY needs to be hand-delivered…etc.etc.etc.)

    We’d need a lot less medication for the ADHD kids if we didn’t expect them to act like LUMPS. (For instance, my daughter miraculously manages to pay attention for reading and math IF I send her outside to climb trees for 20 minutes first. I actually get 40 minutes of instruction time for every 20 minutes out…but they’re a really good, focused, PRODUCTIVE minutes. (Note- I don’t make her sit still. She can wiggle, rock, tap, spin, etc. all she wants as long as her MIND is on task. I realize that this would NOT work in a classroom with 20 kids all moving…. which, honestly, is one of the reasons we homeschool!)

  10. You’re right Dierdre, it can’t hurt. But it also isn’t rocket science so how come it’s this late in the game that something as mundane as furniture gets a hard look?

    If I were being cynical I’d say it was because the people who are anxious to preserve the public education system in its current form are always on the look-out for something, anything, to divert attention from a possible inspection of the fundamentals of the public education system. Hence an addition to the long litany of factors which supposedly negatively impact public education but over which public education exerts no control.

    So why do you think something as mundane and obvious as uncomfortable furniture wasn’t expelled from the American classroom decades ago?

  11. It’s the furniture, yeah, that’s the ticket! Aeron chairs for everyone! Get a good enough chair and the teacher isn’t even necessary, the kids will teach themselves.

  12. Allen– Because decades ago we didn’t conflate “time in seat” with “learning”

    It seems to me that most EdEstablishment reforms are geared to keeping kids in school, and in the classroom, longer.

    i.e. “20 minutes of instruction couldn’t make a dent in their ignorance, but SIXTY will!”

    So, eliminating recess and ‘specials’, spending all day on reading and arithmetic has become the norm. To prove that we’re DOING something. Now, uncomfortable desks matter, because kids are spending so long in them! (Block scheduling probably affects this at the HS level– the old desks were uncomfortable, but only for 45 minutes at a time!)

    What most of the ‘time in seat’ reformers seem to ignore is that most people have a limited attention span for most topics. They can work efficientlly for a set length of time, but after that, the time to learning ratio decreases dramatically.

    Especially when the material is brand new and takes lots of effort. (For instance, when my daughter started phonics, I quickly discovered that 30 minutes of work did not produce any more results than 15 minutes of work. Now that she’s more proficient, we can do 30 minutes of reading. But having first graders work for two hours straight? That’s MADNESS.)

  13. I used to sit on an exercise ball at my old desk job. I’m a fidgeter by nature and it helped me get rid of my excess energy in a way that was not distracting to anyone else in the office.

    I think it *CAN* work so long as the teacher ensures that the kids don’t abuse the privilege.

  14. Michael E. Lopez says:

    But having first graders work for two hours straight? That’s MADNESS.


    THIS…. IS…. SCHOOOOOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. I was thinking Deirdre that decades ago the public education system hadn’t exhausted its wellspring of public trust so there wasn’t as urgent a need to blame just about everything for the system’s failures.

    So now we can add one more factor to the seemingly endless litany of excuses for the failures of the public education system – the kid’s butts hurt.

  16. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I am, for my part, not convinced that desks and chairs and such have such a direct effect on learning. Kids can, if motivated, learn quite a bit sitting on some concrete steps or on a log.

    What I am pretty sure of, though, is that forcing kids like sardines into small, uncomfortable, not terribly useful seats is an unnecessary reinforcement of the overall school theme:

    Move when the bell rings
    Ask permission to go to the bathroom.
    Sit in this ridiculous chair that is neither comfortable nor convenient.
    Do not go beyond that fence.
    Don’t defend yourself.
    Don’t carry so much as a pocketknife.
    Don’t expect privacy in your locker, or even on your person.
    Eat when we tell you to.
    Study the subject we tell you to, when we tell you to.
    Don’t kiss your boyfriend/girlfriend in public
    (Some might suggest I add school uniforms to this list, but I’m not convinced those send the same sort of message.)

    What exactly the theme is shall be left as an exercise for the reader, but by the time a kid is 15, this sort of thing starts to get really, really ridiculous.

  17. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It occurs to me that a kid sitting on steps, or on a log, has more room to move around…