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Is Flexible Seating Right for Your Classroom?

The flexible classroom, with couches, mats, optional and alternative seating, and cozy corners for kids to concentrate, is cropping up more often again this school year, but the efforts to get rid of rigid rows of desks goes back a decade, and perhaps more than 80 years. And the debate about whether it improves learning often has been the same.

Today, the idea has devotees and detractors, but they pretty much agree that, above all else, the design of a classroom should match the teacher, the subject, and the students that are using it each day.

“It’s worked for me,” says Meghan Snable, a teacher with the Santee (CA) School District, who successfully used the approach with her first-grade class and this year moved to teaching fourth and fifth graders and found it just as successful. “I’ve quickly discovered that, much like my first graders, these students benefit from choice of learning space and the ability to move.” She feels it is also very appropriate for middle school students.

At Woodbury (MN) High School, science and engineering teacher Oskar Cymerman says teachers “can’t keep doing the same old thing.” He recommends they have couches or armchairs and low and high tables and stools and rugs—offering a room that looks like “Starbucks, but cooler.”

Kelly Almer, a veteran elementary school teacher in Littleton (CO) Public Schools, in her blog offers a detailed description of her move to flexible seating (and its benefits for student learning). “I will never go back,” she says, “The room has become ours instead of mine, and this has given my students a sense of ownership and enabled them to become invested in their own education.”

But other teachers are less enthusiastic. Kayse Morris, an eighth-grade teacher at Coffee Middle School in Douglas, GA, says she found “many reasons why flexible seating couldn’t work for me,” and fellow blogger Lauren Bright, a first-grade teacher at Dishman-McGinnis Elementary School in Bowling Green, KY, feels similarly. “I felt overwhelmed,” she writes. “I felt like I was constantly blowing up exercise ball chairs, and replacing beans in the bean bag chairs. I felt like I had gone through a rather large classroom transformation that was not reaping the benefits I had read about. I know now that I rushed into the seating, and lacked the procedural practice this kind of change desperately needs. I needed to allow myself to change back.”

Bright focuses on what some experts say may be one of the keys. This approach does more than change the classroom, and teachers need to prepare for it, and be sure it fits their teaching style.

What Does the Research Say?

Flexible seating can range from just allowing students to choose their seats or move around the classroom more frequently to elaborately planned rooms with a wide range of seating options that allow students to choose to work at different heights and in different positions. Furniture options include couches, floor pillows, mats, bean bag chairs, yoga ball seats, stools, low tables, standing work surfaces, and traditional chair and desk combinations. Often a meeting place with room for everyone is needed.

Generally, a flexible classroom allows students to move furniture and gives them opportunities to work separately or in groups, though groups are emphasized. Use of technology through mobile devices can also allow for some creative settings, though experts note that flexible seating is often meant to include collaboration and that sometimes online activities discourage it.

There has been considerable research on the benefits of students being able to move around for their health and fitness—and suggestions that it helps their brains too. In her book Smart Moves, Why Learning is Not All in your Head, education consultant Carla Hannaford suggests that some 13 studies show that when students move around in a classroom, they are more engaged and can better “anchor new information and experience into neural networks.”

Former teacher Eric Jensen, now a researcher and consultant, concluded in a 2000 report that a review of research shows physical activity benefits learning. “Movement increases heart rate and circulation, enhances spatial learning, provides a break, allows cognitive maturation, stimulates release of beneficial chemicals, counteracts excessive sitting, and affirms the value of implicit learning,” he reported. He recommends teachers have students move around regularly, but also stand and sit in different postures, including “lying down, perching, and squatting.”

In a study funded by a company that makes alternative seating, ergonomic scientist Dieter Breithecker says “static-passive sitting and a lack of physical activity during lessons leaves the neuromuscular system unchallenged and leads to degeneration.” According to Breithecker, “[a] child’s healthy brain will signal its need for a dynamic load shifts unconsciously by rocking or fidgeting on conventional chairs,” and therefore recommends alternatives for seating and students being allowed to move about.

Another researcher reported that what he called active dynamic seating “affects body and mind and soul” and another report found stability balls improve math test scores considerably. Yet in another study, student performance was no better for students using them. There is other research that finds no dramatic benefit to flexible seating, but little that reports any harm, though some suggests classroom management may suffer or worsen if a teacher already has those concerns.

Want to Try It?

Experts say there are some important points to consider:

  • It should be suitable. The environment should be appropriate for the teacher, the students, and the subject. Independent reading in third grade very well might be best accomplished with students in comfortable chairs or laying on rugs or mats, Snable notes, but for other subject matter (perhaps a higher level high school math class), a teacher and even the students may prefer a more traditional environment. Some teachers report that the makeup of the class can mean better or worse results and some teacher personalities are better suited to it.
  • It can be done gradually. Administrators may want to experiment with it in certain subjects or with a certain enthusiastic teacher in a school might be best. It might also begin with one area where students can take turns on a couch or on mats, says Snable.
  • It may require support. Some teachers look for used or “found” items, and Almer and others have done fundraising through online services or with their students' parents and school community.
  • It should be comprehensive. “Furniture is still just furniture,” writes Tim Walker, of the National Education Association. “That is, replacing desks with pilates balls and sofas won’t accomplish much of anything unless the teacher is prepared for the change.” The teacher should be comfortable with a flexible approach, says Cymerman, and have planned for it and considered how it will change their classroom. “I found myself remaking all my lessons. It was a lot of work, but worth it.” They also should consider how they’ll bring the group together, what lessons might require more structure, and how testing will be accomplished. They might consider the changes to each step of a regular day, including the point at which students come in and choose their location.
  • It creates excitement and requires rules. One potential advantage is an improved student attitude about the classroom and increased energy, but experts say that should be channeled into learning. “The more explicit you can be with your students the better,” says Cassie Tabrizi, in her detailed blog post on how she introduced flexible seating. Snable in her blog displays posters with some comprehensive rules and a contract for students.

 

Article by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributor

Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at www.otherperplexity.com.