Mind, Body, and the Humble Chair

I’ve run across two articles recently that connect good design (building, object) with good education.

Five Things Educators Could Learn From Designers
The first, written by John Spencer of the blog edrethink, suggests that educators can learn from good building design.

For example, relationships matter. Designers think of people as being in relationship with one another. Teachers know this is absolutely true in the classroom, yet often our lesson plans and educational spaces attempt to separate kids into individual, non-social units who must operate alone or in conflict/competition with one another to achieve a goal.

It’s a short post but thought-provoking.

Ergonomic Seats? Most Pupils Squirm in a Classroom Classic
The NYT ran a neat piece this weekend about the hurdles racing even the simplest change for classroom reform: better chairs.

The basic, indestructible classroom chair was built in the last century and never really changed. Though doctors fret that our backs weren’t designed for long periods of sitting, our classroom culture still values the quality of “sitting still” as equivalent to “paying attention” though plenty of neurological research (and anecdotal experience) shows otherwise.

Companies are coming up with better, ergonomic designs for classroom chairs that will let students wiggle and squirm all they want while channeling their attention to the task at hand. But those chairs are expensive. And nobody has the money to address such a straightforward issue.

Maybe we should listen…

Kids shuffle to stay seated in a comfortable position; they end up with way too little leg room or elbow room at crowded tables or in tiny desks. Classrooms are often uncomfortably hot or cold, though school dress codes might hinder them from wearing hoodies or jackets or thin fabrics to adjust to that.

And the chairs. If I had a dollar every time I told a boy (usually) not to lean back in his chair, I’d have a retirement fund. (That, and “tuck in your shirt.”)  But have you tried sitting in some of these chairs?  I usually stood for a large portion of the day. I didn’t have to suffer the forced imprisonment of an uncomfortable chair.

I often let students stand in the back of the room to alleviate the physical boredom of the school day (if they wanted it). If I had the time to plan a better lesson, I could incorporate movement. On writing workshop days, I let them sit where and how they wanted, including reclining on the floor against a backpack. As long as the writing was happening and everyone was productive, I didn’t care what their bodies were doing.

Unfortunately, I can pull from my memory a number of times when adults pooh-poohed a student’s complaint about classroom discomfort.

Yes, sometimes kids gripe and they need to just “suck it up.”

But sometimes they’re right to complain that a good education isn’t supposed to include physical frigidity. It’s hard to concentrate when your muscles are cramping, or when you can’t breathe because your personal space bubble has been reduced to a sliver, or when your day consists of 7 hours of repetitive physical boredom.

I think it’s time to change.  Biblically normative education should recognize that humans are physical beings with definite spatial needs, and suffering in this realm leads to poor attention, not godliness.

We should acknowledge that student opinions about the spaces where they learn have real value, and give those opinions merit when planning, designing, and funding learning spaces.

We should also spend time and money to ensure that kinesthetic learners are not pushed out of our wordy, overly-intellectual classrooms, and incorporate movement as a way of knowing. It’s not ok to say “we adjust to multiple learning styles” and then put everybody in a chair for the day to write essays or fill out worksheets.

One example I borrowed from a Folger Shakespeare Library lesson, I think: students new to Shakespeare’s iambic line will pick up the rhythm of the words much faster if they can march it out — around the classroom, or outside, or in a gym. Start reading a sonnet or soliloquy, and stomping on the accented syllables. The regularly-metered lines produce a roomful of students all stomping on the same beat, and the poetry inside the very syllable-patterns begins to emerge in a tangible way.

But what worries me is this: “good education” and “the way my parents did it” somehow get equated in people’s minds. A busy, active classroom will look pretty messy — you might walk in to find a kid lying on the floor, another engaged in conversation on the windowsill with a classmate, a couple boys bouncing around in a corner.  And that looks like chaos to many people whose image of education doesn’t include anything beyond rows of students sitting neatly in desks.

So I’d like to suggest this:
Teaching redemptively may mean giving up your desire to control students physically, and instead demands that we do the hard work of engaging their bodies as much as their minds.  

And if that means hiring more teachers and buying more portables to avoid major classroom crowding, or throwing out the chairs, it’s worth it.

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