The teacher’s educational philosophy will be reflected in the
layout of the classroom. 
Robert Sommer

Ever walk into a classroom and just feel good? I certainly have. On a few recent school visits, I wanted to sign up for second grade all over again seeing the new flexible seating arrangements which included: standing desks, video rockers, large pillows, café style stools, and bucket chairs. Intuitively, it makes sense to offer today’s child multiple options to feel comfortable, safe and relaxed in their learning environment, but what does science say?

Science Says

California Department of Education (CDE) commissioned a study, which revealed elementary students who participated in outdoor science school raised their science scores by 27 percent, which points to the fact that space matters (2016). I suspect being outdoors met many of these student’s needs, but certainly inspired them to actually want to learn and stay engaged.

In 2016, Steelcase Education funded a study, which showed that classrooms designed to support participative learning increased student engagement compared to traditional row-by-column seating (Scott-Webber, Strickland, and Kapitula). Of course, it makes sense that if a classroom is intentionally designed to support different modes of learning children are more apt to stay engaged – for example, individual study, group work, presentations, peer-to-peer discussion, and one-on-one instruction.

Herman Miller did a study, which in 2008 revealed that “giving people some control over their surroundings adds to their sense of well-being.” Educators report that children take more ownership of the classroom (their classroom) when they can choose their seats, and are given freedom to move around when needed – for example, to see the board, to get away from a noisy neighbor, and perhaps sit near the window where there’s natural light.

Studies consistently showed that classroom design matters to how children engage, participate and ultimately stay involved in their learning experience (Fernandes, Huang & Rinaldo, 2011; Gremmen, Van den Berg, Segers & Cillessen, 2016 and Marx, Fuhrer & Hartig, 1999).

Real-life Stories

More and more educators are interested in flexible seating whether they incorporate it into their classrooms or simply observe others. Oskar Cymerman, a MN based high school teacher, whose adopted flexible seating says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that desks promote compliance, while coffee shop-style seating encourages community-building through increased and intentional emphasis on communication and collaboration” (neaToday, Sept 23, 2016).

Lauren Cluff, an elementary school teacher, took a middle ground approach by swapping desks for tables, which encourages more active learning. Her hesitation for flexible seating, which looked like a coffee shop or living room was the sheer number of students she sometimes teaches (up to 37). Many teachers actually say the costs are prohibitive, finding time is a challenge (researching, writing grants) and possibly even gaining Principal approval may be an uphill battle.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or improbable. Brooke Markle, a middle school teacher, jumped through many hurdles to recently introduce flexible seating in her classroom (8 options to be exact) with great success. Markle explains how she “watched in awe as students exuberantly entered my classroom and looked to find a seat” on the first day. It’s clear from Mrs. Markle’s recent blog on Edutopia, she is an experienced teacher with excellent classroom management skills, which is needed to make flexible seating work.

Flexible Seating: Does it make the grade?

What I know for sure is that flexible seating is more complex than it sounds. If it was simply swapping desks for chairs, every contemporary teacher on the planet would consider it, but there are factors to consider such as: age of the students, teacher’s classroom management skills, any special need students, which may have trouble, and of course, the dreaded budget. But considering those factors, I believe in many scenarios flexible seating can definitely be a win since it helps children not only feel physically but emotionally comfortable, and engages them to learn in a way that actually works for them!

By Maureen Healy

Maureen Healy is an award-winning author, educator and leader in the field of children’s emotional learning. She speaks widely to educators, schools and conferences on how to help today’s children develop social and emotional intelligences. To learn more, visit Maureen's bio on Psychology Today.

References

Markle, Brooke (Oct. 20, 2017). A 7th Grade Teacher's Shift to Flexible Seating. Article retrieved from Edutopia.

Earp, Jo (March 16, 2017). Classroom layout - what does the research say? Article retrieved from Teacher Magazine.

Walker, Tim (Sept 23, 2016). Farewell Desks, Here Come the 'Starbucks Classrooms.' Article retrieved from neaToday.

Herman Miller (2008). Rethinking the Classroom: Spaces Designed for Active and Engaged Learning and Teaching. Article retrieved from Herman Miller website.

California Department of Education (2016). Flexible Learning Environments. Article retrieved from CDE website.

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