Should we be flexible towards our students or should our students learn the virtue of flexibility?
The old traditional method of sitting is rows has been frowned upon for the last few years as more and more teachers acquire modern seating arrangements and are praised for providing flexible seating for students in the class. Advocates suggest that flexible seating research is backed up by evidence of better concentration levels, more collaboration, creativity and critical thinking (all extolled as 21st century learning skills). However, critics suggest that such seating is just a spoiler for children and that it will hinder adaptability and flexibility skills. In other words, you’re not going to like the seat you always get in life but you are going to have to learn to adapt and make the best of it right?. After all, for decades our grandparents and parents sat in rows and they didn’t turn out so bad after all.
A popular article titled Why the 21st Century Classroom May Remind You of Starbucks argues that we go to Starbucks to work because it provides a relaxing environment. We have an option of seating that is provided, dimmed lights, and everyone is working at their once pace. The author argues that some people pick the tables and chairs and others the couch but that what ultimately matters is that you have a choice. The author states “No one checks you in and directs you to a spot, telling you that you must sit there for the remainder of the day to do your work. If you need to get up, walk around, or choose a different seat, you are free to do so. If we truly want to prepare our students for the real world, we need to put them in responsive, dynamic environments that reflect life outside of a traditional classroom. And what’s that life outside like? Full of choices, where adults are responsible for their own learning”.
Although, this is a valid point if you are looking for an independent work environment, school is not Starbucks. Starbucks is a place you go out of personal choice not a place you work at every single day (or perhaps you do if you don’t have an office space or home work space) but it isn’t a place you would write a test for example.
In addition, sometimes the real world is not full of choices. The choices that we have are just a selection of pre-made choices for us. Think of it as a menu, you don’t have all the choices in the world. If you work in an office environment and everyone has a cubicle are you going to bring in your couch in or are you going to adapt to the pre-made seating arrangement?
In other words, it isn’t for everyone. There are countless people who need silence to concentrate and work yet some teachers insist on playing some relaxing background music that creates anxiety and irritation on students who try to focus. What is next then? Headphones with music for some students?
One of our teachers at the agency shared with us that colleague kept asking her first-grade student to sit down while he worked but once he sat it lasted for a mere five minutes and he was up again leaning on his desk coloring because this is how he felt comfortable working . She had to give him several reminders to sit down and work instead of standing up. The child could have been classified as a kinesthetic learner who worked best while standing upright or moving around. To some, this may seem cruel and forceful, to others adaptability at its best.
However, the distractions could be towards other pupils as well. Another teacher we once places shared with us that she worked in a secondary school where the seating was all done in groups. The head of department stated it was done to “stimulate group thinking and promote conversation” among pupils about the book they were analysing. However, many students who preferred to work independently felt really frustrated. She had a student once come and ask her if they could move the seating into rows because his back was always faced to the teacher and his neck hurt when he had to turn around to see her. She told him she would speak with the department. Only one veteran teacher who was retiring that year agreed with her and he said he had fought to keep the rows in his class and due to his seniority no one questioned his pedagogy. However, for her it wouldn’t be so easy. In addition, she had other students complain that teachers purposely set them up to “get it trouble” or “fail” because they told them no talking or looking at your partners work yet they sat them facing each other or next to each other and told them to do something that basically wasn’t natural (don’t look or talk) . She viewed their points as quite valid and felt empathy. Then there were the group of usually super high achievers who detested group work and wanted to work individually because they claimed they were the only ones who cared about the work and had to do it all by themselves anyways while the group got the credit which wasn’t fair.
Although, we do live in a society that requires that we help each other to survive learning, working independently is equally as important as learning to work in a group. However, some teachers prefer to grade 5 papers or projects as opposed to 30 hence group work has become the norm for them and a struggle for high achievers.
Another teacher we recently placed shared with us that while working in the Middle East she encountered a class that was very noisy and the seating was all done in groups again. The head (who was a veteran teacher) decided that they try moving all the seats to traditional rows. They were going back in time. They were defying all the fancy research. The results were really shocking. Students settled, they performed better, grades went up. The school invested in desks that wheeled around so when they had to do group work students wheeled themselves sideways into their assigned groups. When they were done they wheeled themselves back into rows.
We are not suggesting you adopt this approach although if it works for you then great! We are stating that every classroom is different and within every classroom there are many different students and flexible seating is not something everyone enjoys. For example, if someone has back pain and their group has to move to the floor table, they will perhaps have a hard time enjoying their lesson on the floor in such an uncomfortable distracting setting. On the other hand, we must not tell someone to consistently sit down when they want to stand up and work. Some days as educators we must be flexible and courageous and allow our students to express themselves and on other days we must insist that they adapt and learn to be flexible. After all, it is a virtue they will need to have in an every changing evolving world.
Seating is not just the place where you settle yourself; it is actually the place that dictates the dynamic and synergy of the class environment, of the work outcome and most importantly the overall success of student achievement.