Teachers around the world have spent the past few weeks sharpening pencils, tacking posters to the walls and arranging students’ desks just so to prepare for the new school year. But some teachers have done away with that last part of the preparations, eschewing the traditional industrial-style desks and straight-backed chairs in favor of more comfortable, pliable environments that they believe foster creativity and collaboration among classmates.
Last year, for example, second-grade teacher Erin Klein modeled her classroom in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., after the children’s area at Barnes & Noble. It includes a breakfast nook, two-person tables where students can work together on projects, and media cabinets that made books more accessible to students. While discussing a book they were reading, students often lounged on the floor in the center of the room.
And the results were positive, according to an article on KQED.org: Klein said her students’ behavior improved, and some even took to cleaning the rocks from the bottom of their shoes before re-entering the redesigned room after recess, so as not to dirty the floor. Similarly, fifth-grade teacher Holly Albrecht redesigned her Hartland, Wis. classroom so that students now sit on beanbag chairs, fabric cubes or exercise balls instead of at desks, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “The kids love it,” Albrecht said.
In the white paper “Reimagining the Classroom: Opportunities to Link Recent Advances in Pedagogy to Physical Settings,” Alessandro De Gregori of the NJIT Center for Building Knowledge describes the traditional “factory model” of education still largely in use today. Schools resemble “factories turning out products in industrial America,” with “lined-up rows of utilitarian students’ desks and chairs in front of a blackboard or a whiteboard behind a raised teacher’s desk, fluorescent lighting, minimal windows and uninspiring interior colors, furnishings and design.”
He suggests, however, that instead of the rigid rows of desks, students would be better served by partitions, tables and desks that can be moved, so as to create multiple learning environments within one space. But despite the growing evidence that more comfortable, flexible environments can spawn greater creativity, some educators, parents and students are slow to jump on a bandwagon that doesn’t include desks.
“Has anyone ever tried a classroom without desks or tables?” one teacher posted in an online education-focused forum. The teacher had heard a speaker talk about the movement toward this trend and was thinking about trying it too. The responses were largely negative, and included:
“As a child, I would not have liked not having a desk. Beanbags and such were nice for independent reading and other shorter tasks, but when it came time to get down to business I wanted a nice, organized desk area.”
“It would absolutely NOT fly in my math classes!!!” and “Also how would you teach handwriting?”
Here’s what some Cogito members had to say on the subject in the Cogito forums:
Edderiofer: “(A desk), I believe, is the most comfortable surface one can put a sheet of paper, a textbook, a laptop, etc. on to use them, along with a chair for sitting on. It is really only by using being able to write on paper, read from a textbook, or type on a laptop that one can develop such skills effectively, and as a desk is the best surface on which to do these things, it is better to have desks in a classroom than to forgo them entirely. Not many people can solve mathematics problems in their heads. It’s much easier for most people to do it with pencil and paper. This, again, requires a writing surface.”
Assimilater: “I think it’s something that needs to be experimented with. In response to ‘Has anyone ever tried a classroom without desks or tables?’ – That to me seems like the very reason to try it! Something about education that seems very clear to me is that we’re too set on a rigid way of doing things where there’s a right answer and a wrong answer. Honestly, desks may be needed in some situations (like writing) but that doesn’t mean we can’t reconsider, well, what qualifies as a desk (good practice for a skill called divergent thinking)?”