Is the best way to fix the American classroom to improve the furniture?

Collective wisdom.
Oct. 26 2010 1:17 PM

Rethinking the School Desk

Is the best way to fix the American classroom to improve the furniture?

Desk.

Where, and how, are you sitting as you read this article? Are you in a chair that is not so hard as to dig into your butt? Are you at a desk or table that you can reach without slouching down or scooting to the edge of your seat? Are you comfortable? If so, chances are you are not an American schoolchild.

For Slate's latest Hive project, we have asked readers to reimagine the 21st-century classroom, and your entries are impressing us with their creativity and variety. There are pleas for classrooms that are ovals or hexagons, or traditional rectangles carved up in interesting ways. Some entries focus on one simple idea, such as a microphone for the teacher, while others reinvent the total environment. More technology is the answer, or perhaps less is. Classrooms have been moved outside the building to the schoolyard, the school bus, the mall—or altogether virtualized.

As a journalist, I have been paying close attention to our schools for 12 years, and I can see virtues in nearly everything that's been submitted. But only one category of entry has made me wonder why, after all that time in classrooms, I never thought of it: better furniture. Slate readers have suggested standing desks, padded chairs, and adjustable furniture, and why not? Think about Back to School night, when parents wedge into ill-fitting chairs and desks that wouldn't feel much better even if they were properly sized. For our children, that irritation is a constant reality.

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Americans insist on an extraordinary level of comfort in their office chairs and are willing to pay for it—just ask Herman Miller. Children don't spend much less time at their seats than we do. Why should they be so much less comfortable? Why should we risk their musculoskeletal systems any more than we would our own? Would we make them all wear the same size shoes?

School systems give short shrift to the physical needs of their students in other ways—they use school buses without seatbelts, send backpacks home filled with weighty textbooks, cut gym class to the bone, run jocks through sometimes life-threatening football drills, and serve junk food as part of the federal nutrition program. So it's not surprising that few districts have bothered to improve their furniture, but it's dismaying. "We've seen in adults that if you put them in the right chair, their performance increases," says Jack Dennerlein, a senior lecturer on ergonomics and safety at Harvard University. "Is the same true for children? I can't see why not."

It's very rare for students to actually have a chair and desk that fit them right—one study put the number at one in five. In fifth grade, the classroom we've asked Slate readers to redesign, it's not uncommon for the shortest student to be 18 inches shorter than the tallest. If a chair is too big for a child, his or her feet dangle and the hard edge of the seat digs into the hamstrings, both of which, Dennerlein says, forces the brain to pay attention to something other than geometry worksheets. A too-high backrest and too-deep seat kill any chance at lumbar support. Furniture that's too small isn't any better. Kids slump forward, pressuring the spine, and sit with their knees higher than their bottoms, which (especially in hard plastic) puts undue pressure on the butt bones, or ischial tuberosity, if this happens to be going on in anatomy class.