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?

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There are two main reasons why school furniture is so lousy: price and indestructibility. Ergonomists recommend adjustable classroom seats and desks, which while not exorbitant, do not come cheap. Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, once helped a school-furniture company design an adjustable chair for students. It cost between $60 and $80. Purchasing guidelines, which can be as rigid as a melamine chair, tend to set the price standard closer to $40, so it didn't sell. Many desks in schools today are actually adjustable, for a custodian with tools, and at any rate schools can outfit each classroom with furniture in a variety of sizes. But it's rare, and logistically complicated, for a school to fit a desk to a student and keep them paired all year.

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Galen Cranz, a professor of architecture and design at the University of California-Berkeley, suggests that frugal educators might engage in "guerrilla ergonomics." As someone who knows firsthand that short schoolchildren have enough stacked against them, teasingwise, I can say that her suggestion of phonebooks as boosters seems like a nonstarter, but the Swedish air-filled cushion she recommends looks appealing.

That cushion allows for a little bounciness, which is something else ergonomists emphasize (and is almost certainly a characteristic of your desk chair). Movement keeps the spine active and allows the pelvis to rotate, which is good for your body. Cranz says that sitting still is "a disciplinary action that doesn't relate to learning." Educators might cringe, assuming distractions, but ergonomists who have watched well-behaved children at standing-height tables or in bouncy chairs in Sweden or New Zealand or Canada insist that innovative furniture makes students pay more attention, not less.

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As you might suspect of someone who once wrote an article titled "The Chair as Health Hazard," Cranz suggests that students not sit at all. She recommends higher, tilting tables that allow students to perch or stand, or exercise balls, which have the added benefit of keeping kids awake. There seems to be agreement among ergonomists about the value of perching, with the legs at a 120-degree rather than 90-degree angle—keeping the hips above the knees is good for the body, and the position has been adopted in some European schools. They disagree, though, about the balls.

School chairs. Click image to expand.

Of course, as some researchers have found, putting children in the right furniture doesn't mean they'll sit right. At the last office I worked in, an ergonomics enforcer would occasionally come by and force my wrists into the correct position and set my feet on a stool. I would hold the awkward pose just long enough for her to leave the room. I'm in an $800 desk chair right now, in my usual pretzel-like contortion that I was embarrassed to reveal to the ergonomists I interviewed. But I can't stop thinking that we could at least try to do better for about all the kids I have watched over the years sprawl and slump and fidget and dangle their way through the day.

Please join Slate on Nov. 8 at the Newseum in D.C. for a brainstorming session about how to improve the American classroom, followed by cocktails. Sign up here.

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