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

The Hive
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.

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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