I know I’ve already said a very unpopular thing, and I’m comfortable with that. But before you jump to any conclusions, just hear me out.
First and foremost, this is a case against flexible seating. It’s not intended to necessarily refute all mainstream thoughts around flexible seating: instead, it is intended to shed light on an overlooked perspective and complement current thought leadership around flexible seating.
After all, the case for flexible seating is grounded in some logic, most of which makes some sense: (1) Classrooms that offer flexible seating allow for more options for seating, empowering children through choice; (2) Having different types of spaces allows for different types of learning to occur: learning that is collaborative and more representative of the real-world, similar to a modern-day coffee shop or tech start-up; (3) Flexible seating allows for a more active learning environment, due to the fact that different types of seats allow for movement and self-regulation when necessary.
There are grains of truth within each of these arguments; however, as with most trends in progressive education, they are often taken too far: they are extrapolated to all classrooms, all situations, and all children–without the proper empirical research.
Let’s start with the first one: empowering kids through choice.
This argument is relatively sound, albeit incomplete. There are many ways to empower children through choice in the classroom, and seating is only one of them. We often forget that choice doesn’t guarantee empowerment. Too much choice can easily become entitlement.
Choice is oftentimes one of the components of a progressive, student-driven classroom that we take a bit too far. Making space for choice in your classroom doesn’t mean that your children are allowed to do whatever they want. Instead, choice is engineered in a classroom. The choices we, teachers, specifically make available to our students are intended to guide them down a relatively pre-determined path. These paths are intended to help meet the different needs of our students. The choice? It helps us differentiate; it helps our kids feel invested through their agency.
The word needs is very critical here. Student choice has limits when our classrooms are run by the desires (note: very different than needs) of students. The fact of the matter is this: children do not always know what’s best for them. One of the intentions of formal schooling is to help them learn to regulate their bodies and their emotions–to “overcome natural inclination” as Dewey would say. And letting them do whatever they want–however they want to do it–isn’t always best for them.
Take me for instance. I absolutely love laying on my couch to do work and write. I spread my legs spread far out onto the chaise, and I tuck my head into the cushions. Surely, if I like doing it and it’s what I want, it must be best for me (according to the logic of many progressive educators). My physical therapist–a trained professional who knows about the human body–would beg to differ. She will tell you that this way of working is terrible for my posture, my neck, and my back. She will tell you that it explains some of the shoulder and neck problems I currently have. Despite the fact that I like to sit like this, and despite the fact that it may make me a bit more productive in the short-term, it’s not actually best for me or my body in the long-term.
And this is precisely the point I’m trying to make. Choice only benefits students if–and only if–it helps them develop strong habits that will benefit them later in life. If your flexible seating strategy is based solely on what kids feel like doing, you may be missing the boat.
What about all of the different types of learning that can occur with flexible seating?
For me, the most important type of learning is collaborative learning, and this can absolutely happen in classrooms that don’t look like a technology start-up or a coffee shop. Like many teachers, I am limited by the resources that I was given in my classroom. I have 22 desks, a teacher’s desk, a kidney table, and some bookshelves. That’s about it. And quite frankly, it’s enough. For me, it’s less about the actual furniture I have, and more about how I use that furniture in the context of student-centered pedagogy.
While I have 22 desks, they are clustered in collaborative groups, much like the tables you might see in a flexibly seated classroom. The desks allow not only for collaboration: they also allow each child to have a home base–a place that they can call their own. When I was teaching in San Francisco, we opted for no assigned seats, with kids choosing their spots daily and pulling from communal supplies. It was very challenging for most of the children–especially my students with special needs–to find consistency and a routine without a space that belonged to them.
For whatever reason, we forget that we don’t necessarily need tables and beanbags to promote collaboration in our classrooms. What we need, instead, is a curriculum that’s supported by a humanized pedagogy to promote collaboration. Sure, trendy tables and different seats might allow for an ephemeral uptick in engagement, but once the novelty of this wears off, we’re only as good as our pedagogy. True authentic engagement is not based on the physical layout of the classroom; it’s based on the visceral, emotional experience that is elicited through meaningful curriculum.
But flexible seating allows for a more active learning environment. Kids need to move.
It’s true: kids do need to move. And we should let them move around. But we should also teach them to regulate their bodies so they may sit and attend to less physical tasks for short to extended periods of time.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not a believer in placing desks in rows and having children learn in lecture-style for the duration of a lesson or a school day. In fact, I feel the opposite: I try to keep my mini-lessons short, with a great deal of opportunity for turn-and-talk so students may drive the lesson. Afterwards, I want them working on projects in small groups or manipulating a provocation on their own. I believe that learning should be a constant conversation–a never-ending push-and-pull that supports the co-construction of knowledge.
But I have to wonder, when teaching children how to read and write and in some cases, even do math, how active do we really want them to be? Are they going to be writing in their notebooks while running about the classroom? Reading independently while playing a game of wall ball? I think not. Their work production is almost solely dependent on their ability to regulate and attend to a task. All things considered, this needs to be done with a relatively inactive body.
If we truly want to promote active learning environments, we can incorporate kinesthetic learning into our minilessons, make time for body breaks, and for the love of God, give the kids their recess–multiple times each day.
Let’s meet in the middle.
I’m not a monster, I promise. I like having beanbags in my classroom; I have multi-colored carpet squares for the floor. I just built new tables for my classroom so I can have a mini makerspace this coming fall. Believe it or not, I even let my kids sit on the floor to read and write some times, but this is largely independent of my classroom furniture itself.
Instead, it’s largely dependent on the relationships I’ve built with my kids, the teaching I’ve done around physical regulation and self-awareness, and my willingness to engage in discussions with my children about the difference between needs and wants. When I say no, I explain it to them, and when my kids tell me they truly need a different option for seating (or when I see they have special needs that require fidgets or alternative seating), I advocate for them and help them learn how to advocate for themselves.
We get so caught up in the instant gratification of novel materials and experiences, when oftentimes, the solutions to our problems lie in the way we interact with our learning environments. So before you go out and completely re-do your classroom, pause for just a moment and ask yourself: Do I really need to buy a whole bunch of new furniture, or are there changes I can make in my pedagogy first?
I’m not saying the answer is clear, but it’s at least worth thinking about.