Have a Seat: Flexible Seating Supports Student Success

  • Rows of traditional school desks A lot has changed in our world since the 1880s, but many schools still look surprisingly familiar. Before 1880, most kids didn’t go to school; the education they received - if any - was at home using the space and furniture available. That started to change around 1880 when individual states began to mandate public school for all children, in part as a way to prepare future workers for the industrial jobs that began to flourish. Also in 1880, John D. Loughlin designed the very first wooden school desk, a model that looks very much like what most classrooms still use today, nearly 140 years later.


    Fortunately, districts like Menlo Park City School District are at the forefront of reimagining the classroom, both the way content is delivered and the physical space. As we encourage collaboration, exploration, and project based lessons, educators find traditional furniture limiting. It’s time to consider flexible seating options that promote student partnerships and teamwork in a learning environment that continues to transform and innovate.


    Movie theater seating in classrooms Flexible seating offers students voice and choice in their learning, a goal MPCSD values. Flexible seating allows classroom spaces to reflects the learner community and promote collaboration. Right here in our own learner-centered classrooms, we have many teachers who have adopted flexible seating and seen first hand the many benefits it offers. Karen Clancy, third grade teacher at Oak Knoll has a classroom set up with a variety of furniture conducive to a collaborative learning space. “I had a very active class a few years ago and knew that I needed to make some changes in my classroom to accommodate their needs for movement. I also wanted them to have more choice of where they could work in the classroom.”


    Tisha Whiteley, fourth grade teacher at Laurel’s Upper Campus has also incorporated flexible seating options for her students and finds that the benefits of choice in seating leads to better learning choices. Tisha shares, “Students have been more aware of their learning preferences and more motivated to follow procedures and expectations to show teachers they can handle making responsible learning choices. And the kids LOVE it!”


    Yoga balls under classroom desks At Hillview Middle School, sixth grade Humanities Core Teacher Jacquie Schlegel offered flexible seating for a very specific reason, that turned out to be better for everyone. “I had a student leave school last year for back surgery and she had a hard time with the traditional seats when she returned. She requested a yoga ball.” As teachers look to accommodate their students learning differences, seating options can make a big difference. Jacquie has created an inclusive environment for her students, “Many 504 plans have written on them to allow students to have fidget toys or breaks. However, with the flexible seating items, I have zero students actually using those fidget toys. They are allowed to sit in seats that naturally allow you to fidget without it being distracting (yoga balls, wobble cushions). I also have areas where students can take breaks if feeling overwhelmed (teepee / tent).” It turns out what helps a student with mobility or sensory issues is great for all students as they can focus and be productive in the environment that best suits them.


    Floor pillows as seats in classroom It may seem like a small thing - the seats we offer students to use in class. Yet when we see students of all ages and abilities making improvement in their learning, when we build classrooms buzzing with collaboration, and creativity blossoms because students can work in an environment that’s comfortable for them, we know we are onto something. MPCSD values innovative thinking among staff and students, and the flexibility that seating offers is just one way being open to new ideas has led to better outcomes. As Laurel fifth grade teacher Grant Conour observes, “Students are more on-task and have fewer issues remaining focused as they work.”


    The jobs that our students will graduate into are radically different than the ones that the students of the 1880s were prepared for. The task of education today is to develop critical thinkers and collaborators who will be ready for jobs that don’t even exist yet. When designing the environment that today’s learners - and tomorrow’s workers - thrive in, we know that a little flexibility goes a long way.