The classroom of the future could bear little resemblance to the “old school” look prevalent in schools today.
With the influx of mobile technology—laptops, tablets, and other devices—comes a portability that could free classrooms from the desk/chair combo, arranged in rows, and used by millions of students over the decades.
Although it is still common in K-12, there are rumblings that this workhorse is endangered. And good riddance, say some school leaders, educational furniture providers, and industry observers.
What’s replacing it is school furniture that may be on wheels, adjustable for height, less angular, more versatile, and more comfortable. The newer desks, tables, and chairs give educators more flexibility about how they arrange a learning environment, or rearrange it, for collaboration or teaching with computers.
“Those old-school combo desks don’t offer that flexibility,” said Kyle Boudreau, the educational product marketing manager for KI, a Green Bay, Wis.-based company that is discontinuing its “Intellect Wave” model of combo desks after a decline in sales. School customers want furniture that promotes student engagement and peer-to-peer connections, he said.
“For us, we had been a 1-to-1 [student-to-device] school for four or five years, and we started to realize the limitations that come with using technology as a creation device, and coupling that with student desks in rows,” says Robert Dillon, the director of innovation learning for the 2,800-student University City school district in St. Louis, Mo. Now, classrooms in his district show more variety. Some have standing desks, others traditional chairs and tables. “We’ve broken the momentum that 25 of anything is the right answer.”
The 4,000-student North Olmsted City school district in Ohio was outfitted with a range of furniture types when its new campus for grades 6-12 opened for the 2018-19 school year. Depending upon the classroom or collaboration space, students might have chairs that swivel and roll, high-top desks, short stools, adjustable chairs, or upholstered chairs.
“We used to have those traditional desks like everybody else had forever,” said Jeffrey Zullo, a social studies teacher and department chairman. Now, students can make quick transitions to work with partners or in cooperative learning groups, “which saves a lot of classroom time.” He likes the tall desks that allow him to approach students, speak to them eye-to-eye, and see what they’re working on, without having to crouch down.
Zullo is less of a fan of what he calls “wobbly short stools,” which he said are fine in collaborative areas and for middle school students, but uncomfortable for adult-sized teens in regular classrooms. He’s even fallen when sitting down on one—a moment he used for levity.
“Before you purchase [any new piece of furniture], ask sales reps for some pieces to experiment with for several months,” Zullo advised.
Across the United States, what’s getting in the way of wider adoption of flexible furniture in K-12 is “inertia, momentum, and tradition, which lead a lot of decisions around furniture purchases,” said Dillon, who has written and co-authored books about learning spaces, the most recent, The Space: A Guide for Educators, with Rebecca Louise Hare.
In school redesign, selecting furniture that fits the learning environment is considered a “key system element,” said Sujata Bhatt, a senior fellow at Transcend Education, a national nonprofit dedicated to accelerating innovation in the core design of “school.”
A Locked-In Look
Transcend Education uses a slide deck showing classrooms in the late 19th century, 1950, and today as part of its presentations to help educators re-imagine school. The visual is a powerful message about “what’s changed, and what hasn’t,” she said.
Kevin Stoller, CEO of Kay-Twelve, a Phoenix-based company that provides furniture to schools, gets the same message across in a blog post with images he’s grabbed from movies and TV shows across the years, from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Simpsons,” and “The Goldbergs.”
“Most of the RFPs and projects we’ve been working on—for the past 12 months in particular—it’s very rare that it specifies one type of desk or type of chair,” he said.
A 2017 study predicted that K-12 classroom redesign was very or somewhat likely over the next three to five years, according to 78 percent of facilities officials and administrators surveyed by SchoolDude, whose parent company is Dude Solutions, which provides management software for schools.
Bhatt, who previously was managing partner for innovation at the 56,000-student Boston school district from 2016 to 2018, said that district has been investing $10 million in classroom redesign that includes different furniture choices and configurations from traditional desk/chair combos.
In fact, the school furniture market in North America is expected to grow by more than $1 billion through 2022, and 69 percent of that growth will come from the U.S. That’s according to the “School Furniture Market in North America 2018-2022" report from Technavio, a London-based company that conducts market research, but did not publicly release data on types of school furniture.
“The trend is really away from classrooms that put students in stationary desks in rows,” said Jim McGarry, president and CEO of the Education Market Association, which sponsors an annual EDspaces conference about educational facilities.
Ergonomics Research and K-12
Evaluating the “below the neck” ergonomics, and “above the neck” neuroergonomics, of standing desks has been a focus for Mark Benden, the director of the Ergonomics Center in Texas A&M University‘s Environmental and Occupational Health department.
In one study, his team measured the cognitive performance of about 450 high school students who were converted from traditional to standing desks over one winter break. Researchers found a 5 percent to 10 percent improvement in cognition, where students stood for an hour to an hour and a half more each day. The same students averaged 2,000 extra steps during the school day. That compares to a student who played team sports after school, or took a spin class, where similar results have been shown.
Another study, published in the journal Ergonomics in March 2016, involved researchers reviewing 25 peer-reviewed studies. They concluded that a better fit for a student’s seat and desk resulted in “an improvement in posture,” as well as reduced discomfort or pain.
Getting a better fit involved using adjustable furniture, sit/stand furniture, and tilt tables and seats. But researchers cautioned that students need to be taught how to raise and lower furniture to fit their bodies.
In the case of the Texas A&M research, federal funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first focused on improving students’ physical health, then branched out into helping teachers with classroom management and cognition.
Their findings soon settled on standing desks. “We found you could drop them off over the summer or winter break, walk away, and we’d get the same effect as if we were actively” providing physical activity programs after school, he said.
In 2013, Benden co-founded Stand2Learn, a company that made standing desks for students. He sold it to Varidesk, a desk manufacturing company, in 2018.
The Future in K-12 Furniture
Besides allowing for more movement, the infusion of technology in K-12 classrooms is another impetus behind experimentation with different learning environments.
“Once schools went to more of a 1-to-1 environment, it eliminated the need for a big desk with storage for books,” said Stoller. “That prompted the change to do more with collaboration ... and it blew up the floor plan.”
How long will it be before K-12 schools get rid of the rows of desks that put teachers at the front of the room in what is often called the “sage on the stage” teaching scenario?
They won’t disappear overnight, everyone interviewed for this article agrees.
“We’re talking about intentional design and syncing instructional practices with technology, tools, and physical space,” said Dillon. “We have lots and lots of teachers who say, ‘I get this,’ but it doesn’t feel like a building-wide change.”
Another issue is whether a school’s or district’s budget can support a purchase. New classroom furniture often comes after approved bond measures help build new schools or renovate older ones. But when money is tight, a perceived need for new furniture is one of a long line of demands.
Finally, there’s the question of whether educators are invited into the decisionmaking process and asked for their feedback about how furniture in their classrooms fits with their pedagogical plans for a space.
“For the next 10 years, I think we’ll see maintenance directors and operations people making decisions via inertia, momentum, and tradition,” Dillon predicted. That’s what happens in districts where “students, teachers and curriculum leaders aren’t at the center of these decisions.”
McGarry at the Education Market Association concurred that change could be slow. “It can be a cultural thing, and in many cases, it has to come from the top. If a school isn’t embracing 1-to-1 learning or project-based learning, the facility’s not going to change.”
Benden from Texas A&M marvels at how adults expect students to “sit down, stay still, and be quiet” in ill-fitting chairs and desks for the long hours of a school day, when they should be encouraged to fidget, wiggle, and move for their health and to perform better academically.
“If we did this to adults in the office, there would be anarchy,” he said. “We do this to children, and say, ‘Why don’t they learn better?’”
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Classrooms May Soon Shed Dated Desk/Chair Combo