In January, I saw the chairs in my college classroom featured on the front page of The New York Times. This was not your typical story from the Times’ design section, touting the virtues of the new and flashy. Instead, it was a profile of the perennial “super stacker,” a chair whose use is widespread because of its durability and low cost. When I saw the photo, I knew immediately that these are the chairs I see my students fitting themselves into every day. I have dubbed my classroom “the sensory deprivation chamber” for the absence of engaging materials; this article added new fuel to my fire by describing the discomfort of pupils who spend their days in these unbending marvels. Leading environmental educator David Orr hit the nail on the head when he said in the article, “The chair…originated in the industrial ordering of education. It is maintained by profit-seeking school suppliers and unimaginative administrators who see no other possible arrangement of the body, or bodies, or any possible downside to the lower back from six hours of enforced sitting.”
The more I discover about learning and cognition, the clearer it is to me that these and other human activities are enacted. The passive butts-in-seats model of instruction is anathema to the exploring, interactive body optimized for action and inquiry. Of course it’s possible to learn when sitting in this Procrustean chair, but other arrangements would be better for learners, who currently bear the cost of the “cost-saving” super stacker.
I dashed off a letter to the Times in response to the article, and happily they saw fit to print it. Here is the text of my letter as it appeared on January 9, 2013.
The indestructible classroom chair (“Ergonomic Seats? Most Pupils Squirm in a Classroom Classic,” front page, Jan. 5) is a great example of our “penny wise, pound foolish” approach to learning environments. The student who becomes fidgety and disruptive spending six hours a day sitting in a hard chair may end up in special education or on the streets, simply because we ignore the essential role of the body, not just the brain, in learning.
We know from research that learning and cognition involve the entire body, the senses and the emotions, not just the contents of the cranium. We could make great strides in learning if we were more attuned to how a classroom and its contents can support active, engaged, embodied learning.
Lowell, Mass., Jan. 5, 2013
The writer is a professor of psychology, the University of Massachusetts Lowell.