Tag Archives: higher education

Diabolical Classroom Seating

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.

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Filed under embodied cognition, learning

Classroom Improvisation: a favorite moment from my teaching

I used to teach a research methods class that appealed particularly to students writing Masters and Doctoral theses. My students came from several different disciplines, and from all over the world. What they had in common is that they were all facing the terrifying prospect of having to do an extended piece of original research, and then to write what would be by far the longest research paper—a book, really—that they had ever produced. They were wonderful students to teach, because they were dedicated to making the world a better place, and because fear concentrates the mind wonderfully and made them very motivated to learn.

The class was a three hour seminar, and because three hours of talking can be deadly, I always had the students do something that took them out of their seats and got them using a different part of their brains. On this day, I had hung large pieces of paper around the wall. Each page had a different question or caption, and I asked the students to move around the room and write something on each sheet, in response to the question posed. One page said “The thing that scares me most about doing my research is…,” another said “What I most want to accomplish with my thesis is…” One said “A picture of me as a researcher.” This was the one I most enjoy, because the social sciences, which I teach, are so often entirely verbal and text driven. One of my favorite things to do with students in my classes is to use pictures, Lego, hands on exercises, and other things to get them out of a purely text-and-talking mode.

After the students were finished, I walked around the room, commenting on what they had written on the flipcharts. My last stop was the chart of self-portraits. In the bottom left hand corner was a little cartoon of a pig with wings, surrounded by the legend “when pigs fly” and “a snowball’s chance.” I knew who had drawn this one. I’ll call him Joseph. He was an engineer from a developing nation in Africa who was here in Massachusetts to get a doctorate, and his passion was the recycling and redesign of electronic products to prevent environmental harm. He was new to the US and homesick for his family, but determined to do well. He was struggling more than his fellow students, who had all been in their respective degree programs longer than he had. I had already spent considerable time with Joseph outside of class, at his request, because he was so concerned about whether he could do well in the course and had so little confidence in his ability to understand.

All the drawings showed students who were frazzled, at sea, overwhelmed, but Joseph’s was ostensibly the most hopeless. Although I didn’t look at Joseph when I pointed to his drawing, I could feel him tense as I began to speak. He had not signed his drawing, and I didn’t say whose drawing it was, but watched him out of the corner of my eye. I said “This student is afraid of not being able to do what he has set out to do. He thinks he will succeed only when pigs fly. Well, I have news for him. Pigs don’t fly, and they will never fly.” I could feel, rather than see, Joseph sagging into his chair as I spoke. “But the good news is, that although pigs cannot fly, there are other things that they can do very well. Pigs are great at hunting for truffles, which they detect through careful searching and dig out of the ground, like precious gems. Research is a lot like hunting for truffles—pursuing and finding gems of insight in a vast field of dirt. So for all of you, if you are a pig, don’t try to fly. It won’t work. But do what you do best—do what you are good at, and what you are passionate about, and you should be a good researcher.”


Filed under creativity, learning

Why Thinking With Things

What sense can we make of the phrase “thinking with things?” On the face of it, it seems naive, even “primitive.” We think with our brains, of course, not with things. Or do we? Recent research studies–and a certain amount of common sense–reveal that we think with our bodies, not just our gray matter, and that we also “think with” our environment. In sensory deprivation experiments, people stop being able to think after a fairly short period of time.

This year I’m launching an exploration of the meaning and implications of thinking and learning with things. What role do the objects and qualities of our environment play in our ability to think and learn? What are the implications for what we do in higher education and beyond?

As a professor, I’ve watched how the classroom dynamics change when I introduce “things to think with.” The students become more engaged, create new and unexpected “constructions” (both physical and intellectual) and become “makers” rather than “consumers” of information and learning. For me, freeing my students to wrestle with things is also inviting them to wrestle with ideas, and for all the control I surrender, I get back so much in insight, engagement, and surprise. When I bring Lego into a learning environment, the air becomes charged, and fascinating things happen. This is true even when my learners are professors–in fact, they may feel the greatest “sensory deprivation” of all.


Filed under embodied cognition, learning