Kids and teens seem to intuitively know how and where they concentrate best. Just look in a modern K12 classroom. Students might be sitting, standing, kneeling, rocking, or even propped on the floor.

This, of course, begs the question. How can schools possibly find optimal classroom seating for optimal learning? Is it a chair? A stool? A rocker or cushion? Empower your learners. Provide options, then let students pick their preference.

“It’s about how students approach learning – motivated, confident and ready to tackle a task.” And, she says, teachers can play a critical role in doing so, with meaningful academic results. “When students are empowered, they learn more, and they learn better.”

What is an empowered student?

Not what you may think. Creating empowered students doesn’t mean letting minors rule the classroom roost or catering to their every entitled demand. As a concept, empowerment was first used in the workplace to describe a healthy, productive manager-employee relationship. Eventually, it migrated to education, with “manager-employee” becoming “teacher-student.” Dr. Maryellen Weimer, an educational expert and author, clarifies what empowering students means today.

“It’s about how students approach learning – motivated, confident and ready to tackle a task.” And, she says, teachers can play a critical role in doing so, with meaningful academic results. “When students are empowered, they learn more, and they learn better.”

Seating as an Empowerment Tool

There’s no shortage of online listicles about how to empower students. But a common denominator consistently appears. Give students choices in how they can personalize their learning experience. Seating is a great entry point.

The good news is that modern classroom design now embraces flexible seating plans to accommodate 21st Century pedagogy. Teachers see tangible benefits in tailoring seating configurations for independent work, STEM or STEAM, collaborative learning, and fishbowl or large-group discussions.

It’s natural for this movement to evolve into providing physical seating options. That means letting students trust their inner gravitational pull to a specific chair or chairs (in the broadest sense), be it Flavors Noodle Seating or a new Oodle (more on this below.)

Understand Student Preferences

oodle stool flexible seating

Smith System’s Oodle Stool

It begins with engaging the sitters. Ask them what seating they feel suits them best. Keep in mind, every kid is different. Some may know, some may not. And some may need to experiment and then switch it up, especially as they grow. For example, an active kindergarten kid might love active seating that moves with his or her busy body. A few years later, that same student might prefer less movement, but like four-way directional seating on wheels for collaborative learning and lounge seating for quiet reading.

Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, CA, took a highly collaborative approach to understanding how its students learn best. Summit is a high-performing 9 – 12 charter school of about 400 students. It leverages a personalized pedagogy and smart use of technology to help a largely underserved demographic. In her recent story for Edutopia, educational writer Emelina Minero explained.

“Through scaffolding guidance from their teachers – which includes a personalized learning platform, daily goals, and a culture of formative assessment – students understand how they learn best and what resources they need. This enables them to choose and set up the seating arrangement that works best for them.”

Minero agrees on the importance of knowing student needs upfront before planning a classroom’s physical space. It’s a perfect time to also ask students about their favorite seating. She recommends a survey or classroom-wide discussion.

Questions can include asking sitters seating questions like: Hard or soft? Traditional size, stool or adjustable? Firm or flexible? Stationary or rocking? What about casters? Do they want their chair paired with a desk or table?

Remember, it’s not enough to ask students about seating preferences or make empty promises. True student empowerment and self-confidence grows from collaborating with them to make real solutions materialize. Granted, budget limits exist for every school. At a minimum, provide a realistic timeline for phasing seating options into the classroom, or work on alternatives. Students will appreciate the personalized effort to help them learn.

Smith Options: A Buffet of Seating Choices

Smith System gets that students come in different sizes with vastly different learning and seating needs. Classroom furniture must also fully support 21st Century learning, not detract from it. Smith offers educators several practical, durable and flexible seating products that are investments in timelessness, not trends. Each can help students figure out how they learn best.

Flavors Noodle Student

Flavors Noodle Chair is like sitting on an exercise ball, but with the stability of four legs and a backrest.

For example, Smith offers chair lines that incorporate a design principle called the Graduated Movement Concept. There are single-position chairs like its Intuit Seating that contain movement and direct a student’s attention straight ahead. If a student wants more movement, Smith offers the four-position Flavors Seating with a seat back that flexes front to back and torsionally. Or, there’s the Flavors Noodle Seating line that provides the benefits of a stability ball, but with more overall stability, back support and less student misuse.

Recently, Smith introduced Oodle Seating, a new stackable active-seating line that provides two-in-one seating options. Students can choose stationary or 10 degrees of multi-directional rocking. Oodle is different than the Flavors Noodle chair, but accomplishes a similar flexible seating/active seating motion for students who need a seat that moves with their bodies and minds. Teachers can also mix it up with Smith’s Chat chair, which combines the comfortable dimensions of lounge seating, but with a durable seat pan and back.

Mike Risdall with Smith System recommends a classroom have as many options as are reasonable and affordable.

“Students need choices, and allowing them to switch up seating is ideal. A classroom might have ten oodles, ten noodles and 10 flavors chairs.” Doing so, he adds, doesn’t mean compromising a cohesive classroom look or abandoning school spirit colors.

“Many schools take advantage of having one supplier like Smith System for their classroom furniture needs. It allows a school to color coordinate. They decide on a specific color palette, then carry that theme throughout chair colors and laminate edging on tables and desks.”

“Many schools take advantage of having one supplier like Smith System for their classroom furniture needs. It allows a school to color coordinate. They decide on a specific color palette, then carry that theme throughout chair colors and laminate edging on tables and desks.”

Keeping Control of the Classroom

It’s understandable that promoting student choice can sprout visions of classroom chaos. Some might ask “Who’s in charge?” “What about classroom management?” “Won’t students argue about the chairs?”

Not if you plan the transition to personalized seating. That could look similar to how John S. Thomas, a first- and second-grade teacher and former elementary school principal, mapped his classroom’s transition to using a flexible seating plan. He recommends providing:

  • A variety of workspaces
  • Clear expectations for behavior
  • Guidelines for where/how students may work
  • Consequences for abusing seating options

“I start the year creating flexible seating expectations with students to help with buy-in. My students understand that breakout seating is a privilege and must be used safely, respectfully, and responsibly, and – bottom line – must help them learn. If a seating choice distracts, I coach them and they try it again. If the seating still doesn’t work, they use traditional seating and try the flexible seating another time. As the year progresses, students earn more freedom to make a preferred seating choice.”

He says he also works with his school’s occupational therapist to make sure seating is sized properly and not used for too long, especially considering the ages of his students (six and seven).

“I’ve found productivity decreases after 20 minutes, no matter the seating option. So students don’t typically work in the same option for very long.”

Budgets and Other Realities

Even if your school has limited resources for personalized seating, there are “baby step” options. For example, mix older traditional seating with just a few new options, like Smith’s oodle. Browse your school’s closets or trade seating with other teachers, schools or districts. Then rotate students among the options. Teachers can also use the test-drive of a new chair as a reward.

No matter the physical space, letting students make decisions about how they learn best will surely deepen their commitment. Smith System is ready to help your students take their optimal seat.

Sources

Minero, Emelina. “The Optimal Seating Plan? Let Your Students Choose.” Edutopia/Schools that Work. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.

Thomas, John S. “No Grade is Too Early for Flexible Seating.” Edutopia/Learning Environments. Web. 3 April 2017.

Weimer Ph.D., Maryellen. “What’s an Empowered Student?” Faculty Focus, The Teaching Professor Blog. Web. 16 April 2014.