Our classroom, room 235D, is an open door classroom. Anyone is allowed in to see us learn together at any time. Our classroom is nothing fancy. We have tables covered in whiteboard paper, that has seen better days. We have chairs. We have yoga balls. We have ratty old beanbags that are definitely on their last leg. A few pillows of varying sizes. And we have books, many, many books.
That’s what you might see, but if you stayed awhile, you may notice something else; freedom. Shared control. Freedom to sit where we would like. Freedom to choose who we work with. Freedom to move the furniture around. A sense of shared control over our shared space so that we all can feel comfortable together. It is nothing much but is ours and you would think that the students would realize just how unfancy it is. And yet, every year when I ask my students how I could change our classroom, the answers are similar, “It’s fine, Mrs. Ripp. Perhaps a few more pillows. We like it the way it is…”
While I have a milelong wish list of furniture I wish we could get, I find comfort in their answer. The room is working for us, as well as it can. The control that they have over what the room looks like is working for them. The flexible seating that has been a part of our learning for years, works for us.
And I see it spread across the globe; the push for more innovative seating. For yoga balls and wiggle chairs, pillows, and getting rid of desks. On Pinterest I drool over classrooms I will never be able to recreate, and yet, I wonder; how often does the furniture actually match the teaching? How often does the furniture match the educational philosophy that needs to be in place for this to truly be flexible?
Because the reality is that while many districts are gladly spending money on new furniture in order to promote innovation, the educational philosophy in many of those same districts is not changing. The students are still sitting through a scripted curriculum, where teachers have limited choice in how to teach and the students are expected to learn through the same process.
This is the problem in education; we so gladly throw money at new educational initiatives that look great, but then do little to think about our thinking. And yet, our educational philosophy is what really determines the experience that everyone has within our schools, not the fancy new chairs. Buying new furniture is easy, changing the way we educate is not, and then we wonder why the furniture ends up being used in the exact same way as the furniture was before.
So I wonder; what good is flexible seating if we don’t also have flexible thinking?
One of the central questions of our year together is for my students to explore how they learn best. This includes the room manipulation and where in the classroom they need to be to access the learning. They cannot do this if I am constantly telling them where to sit, how to sit, and also with whom to sit by. There has to be room for experimentation, bad decisions, and reflection on what works best for them.
So before we invest more of our already limited funds into newfangled furniture, let’s look at what flexible seating should really encompass, here are a few questions to help.
Can the kids move the furniture?
Flexible seating should be flexible both in function but also in where it is used. If students need to explore how they learn best then deciding where to sit is just as important, if not more so, than what to sit on. Do they need to move tables into a corner so they can think or will being in the middle of the classroom work better for them? Will they learn best sitting on the floor in the front or pacing in the back? Where in the classroom can they access the learning best?
Do they always need permission?
When permission is tied into flexible seating, we often tend to say “no” to the same kids; the kids who may have made poor decisions in the past. And while there certainly can be different guidelines at times for some kids, they need to, at some point, go back to having the same blanket permission as everyone else. Schools are meant to be safe places for kids to experiment with learning, to try new things, to learn about who they are and what they need. If we constantly limit that for some kids, think of what will happen to their self-advocacy and also their sense of belonging.
Is it choice for all or just for some?
Are kids earning their way into the flexible seating or is it an automatic yes to all? While there are times I have doubt about some of the choices my students are making, I will tell them to prove it to me. If they do, then great, if they don’t, then we discuss further. We have to be careful that flexible seating choices do not become one more way to segregate the kids. After all, it is often some of my most challenging learners that benefit the most from having a different way to work in the classroom, but we won’t know that if they don’t get a chance to choose.
Does it encourage new ways of working?
I have seen beautiful classrooms with lots of flexible seating where students work through traditional lessons; teacher-centered, and one process for all. Where is the innovation in that? One of the things I love the most is how my students move around the classroom and try new configurations when needed. Not at all times by any means, but when they need to. They know they have the tools at hand to move their group onto the floor or a table in the team area. They know they can make the furniture support their learning rather than work around its limitation. They know to use each other as writing peers, reading partners, or project collaborators because they know that with their choices in seating also comes the choice in who to work with most of the time. They think about how to work, rather than always look to me to make all of the decisions, thus growing their independence and once again their knowledge of how they learn best.
Is there choice throughout?
Flexible seating should truly just be the outward indicator of the choice-driven learning that should be happening. We operate under the five tenets of choice at all times, meaning that I try to give my students as much control and power over how they learn, what they learn, who they learn it with, and how they are assessed. This is what matters most to me. Not the yoga balls, not the pillows, not how they can move things around, but that the students feel like they have a shared power and responsibility for what happens in our classroom. It is a work in progress every single year, yet, at the end of the year, I am always amazed at how far we have come.
So as a new year begins, it is time for us to really reflect on the educational innovation we are pursuing. If we are looking at adding more flexible seating to our schools, are we also having the educational discussions that need to go with it? Are we asking ourselves how this will change the way we teach? The way our students learn? Are we asking ourselves how this will be better? Or is it just an outward show of supposed innovation that does not really change the educational experience our students have?
The choice is ours; it is not enough to have great new furniture if we don’t also have new ideas.
PS: If you are wondering what the research says, here are a few great articles to get you started. One that discusses the need for our classrooms to match the type of learning experiences we would like to have, so once more focusing on intentionality within our environment. And another that is a conglomeration of research that discusses the need for students to feel empowered within our classrooms. And here is another that while lengthy discusses how the way we have students sit can help them learn deeper depending on the activity they are engaged in.
If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017. This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block. If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.