Chairs to Wiggle or to Squirm?

After reading and writing about Sir Ken Robinson and his ideas about creativity in education, it was interesting to discover that a controversy now exists about school classroom chairs.  According to the N.Y. Times, a version of the classic “super stacker” can be found in schools all over the United States, and children who attend the same school their parents attended are likely to sit in the same kind of seats, if not the very same seats.

There are those who view these chairs as holdovers from a time when American schools’ main job was to turn out upright citizens and education consisted largely of rote learning.  A number of schools in different parts of the country have introduced new chairs that are more flexible or free-moving.  In one school, chairs were chosen because of their flexibility in the seat itself, “so the students could ‘wiggle’ or move easily without leaving their seat.”  Other new designs are of chairs that can turn or move around.

The argument is also offered that the classic chairs do not reflect the impact on the lower back that can come from hours of sitting, or anything that has been learned about the importance of environmental factors such as chairs on efficiency, in this case efficiency in learning.  Administrators who have used the new chairs say that children find them more comfortable and that they seem more engaged.  There have been few studies on the effect on student performance, although one study did report that children were able to concentrate for longer periods if they were given more mobile seats, combined with lesson plans that involved moving around.

The interesting point here is that while seemingly about school chairs. this discussion really reflects an underlying different point of view about education itself.  The article points out that some educators still find worthwhile a more traditional view of schools and authority, as in “Do not slouch”; “Respect your elders”; “Speak when spoken to.”  And a spokesperson for the super stacker says, “They are not made for comfort.  They are made for students to sit up and for students to be working.”

This speaks to the larger controversy in education about the causes of declining student achievement, the push to go back to basics and the focus on measuring results through testing.  The emphasis has been on a direction different from a focus on creativity – either in chairs or teaching methods.  Do we want children to be more comfortable or to work harder?  Are these two things connected or mutually exclusive?

These conflicting views are also very much present in discussions about child-rearing.  In recent times we have heard about the superiority of Chinese and French parenting methods, as well as other kinds of criticism of American parents.  Much of the criticism revolves around the role and use of authority, with American parents faulted for ceding too much authority to their children.  Have children been given too much freedom – the same worry now about classroom chairs that students can move around.

Parents themselves are conflicted about these questions.  We have brought democracy into our homes and sometimes wish for a dose of dictatorship.  We believe that children should have a voice and that we should listen to that voice.  The problem arises when they seem not to be listening to us.  There are many times when we might like to return to the “do it because I said so” era.  The feeling at times is that it is not clear who is in charge.

In the same way that there now is concern about the way old fashioned chairs effect young children’s bodies, concern about the way older child-rearing methods affected children’s minds brought about many changes in ideas about parenting.  Learning how to do things in a new way is always challenging, particularly so in raising children where ideas about how to implement new ideas have often been confusing, extracted from child development research and interpreted by others.  This in itself is different from the traditional way of generally agreed on methods passed on from one generation to the next.

It is not unusual to over-correct when learning something new.  And these days there seems to be something new every minute about child development and raising children.  We may have come to believe too much in science and not enough in our own values.  On the other hand, questions about authority, personal freedom, and traditional values are also part of the discussion in the larger culture these days.

Perhaps for parents, the question is not one of authority or freedom, but as is most often the case one of balance between the two.  Parents are still learning how to use authority in a new way – to hear children’s voices but to not lose their own in the process.


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