Note: This piece was first published here on the Effortful Educator blog.
I tried flexible seating. For those of you who read my blog, this is probably a big shock. I would definitely be considered a more traditional teacher who has his students seated at tables (I would prefer desks, but that’s out of my control), facing the front, with minimal distractions. So, what changed? Why did I create a classroom environment that I am against, that I believe acts to impede student learning? Well…one of my old AP students is currently in AP research. In this class, they have to design an experiment and run an experiment. It can almost be about anything. Most students design some experiment that sees them in labs mixing elements and/or engineering something. But not this student. Truth be told, this student is a rare breed. She’s a wonderful mix of intelligence and artistic ability, with fantastic taste in music. So, when she told me that she wanted to design an experiment comparing traditional seating vs. flexible seating, I told her I was game to assist.
So, for one unit of study (about 8 class meetings), I taught my 1st block class in a flexible seating arrangement. This included a couch, several beanbags, cushions for those who wanted to sit on the floor, and many different types of lounge chairs. Due to the number of students in my class, I still had two traditional tables with chairs and a couple of desks with chairs. My 2nd block class remained in traditional seating…all tables and chairs facing the front. Before the experiment was over, I administered a unit test. I did my best to present the material in the same manner and really attempted to keep confounding variables to a minimum. This definitely included not stating my opinions on flexible seating to my students.
Students in both classes completed a survey, with most questions centering around how the seating affected their comfort level and attitude. Although I didn’t ask (I wanted to only act as the ‘teacher’ in the experiment and not get too involved with the nuts and bolts), I’m assuming the focus of the experiment was on student’s social-emotional experience. After taking the surveys up, I asked the flexible seating class how many liked the this setup. Seven out of thirty(ish) students raised their hand.
This focus on the social-emotional aspects of the classroom doesn’t really interest me too much. I want to know how the flexible seating arrangement affected the student’s grade on the unit test. I administered the same unit test to both classes. I also made sure students took a test I’d previously given to two classes from past semesters. How did the grades compare?
- Flexible seating class average = 76.9
- Flexible seating standard deviation = 14.0
- Past class 1 average = 80.4
- Past class 1 standard deviation = 11.9
- Past class 2 average = 78.6
- Past class 2 standard deviation = 12.1
The flexible seating class had the lowest class average and the greatest SD of the three classes who completed this particular assessment. I know. I know. There are so many variables that cannot be accounted for and you shouldn’t really compare the three classes. I hear what you’re saying. Believe me. Got it.
How did I, as the teacher, like the flexible seating arrangement? I really disliked it…really, really disliked it. I found myself tripping over people and bookbags, student’s backs were turned to the presentation, and I couldn’t move around the room like I wanted to. Now, biases here could definitely be clouding my opinions here, but it seemed that students were taking fewer notes (one student commented that she found it physically harder to take notes in the beanbag), there was a decrease in productive discussion, and an increase in off-topic conversations.
Putting all of that aside, if creating a classroom environment with flexible seating increased retention of material, I would do it. I would 100% put my feelings aside for the good of my student’s learning. But it doesn’t. There’s more distraction and less structure. I’m glad I have this experience. I’m glad it went well for my former student’s AP research project. But it’s not for me and I don’t think it’s what’s best for students.
*Please feel free to criticize my writing, my interpretation of data, and/or my beliefs on SEL and flexible seating…but do not criticize the experiment set up by my former student. I will delete your comment and hope you step barefoot onto a Lego. This was a valuable learning experience for her, too.
Blake Harvard is the AP Psychology teacher at James Clemens High School in Madison, Alabama. He has been teaching about a decade and received his B. S. and M. Ed. degrees from the University of Montevallo. He has a particular affinity for all things cognition and psychology; especially when those areas are also paired with education and learning. He wanted to start a blog to highlight research being done on learning, memory, and cognition and their connections to the classroom.