George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A large, studentless classroom, with large blue bouncy balls, sofa chairs, folding chairs, a tent, crates, mats, and other unique furniture.

I remember exactly where I was when I had a watershed moment that changed me as a teacher forever. In fact, it inspired my EdSurge column, Why the 21st-Century Classroom May Remind You of Starbucks. I was working on my TEDx presentation at my local Starbucks and, looking around, I realized that everyone seemed to be happy, engaged in their work, and relaxed. Some people chose the traditional chairs and tables while I opted for a big, comfy chair with my MacBook on my lap. The quiet music, perfect lighting, and overall aesthetics of the coffee shop were favorable for a variety of learners. And if I wanted to switch up my seat during my stay, I was free to do just that. That's when I decided that our classroom in 2015-2016 was going to look radically different than anything I'd ever done before.

Problem Solvers Now = Problem Solvers Later

I'm a firm believer in keeping the focus on what's really important: the students. If student motivation and higher engagement is truly the desired end game, then we as teachers must adapt right along with our students in our classrooms. To see that some classrooms look the same now as they did 70 years ago is shameful. The students we share our classrooms with don't know life without constant connectivity, wi-fi, and a global audience. Outside the windows of our classroom is a dynamic, fast-paced, and ever-changing world full of choices. How can we expect our students to solve problems and make choices independently if we constantly solve their problems and make their choices for them? Our classroom environments should be conducive to open collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. This simply cannot be done when kids are sitting in rows of desks all day. Consider involving your students in a classroom redesign project with the LAUNCH cycle design thinking mentioned on A.J. Juliani's blog.

What the Research Says

Everything I do in my classroom is based on research and best practices for kids. Redesigning my classroom was not any different. I've found that some of the immediate benefits (PDF) of flexible seating include burning more calories, using up excess energy, improving metabolism, increased motivation and engagement, creating a better oxygen flow to the brain, and improving core strength and overall posture. It's no surprise that physical activity is linked to higher academic performance, better health, and improved behavior. In fact, a paper by Matthew T. Mahar, et al (PDF) finds that:

Simple in-class activities can boost performance. Studies suggest that children who participate in short bouts of physical activity within the classroom have more on-task behavior, with the best improvement seen in students who are least on-task initially.

Additionally, if you're looking to convince your administrators that flexible seating is right for your students or even your entire school, my principal Jason Markusen has some interesting thoughts on this subject. Finally, Erin Klein, with her brain-based classroom redesigns, was my original inspiration. She encouraged me to "ditch the desks."

Classroom Redesign on a Budget

Redesigning an entire classroom doesn't have to be expensive, especially with the help of Donors Choose. Sure, the Hokki stools in my classroom cost about $100 each, but other items range from free to about $30. If you want to redesign your classroom on a budget, begin by purchasing some bath rugs or yoga mats, and raising a table to appropriate standing height using bed risers. Or simply take the legs off of a table and add some pillows or core discs for students to sit on. The crates pictured in my classroom cost around three dollars each. Most of the wall hangings and lamps were taken from my house, with the exception of frames from The Dollar Store. Parents are also a great resource for classroom donations. They often have money to help, but not time to give, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Up Your Classroom Management

I have a strong conviction that simply swapping out desks for tables doesn't ensure higher motivation, engagement, or accountability. Redesigning a classroom or implementing unassigned flexible seating is a shift in both structure and teaching philosophy -- an entire mindset shift. In fact, teachers need a keen intuition about where the students are working and their level of engagement at all times. We must be willing to give up the power of the seating chart and truly hand over the responsibility of seating choices to our students. I've found that the more power I give up in our classroom, the more power I get back. I've also noticed that it helps my students become more self-aware of what types of seating and environment help them learn best. And they're empowered by the opportunity to have choices.

Other Considerations

  • We follow the Responsive Classroom approach. The supplies that the students contribute at Open House are put into a community supply crate and used throughout the year.

  • Each student's personal learning materials (math journals, notebooks, etc.) are housed in bins in the corner of our room. If you don't have this option, three-drawer stackers or crates of materials would be a solid substitute.

  • Be open to removing much of the furniture in your classroom. At the beginning of the year, I got rid of four tables, my huge teacher desk, a file cabinet, and 20 traditional chairs.

  • Our whole-group instruction still happens on the big rug in the middle of our classroom. This is where we spend much of our day.

  • Before allowing your students to self-select seats, I strongly suggest having them try all of the seating options for an entire day. They probably won't know where they learn best until they try all the options.

  • Students know that I reserve the right to move them at any time if they aren't fully engaged and able to work in their self-selected spot.

  • It's a good idea to have more seating combinations than students in your classroom. I never have disagreements between students about seating because I have far more options than students. However, if I did, I would settle it the same way that I'd settle an argument over any other material in our classroom.

Best Practice Starts Now

I'm often asked, "Why should I do flexible seating this year if next year's teacher won't be doing it?" Here’s my response: Teachers can never base what happens in our classroom this year on what next year's teacher may or may not do. If it's best practice for our kids, do it now. Remember, our classrooms should be student-centered, not teacher-centered.

Please share your thoughts and experiences with flexible seating in the comments below.

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NATALIE GREEN's picture

HI!My name is Natalie I am a student in AR wanting to become a teacher with flexible seating can you help me?

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Natalie,
If you look at the link I shared (https://www.edutopia.org/practice/flexible-classrooms-providing-learning...), you can see suggestions for how to get started. The author says you should first decide on your vision for your classroom, and then figure out three different types of seating you could offer your students. If you don't have a budget for purchasing furniture, you could try a https://www.donorschoose.org/ project, plus you could seek help from your PTA and ask parents for donations. I started with carpet squares -- I went to a local flooring store and asked if they could donate some. That was the first time I saw how easy it was to offer my students choices! Many of them loved to sit on the floor, often under tables, or outside. The carpet squares made that a little more comfortable. The next year I pulled my bookshelves away from the wall so students could use them as standing desks. That way I didn't have to add furniture to my room but could offer some choices.

NATALIE GREEN's picture

UM but Question If I want to teach Literacy what would be the best for my Students?reply.....

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Yes, it can work. I have a 1-2 and have all sorts of flexible seating options. Since I teach two grades I have a pretty large room. I have "book nooks" for all students which are simply nooks and crannies where students can sit to do work. Most are sitting on the carpet, in plastic gaming rockers, or teacher chairs. Some are just at tables (standing, sitting, kneeling.) Some have to use clipboards if writing. I have School Specialty NeoRok stools, a few stand up desks, and a few kneeling options (desks and tables.) I made the kneeling desks by taking off the removable legs from some of my desks. Some years I utilize some OT tools like ball chairs and t-stools. I also have traditional desks for 2/3 of my students. The other 1/3 of my students use kneeling desks or standing desks. I believe there should always be a mix of options as one seating option does not fit all. The only thing I don't have is soft furniture as fire code doesn't allow it. As with anything, how to use flexible seating must be intentionally taught. I tell my students two things- "breakout seating" is a privilege and to use it you must be safe, respectful, responsible AND bottom line- it must help you learn. If it distracts or doesn't work they return to their traditional seating. Then next time I coach them on how to use it properly and we try it again. I rotate book nooks weekly and I usually assign other seating options based on the student's needs and what works best for them.

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burton1b's picture

I made a huge switch this year as well. Last year I took a table from our warehouse and painted it our school colors and then coated it in clear dry-erase paint. The kids loved it so much that I decided that I would ditch the desks this year and have a variety of stand up dry-erase tables and sit down tables where my students would sit on exercise balls. My class was even featured on our local news. I'll never switch back.

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