Recently, I was reading up on how bad it is to sit all day. I’m sure you’re aware of this. I’m sure you’re also aware of the fact that for awhile now elementary schools have been doing away with – or severely restricting – recess. I was floored when I read that adding recess back into the day for kids produced good results.
This should not be news. No one should be surprised that taking out recess for young children is bad and adding it back in is good. If anything, we owe lots of kids apologies for making stupid decisions.
But all the reports lately on how sitting is bad for us really made me stop and think about what my university students must experience during the day when they go to class.
First, let me say that I’m not too worried about how much I sit. I work from home a lot (a lot). For the most part, I make myself go for a 15 minute walk for every 60-90 minutes that I work. When it rolls around to the 60-minute mark I start looking for a good stopping place in my thinking. Then I go for a walk unless the weather is bad. I practice yoga 60-90 minutes a day five-seven days a week. When I teach class, I tend to stand for most of it. I do sit now and then to join in on small groups or if we are watching a video. But I do a decent amount of standing.
But my students? They sit (for the most part). And my classes are two hours and fifty-minutes (with a 10-minute break).
When I teach my Masters classes, I’m probably less concerned about the sitting. I assume that since these are classroom teachers they have done a fair amount of standing and moving during the day. I’m more concerned about my undergrads. It’s true that I have no idea what their days really look like – or how they move (literally) through it. But I hate making everyone sit for two hours and fifty-minutes. I know some of them go from class to class to class on some days meaning they are likely sitting all day long.
Let’s Transform The Space
While I was pondering my issues with students sitting too much, I ran across this piece which talks about how an elementary teacher transformed the space of her classroom by thinking about how Starbucks designs its spaces. It’s a great piece, and I am sure it not only transformed the space but transformed the behaviors in that space as well.
And it got me thinking about the classrooms that we have university students in. So, this week, I took some pictures to share my space with you. It was interesting because I had never really explored the room I have been assigned to for my Politics of Reading class this semester. So in doing this exercise I was able to discover a few things.
First: I hate this room. I cannot say enough about my hatred of this room. I don’t let it consume me. I simply acknowledge it and move on. My main reason for hating it? The chairs.
You can see the chairs in the picture below. Each chair is locked into the ground, but it does spin around in a full circle. My guess is that when the university did this they thought they were supporting collaboration and group work because students can turn their chair and desk top on way or another.
In reality? This idea sucks.
It sucks for so many reasons. And yes, sucks is as good as I can get and still be somewhat professional here. These are my reasons for why these chairs suck:
- You cannot move them other than around in a circle. The nice thing about tables in a room is that I can reconfigure the shape of the room to match what I want students to do or in a way that supports their work. Earlier this semester, we did a fish bowl. The idea was to have four students talking and a fifth chair open. We would circle around them and watch/listen. A student from the outer circle would take up a chair in the inner circle freeing someone up to leave. This is a very basic discussion method that was hampered by these stupid chairs. I had to find a folding chair to create a 5th chair, and we couldn’t create a good circle around the bowl.
- The chairs are nailed to the floor. So you can’t move them to do anything different. Ever. See the above example.
- Trying to work in groups sometimes works but mostly it is just awkward; ultimately we are at the mercy of configuring this room based on what these chairs will allow.
Let’s take a look at the front of the classroom:
This is, essentially, my little work space. Or if a student is presenting something they also use this space. I’ve got a built in computer (or I can plug in my own lap top which I never do), and there is also a document camera there which is folded down at the time (I never use it anyways). There’s a decent amount of space between here and where the chairs start. There’s definitely a separation going on between student and teacher which is evident not just from the actual space in-between us but also because there’s this big station at the front of the room for me to stand behind.
On both sides of the computer stand are screens which drop down and can go back up. I can have one or both of them down. Usually I just put both down since I’m never sure which is easier for students to look at.
As I was taking pictures, I realized I had never actually explore the room very much. I just come in, go to the computer station, and get stuff set up. But I found an overhead. An honest to God overhead in 2016. How did I miss that? Has it always been siting under the clock? I do look at that clock.
I also found a set of four small dry erase boards with markers. I guess if you are doing group work then these might come in handy. Never knew they were there!
What To Make of This?
First, not all the rooms are like this. In fact, this is the only room in my building (I think) that has a set up with the chairs like it does. Did I strike the lottery? Piss someone off? Anything is possible. Most rooms have tables and chairs that can easily be configured. It’s what I’m used to. Not having it this semester is making me lose my marbles a bit.
That being said, all the rooms that I teach in are pretty traditional. None of them look like what is featured here. I’m not saying they should (that’s an elementary classroom). But a great deal of thought when into that teacher’s classroom and how the seating does/does not support learning. Of course this teacher uses her classroom every day. My space is transient. A number of us go through the space every day, and rarely do I have the same room twice in a year (ok…maybe never!).
The teacher in the linked piece recreated her space to achieve what she wanted teaching and learning to look for her and her students. I’m in a space and I have to do the best I can to create experiences that foster what I would like for teaching and learning to look like.
But there’s something to be said about traditional spaces – which I think my space really is. No matter what kinds of experiences I set up for my students, I am always battling against a space that fosters traditional approaches to teaching and learning (teacher-centric; students raise hands to be called on; lecture; etc…). I am sure that space serves to reinforce certain behaviors in my students even if they are not aware of it.
If we want teaching and learning to look different, we have to consider the space. At the university level, we have very little control over what that space looks like. And, in my case, control is further restricted by having chairs bolted to the floor. I’m not saying we should remake our spaces after a model for elementary students. But I do think there is something to be said for providing an alternative to how we design our rooms and considering what those spaces say about teaching and learning. Alternatives need to exist.
I would love to see some remodels that supported different approaches to teaching and learning. And yes, I would be happy to volunteer to do that work if asked. We need a variety of spaces that support different approaches to teaching and learning. What those look like are open for discussion.