Flexible Seating in a Tappan Zee High School Classroom Inspires a Productive Learning Environment

History teacher Beth Smith is guiding students Kaylei, Lucy and Liam as they work on their computers at a large table. The flexible seating arrangement allows for communication, cooperation and problem-solving.

By Barry Warner

Flexible seating allows students to find comfortable positions throughout the classroom. Relaxed students are calm, focused and learn better when they have a chance to work together. Traditional desks in rows isolate students from each other.

History teacher Beth Smith told the Rockland County Times, “I have always enjoyed having the students work in groups, but we had very heavy desks. I would be here at 7am moving these clunky desks around, which was very difficult. Now, my room has tables that are grouped for 4 students and also have alternative seatings, such as the Ottoman cushions and small tables. Some students like to move around a lot and it’s a more comfortable environment for them. They can move their seats in positions to see the back or front the board. There is no ‘front of the room’ as each student has their own Chromebook computer. More students are interacting with each other and are feeling better about their learning experiences. If we are doing a ‘mock’ trial, the classroom would be set up like a courtroom. Some days there are 5-6 students standing around a table working on a project. The design set-up of the room allows for much more interaction with the students, so I can guide them. I spent a lot of time looking through catalogs to select the appropriate furniture for this room.”

In a discussion with the Rockland County Times, student Lucy said, “The chairs are more comfortable and it is easier to communicate with other students.” Student Liam said, “The tables provide much more space to work with other students”. Student Kaylei said, “The colors of the furniture provide a much more pleasing environment to work in” and student Noah added, “The room is more comfortable as there is more space. The TV’s project what is on Ms. Smith’s computer on both sides of the room and they are much easier to view.”

The physical environment for the classroom should be comfortable for students of all heights and sizes:

  • Beanbag Chairs are effective because they are appropriate for group activities as well those activities that require solitary work.
  • Exercise Balls offer a range of motion while allowing students to stay seated.
  • Stools, typically coupled with high-top tables, allow students to adopt healthier postures.
  • Standing Desks avoid prolonged periods of sitting which can be bad for health.
  • Wobble Chairs encourage active sitting by providing light exercise for the legs, back and core muscles.

Students feel empowered by having some degree of choice and control over their environment. Flexible seating allows students to choose where they work and with whom. It also allows them to change their location and positions, as needed. Students need to move and flexible seating permits them to wobble, bounce, lean or stand, which increases oxygen flow to the brain and blood flow. This movement helps keep their minds more alert and focused. An uncomfortable student is an unproductive and distracted student. Flexible seating encourages students to find their best spot, stay focused and calm. Traditional desks can make students territorial or possessive over their space and supplies. Flexible seating encourages students to take turns in different locations with different seating options. Flexible seating allows students to quickly and easily pair up or work in small groups. The teacher must establish a new classroom management tool that includes creating a system to make seating choice fair and not disruptive. It requires introducing higher-order thinking skills, like problem-solving and conflict resolution. The 21st Century classroom of flexible seating environments, are conducive to collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. Changing the physical space of a classroom makes an impact on student behaviors and learning outcomes. Implementing flexible seating is a shift in both structure and teaching philosophy.