The furniture debate

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Sean McDougall argues that sitting comfortably really can make the difference to the way we learn in schools.

Sometimes the most amazing thoughts strike in the strangest of places. Archimedes had his Eureka moment in the bath. Newton had his sitting under an apple tree. Now I'm having one. I'm sat in an airplane somewhere over the Gobi desert and all I can think of is how, from a child's perspective, schools and airplanes are much the same.

Think about it. I arrived at a time decided by others rather than me. I had a list of prohibited articles that I could not take through the security cordon (the school gates). I ate at the same time as everyone else. I took my place at a pre-assigned seat where, unable to escape, I concentrated mostly on the sense of discomfort that the seat was giving me. Airplane seats seem to be designed solely around squeezing people in and keeping prices low. I find myself thinking that this is also true of the furniture we choose for schools.

The early Victorians, who invented our approach to schools, didn’t have petroleum based plastic, extruded metals, injection mouldings and production lines. Indeed, when they began to expand access to education, they were still an agrarian society. Children were given time off at Easter and summer to help with planting and harvesting. Freed from the constraints of mass manufacture, unit profits and re-sale, their furniture was optimised around factors like utility, comfort, lifespan and waste-reduction. It was a sustainable approach and it was also, in terms of ergonomics, much more advanced than our own.

There is no animal on Earth that chooses to sit with a straight back, a right-angled bend at the hips and a right-angled bend at the knee. The only reason why we do it is because it makes it cheaper to produce and transport furniture. 160 years ago, furniture was designed around what is actually going on in your back as you sit. A higher seating base was used – one that has a sixty degree bend at the knee, much as one would have while sitting on a horse. This allows the leg to take some of the weight of the body (which is what they are designed to do) and relieves pressure on the lower back, which is otherwise unnaturally bent and placed under the weight of the whole upper body.

Desks show similar levels of forethought. The sloping desks used at that time allowed everyone to find a natural height at which to rest their elbows. They also reduced strain on the back by enabling a much more upright reading position.

Try reading anything that is sitting on a horizontal surface. The only way to do it is to tip the head forward of the body, imposing a heavy weight on the upper vertebrae. This imposes a similar physical strain to trying to hold a bag of potatoes six inches forward of the body while trying to learn something.

Today, our children sit on seats designed for short-term use and optimised around the needs of the buyer. Bursars are attracted to plastic seats because they are cheap to buy and light enough to put on top of tables at the end of the day, thus reducing cleaning costs.
Outside of schools, the plastic seats that we force our children to use are mostly seen in places like village halls and waiting rooms.  They are typically used once a week for up to an hour, supporting community activities like book-clubs, scout meetings and the Women’s Institute. Between uses, they are stacked up in a corner, or arranged around the room so that people can use the space in the middle. It was for these reasons that the Robin Day plastic chair has come to be seen as a design classic.

However, when it is put into schools, its many attributes become massive failings. Between the age of five and sixteen, children will spend around 16,000 hours sat on a chair intended for short term occasional use. Sitting on these chairs is inherently distressing, such that anyone spending more than 20 minutes on one will be hard pressed to remain focused on anything other than their bottom. As the body struggles to remain balanced, pressure on the lower back leads to slouching. This in turn compresses the lungs, making it harder to draw in sufficient oxygen to concentrate (this is made even worse in hermetically sealed classrooms, where the oxygen level is typically similar to that of – surprise, surprise – an airplane).

How sad that financial cost rather than educational value should carry the day. Plastic chairs are undermining the ability of children to study and, quite possibly, damaging their long term health.

It was with this injustice in mind that (through the auspices of the DfES and Design Council) I worked with staff and students at St Margaret’s High School in Liverpool to prototype and launch a new type of furniture called the Qpod. Manufactured by
Anthony Hill of Stage Systems Ltd, the Qpod is neither a desk nor a table. It combines the two in a space efficient and ergonomic manner. Qpods are height adjustable – both the seat and the desk can be adjusted quickly to suit 98% of all height ranges found in the 11-18 age group. They encourage a much more upright posture (they even feature a saddle seat) and incorporate a sloping desk. The seat facilitates a natural movement that helps disperse nervous energy, returning focus onto the task at hand. Best of all, they release floor space so that it becomes possible for the teacher to move around the room providing support to children as and when they need it.

Next time you’re thinking about buying furniture for use by students at your school, ask yourself this question: is there anyone in the country who would swap their office chair for a plastic seat and not expect to see a reduction in performance? Would you? Why, then, do we ask children to devote so much time to learning and then undermine their efforts by making them use furniture that all of us would reject as inherently unsuitable?

In The Apprentice, Alan Sugar gets a special seat indicating that he is the most important person in the organisation. But it seems morally repugnant (and strategically inept) to take this attitude in a school. Children are the most important people in any school. Their needs should never take second place to the wants of those who manage them.

There are alternatives. KI offers a range of furniture that supports collaborative learning and British manufacturers are increasingly offering height adjustable furniture. In Belfast, a company called Angel Ergonomics offers a combined interior design and ergonomic survey of workplaces.

Rather than supply an ergonomic seat, plus an ergonomic keyboard, on an ergonomic desk (many of which are cost-led rather than effective), they will ask questions about the environment in which these are being used and help achieve a balance of products and processes. Most of the problem with furniture in British schools arises from the fact that children are unable to move during lessons.

If the process changed so that they could bend, stretch and recover during lessons, we might be able to carry on with plastic chairs. If not, then doing something as simple as buying Back Care’s seat wedge (£5) can change the shape of the seat to relieve pressure on young backs.

Soft furnishings offer another way forward. Alder Grange school in Lancashire has been experimenting with beanbags and settees to see how different heights, textures and arrangements can be used to support multiple learning activities.  Their MFL lessons, and the teacher’s perception of classroom space, have been completely transformed using furniture that you can order over the phone from IKEA. Convention says that classrooms have to look a certain way. The fact is that over 80%of all the furniture, fixtures and fittings in a classroom can be moved or replaced with alternatives.

As we set about rebuilding and renewing our schools, the sustainability agenda will be accompanied by ever greater emphasis on the outdoors. Organisations such as Futurelab, a UK charity focused on education and technology, have been pioneering a return to learning on the move. Similarly, Learning Through Landscapes helps schools to re-imagine their use of outdoor spaces (including choice of furniture).

A sage was once asked what is the most comfortable position to sit in. “The next one,” he replied. Back on the airplane, I’m thinking that the guy up front probably has a better seat than me. Squirming from one position to the next, I reflect that all I have to do is pass the time until I can get out of this space. I wonder how many children I’ve flown over, and how many of them think the same in school every day.

Sean McDougall is MD of Stakeholder Design. At the time of writing, he was on a three month tour of the world’s most innovative learning environments.




Taken from 21st Century Schools

Learning Spaces