Furniture in the Collaborative Classroom: Desks with wheels may be overrated

I loved the idea of desks with wheels. My lessons usually involve some combination of partner work, small-group work, whole-class discussion, inner circle/outer circle discussions, independent work. Movable desks seemed to make sense for this kind of collaborative practice.

And I have noticed  a few distinct benefits:

  • It can be fun to push oneself around in one of these desks
  • It’s very easy to push the desks around the classroom (no heavy lifting required)
  • Scratches on the floor are significantly less likely to appear
  • Students can more fluidly shift between partners
  • It’s easier for students to turn around to see what’s happening in different parts of the room.

With that said, I can’t say that this new desk necessarily makes collaboration easier for my students — particularly since they are already so adept at team work.

An example of collaborative work on a day when we’re working in a room with regular chairs and tables: Students select a poem to analyze, then pair with someone who selected the same poem. I hear analysis building and new insights in different groups, so pairs group with other pairs. Students want to keep this up, so before long, I have two large groups on opposite sides of the classroom discussing their poem and thinking about how they’d read it out loud. Students pull up chairs, some stand, some sit on desks. During this lesson, it occurred to me that standing tables and couches would be nice additions to the classroom. Desks with wheels would get in our way.

Classroom furniture should reflect our pedagogical values. I do see the potential benefits of Node chairs, but it seems like a stretch to dub them “real world” or “21st century.”

A few issues that I’ve noticed:

  • A student says “I feel like I’m trapped in this desk.” This is still a traditional desk in many ways.
  • A student says “it’s really hard to write on this desk. Can we go into a different room?” The writing space is rather small. This can cause discomfort when students need to write an exam. A piece of chart paper spread out over four desks (makeshift conference table) for collaborative writing is also out of the question because there are  awkward gaps and protrusions that form when the desks are pushed together.
  • Students wheel around easily. However, there’s something to be said for asking students to move their actual bodies (stretch their legs) to traverse the classroom.
  • Detachable chairs are convenient for Socratic seminars and fishbowl discussions.
  • Students are still sitting, and sitting in the same way. It’s uncomfortable for students to stand and write on these desks (they’re too low). It’s inadvisable to sit on top of them.
  • A friend who works at a different school notes: “We have these chairs too, and I often see them in rows.”

Given the choice between the metal cages that are traditional student desks and the Node desk, I’d opt for Node. However, a better solution might be a learning space filled with a variety of furniture that teachers can use to suit a variety of purposes: couches and bean bag chairs for independent reading and informal discussions; a large seminar table with ergonomic chairs for more formal discussions; small tables chairs for collaborative work, etc.

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