I Tried Flexible Seating

I tried flexible seating. For those of you who read my blog, this is probably a big shock. I would definitely be considered a more traditional teacher who has his students seated at tables (I would prefer desks, but that’s out of my control), facing the front, with minimal distractions. So, what changed? Why did I create a classroom environment that I am against, that I believe acts to impede student learning? Well…one of my old AP students is currently in AP research. In this class, they have to design an experiment and run an experiment. It can almost be about anything. Most students design some experiment that sees them in labs mixing elements and/or engineering something. But not this student. Truth be told, this student is a rare breed. She’s a wonderful mix of intelligence and artistic ability, with fantastic taste in music. So, when she told me that she wanted to design an experiment comparing traditional seating vs. flexible seating, I told her I was game to assist.

So, for one unit of study (about 8 class meetings), I taught my 1st block class in a flexible seating arrangement. This included a couch, several beanbags, cushions for those who wanted to sit on the floor, and many different types of lounge chairs. Due to the number of students in my class, I still had two traditional tables with chairs and a couple of desks with chairs. My 2nd block class remained in traditional seating…all tables and chairs facing the front. Before the experiment was over, I administered a unit test. I did my best to present the material in the same manner and really attempted to keep confounding variables to a minimum. This definitely included not stating my opinions on flexible seating to my students.

Students in both classes completed a survey, with most questions centering around how the seating affected their comfort level and attitude.  Although I didn’t ask (I wanted to only act as the ‘teacher’ in the experiment and not get too involved with the nuts and bolts), I’m assuming the focus of the experiment was on student’s social-emotional experience.  After taking the surveys up, I asked the flexible seating class how many liked the this setup. Seven out of thirty(ish) students raised their hand.

This focus on the social-emotional aspects of the classroom doesn’t really interest me too much. I want to know how the flexible seating arrangement affected the student’s grade on the unit test. I administered the same unit test to both classes. I also made sure students took a test I’d previously given to two classes from past semesters. How did the grades compare?

  • Flexible seating class average = 76.9
  • Flexible seating standard deviation = 14.0
  • Past class 1 average = 80.4
  • Past class 1 standard deviation = 11.9
  • Past class 2 average = 78.6
  • Past class 2 standard deviation = 12.1

The flexible seating class had the lowest class average and the greatest SD of the three classes who completed this particular assessment. I know. I know. There are so many variables that cannot be accounted for and you shouldn’t really compare the three classes. I hear what you’re saying. Believe me. Got it.

How did I, as the teacher, like the flexible seating arrangement? I really disliked it…really, really disliked it. I found myself tripping over people and bookbags, student’s backs were turned to the presentation, and I couldn’t move around the room like I wanted to. Now, biases here could definitely be clouding my opinions here, but it seemed that students were taking fewer notes (one student commented that she found it physically harder to take notes in the beanbag), there was a decrease in productive discussion, and an increase in off-topic conversations.

Putting all of that aside, if creating a classroom environment with flexible seating increased retention of material, I would do it. I would 100% put my feelings aside for the good of my student’s learning. But it doesn’t. There’s more distraction and less structure. I’m glad I have this experience. I’m glad it went well for my former student’s AP research project. But it’s not for me and I don’t think it’s what’s best for students.

*Please feel free to criticize my writing, my interpretation of data, and/or my beliefs on SEL and flexible seating…but do not criticize the experiment set up by my former student. I will delete your comment and hope you step barefoot onto a Lego. This was a valuable learning experience for her, too.

*Image provided by flicker.com – https://www.flickr.com/photos/gilchristlaura/43884202645

17 thoughts on “I Tried Flexible Seating

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  1. I think this is super interesting! You are the first person I’ve run across who has openly said he did not like FS. I had thought about giving it a try, but have always wondered what the attention rates would be like.

  2. Interesting and clever idea from research student! How did the flexible class’s grade compare to the traditional class’s grade?

  3. The student seating should match the teaching pedagogy. If you’re lecturing then yes, students facing front, facing the teacher would be best. If your operating a flipped-classroom type situation then the flexible seating is an integral part of making that work. In the type of lecture based experiment you offered, I wouldn’t think a flexible learning space would be very conducive for learning- or teaching for that matter.

  4. I’m also generally anti-flexible seating (I’m all about the paired rows so I can *teach* using a variety of methods). But there is one class setup I’d LOVE that comes from the flexible seating camp: paired rows of those standing desks with kick bars. I’d want tall (bar-height) chairs to go with them, so kids could sit as needed and not have to adjust the desk. That way, kids could still stand and move as they needed to, and I wouldn’t really tell the difference; it would take up the same amount of space and keep the paired rows I love so much while giving them that flexibility.

    Keep in mind: I’m coming at this as someone with ADHD; a lot of these flexible seating arrangements claim to be good for people like me, when they really just create more distractions and make it harder to learn (see also: figit toys).

    Super interesting experiment! I’m glad you participated and shared!

  5. I think the experiment and its results promote some meaningful conversations about the purpose of seating in our classrooms and the desired outcome we are looking to achieve out of it. Would love to see this done in a college prep class at the high school level and even one at the college level. What difference does age and maturity have in the results?

    Appreciate the time and effort Coach Harvard. You are the man!

  6. Thank you for sharing. I am in the beginning stages of “flexible seating” and still working out the kinks. I think I am at the moment going with a hybrid flexible seating model. I have 25 student desks that occupy the center of the room, and in the corners and off to the sides I have different styles of chairs and coffee tables. This way during group activities there are centers in which the students can spread out. This has been a hard adjustment since I tend to lean towards “traditional teaching” style, but I have read a lot and realized that the educational system is changing and so are my students. I have found success with scattered direct instruction and more socratic discussions in my room. I think it depends on the types of students and variety of factors. This like everything is not a one-size fits all.

  7. I have started using FS in my classroom at the start of this academic year. I have to say, my experience is completely opposite to yours. I obsolutely love it and my class do too.

    Of course it took a bit of getting used to as well as training for the children on how to use the seating correctly, how to choose the correct seat for their own comfort, how to work independently and quietly etc.. it has all been very successful.

    My class’ exam results/assessments don’t differ from the other classes in the year group and I can’t think of a negative if I am honest.

  8. Thank you for sharing. We have flexible seating at Ranches Primary School and it’s not really about the seating. It’s so much more to do with the style of teaching and learning. Our trial has been going on for over a year and we are fully invested. If you’d asked me (as Principal) if it was working after 8 weeks I might not have been so positive. One is changing a long held tradition and we know most people do not adapt well to sudden change. I hope you keep your ‘willing to try’ attitude and play around with FS. We can’t teach in rows and expect to prepare students for the 21st Century.

    1. I don’t mean this to be snarky, but what empirical evidence is there that one particular seating arrangement is more efficacious for learning in the current century?

  9. Hello, I flipped my classroom to flexible seating three years ago and am happy to say, still going strong! I also finished my M.A. in communication and leadership based on the instructional proximecs of the classroom environment (flexible seating, my classroom). My thesis explored the effects of flexible seating on the affective domain in learning, My research (both qualitative and quantitative) showed a higher degree of both student satisfaction and motivation, which translated in one area to show higher scores on assigned work. I am a firm believer in this form of seating, however it does not work for everyone, and I respect their choices and opinions. Thank you for posting.

  10. An interesting experiment, but I would be wary of drawing too much from this, and I say this as someone who hasn’t had his classes sat in anything other than rows facing the front for more than two years now. A few comments:

    1) Looking closer at the results:
    – The actual differences in averages are quite small. For example the difference between the FS group and past class 2 is less than that between past class 2 and past class 1.
    – I am more interested in the different in standard deviation which seems more marked. This merits a closer look at the statistics: for example it could be that in the FS group there was a single or a couple low performers dragging the average down and the SD up. Or it could be that the FS led to greater disparities at both ends, i.e. in some way accentuated the learning gap, which would be in line with a lot of studies on other similar “progressive” strategies (there is good evidence that for things like flipped learning, group work, project based learning or project work the most able cope fine or even better – possibly due to inherent advantages e.g. in their home life which allows them to cope – whilst the less able struggle more)

    2) Methodology and educational research:
    – we should be wary of the “new factor” of FS: I’m guessing your classes are used to being sat in rows, so it could be simply that they hadn’t adapted (yet?) to the new seating arrangements.
    – on the other hand most interventions do work, because “new” usually means “exciting” which usually translates to greater engagement etc. which is why educational research is so difficult; in essence the people trying something different feel more valued so tend to overperform, whilst the control group, especially if they frequently talk to the experiment group, tend to continue to perform as they would. With that in mind you would expect (all other things being equal) that if seating had a neutral effect, then you would expect the FS group to score slightly higher than the control group.
    – usual caveats about small sample and small sample size are obvious but worth stating

    3) Would we expect changing the seating to do anything by itself?
    – it seems to me pretty obvious that if you run (as you seem to) a pretty traditional classroom using direct instruction/explicit teaching/whatever you want to call it (i.e. you teach from the front, explain a concept, model, do some examples together then set them some work) that people sat in rows facing the front is the best way for them to sit. This seems to be what your research has corroborated.
    – with that in mind simply changing the seating without changing the pedagogy was unlikely to lead to much. I suspect people who have their classrooms arranged in FS teach very differently from you (or I) and will claim that it works brilliantly for them. Whether or not their classes would do better with a traditional setting is hard to test for all the reasons mentioned above and in other places.
    – of course at the heart of this lies the wider trad/prog debate which I have no interest in pursuing here.

    Anyway I hope I don’t come across as too critical. As I said at the start I am a firm believer in traditional classrooms, my kids seems to enjoy them and achieve well with them. Anyone wanting to do differently is very welcome, and good luck to them.

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