Adjustable Desks and Policies Allow Restless Students More Freedom

February 26, 2009 10:32 AM
by Cara McDonough
A Minneapolis school is experimenting with allowing children to get up and move around whenever they want, the latest in creative learning methodologies.

Focusing on Schoolwork, Not on Sitting Still

The children in Ms. Brown’s sixth-grade Minneapolis classroom don’t sit through lessons anymore—not if they’d rather get up and move around.

There is 11-year-old Nick Raboin, who likes to shift his weight from foot to foot as he figures out math problems, and his classmate Roxy Cotter, who likes to stand more than sit.

The New York Times reports that the classroom is using adjustable-height desks designed by Ms. Brown with the help of a local furniture company. The desks, which allow students to stand while they work, are also being used in schools nearby, and their popularity is growing across the nation.

According to the Times story, the desks “come with swinging footrests, and with adjustable stools allowing children to switch between sitting and standing as their moods dictate.”

Like Ms. Brown, many teachers and other education and health officials note the positive benefits of allowing children to fidget. They say that the benefits go beyond allowing the children to remain concentrated on their schoolwork; moving around a bit more during the day decreases the likelihood of obesity, a nationwide epidemic in children.

Mayo Clinic professor Dr. James A. Levine says he’s in favor of “activity-permissive” classrooms like Ms. Brown’s, and the fact that children nowadays lead more sedentary lives means it is important to change their surroundings to meet their needs. “Having many children sit in a classroom isn’t the craziest idea, but look at how children have changed,” he said.

The Internet is awash with parents and teachers who commend Brown’s idea. A post on the Web site Momlogic asked readers what they think about the adjustable desks in Brown’s classroom and generated several positive responses. One commenter wrote that it is “about time somebody cares about the kids and not just about the test scores.” Another person enthusiastically remarked, “As a teacher I think that it’s a GREAT idea!”

Commenters on Web site Parent Dish made similar observations. “Yeah for her for thinking outside the box and doing what she knows is right,” one writes. Another says the idea goes well with “a child’s natural tendencies to move.”

Background: Past experiments in fidgeting

Brown’s experiment is not the first of its kind. Levine, the Mayo Clinic professor, was the mastermind behind a similar classroom experiment in Rochester, Minn., in 2006.

Fourth and fifth graders in the experimental classroom were allowed to stretch, sway and balance on exercise balls. The experiment ran through the end of the school year in an attempt to gauge whether the movement could help the students combat childhood obesity. The same experiment was conducted in some British schools, as well.

The schools replaced desks in the classroom with adjustable podiums. To calculate actual calories burned, Levine placed muscle sensors on their legs to calculate how much more energy they burned than their counterparts in traditional classrooms. Teachers reportedly found that there were immediately fewer disruptions in the classrooms where children were free to move than in the traditional, sitting-only classrooms.

Related Topic: Do alternative learning strategies work?

So far most observers seem happy with the idea of allowing children to move freely in the classroom. But past experiments have not always turned out for the best.
A November 2006 Time magazine article explored some of the differences in opinion when it comes to the education system. There are those who adhere to the “back-to-basics credo” and on the other side are the “‘progressives,’ who believe that learning should be like breathing—natural and relaxed.”

For instance, in the 1980s such progressives spawned the idea of “inventive spelling,” which allowed children to spell words creatively rather than correctly. The movement was never meant to replace proper spelling, but that’s what happened in some cases, according to the story: “The result was a generation of kids who couldn’t spell, including a high percentage who had to be turned over to special-ed instructors to learn how to read.”

Of course, throughout the years, the theory that children need to experience good, old-fashioned discipline, rules and traditional learning techniques has never disappeared. Some studies have even proved the need for discipline.

British education watchdog organization Ofsted recently announced that schools should adopt “back-to-basics” discipline methods to curb bad behavior, according to a story in the Daily Telegraph.

In a report released this week, the group said that traditional methods, such as regularly patrolling corridors and suspending students for wearing banned clothing, work best.

Perhaps in learning, a compromise is best. Just last month, Ofsted released another study that seems to contradict the first, stating that teachers who are too “boring” cause bad behavior in classrooms.

Christine Gilbert, a chief at the agency, said disruption in the classroom often occurs when children are “bored and not motivated,” and that teachers need better instruction on how to motivate their students.

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