Sunday, July 17, 2011

You Want to Get Rid of Your Desks?

When I first started this journey about changing school through classroom design the first thing I wanted to get rid of was the desk. 
To me, the desk symbolizes everything that is wrong with education:
  • one size fits all.
  • all the information comes from the teacher.
  • you learn only by sitting down and reading or writing, etc.
  • don't move.
  • don't talk to other students.
  • do the same thing that everyone else is doing. 

Here is a picture of what desks looked like when I went to school:
The only difference to my desk and the one shown here was, there was a small round cut out for my inkwell(!), and Mrs. Young had me tie my running shoes to that really handy bar that attached the chair to the desk.  The message is pretty clear: face forward, don't move, and God help you if you are a different size of shape than one that will fit in this desk (i.e. no big kids, no little kids, no hefty kids, and definitely no kids in wheelchairs).  Did I mention that I had these exact same desks when I taught middle school only twelve years ago?  They were updated though.  They were bigger and had no inkwell hole.  The desks did not fit the mode of education twelve years ago, let alone fitting education forty years ago when I was a little kid. 

The desks of my youth are not that different from the ones from a hundred years ago.
These "sled" desks probably come from a one room school house.  These are welded together by the cast iron rail at the bottom.  I guess if you have grades 1 to 7 you probably want kids to stay in one place because it was probably dangerous for the teacher (and job security) if students were actually to learn from each other.  I wonder if they ever took their sled desks down the hill during the winter time.  It's weird that we're not better at the bobsleigh.    
The desks that used to be dominant in my current classroom kind of look like this:
I guess these are a step up.  They are adjustable for height.  The chair is not attached to the desk so there is more potential for movement.  The lack of attached seat and sled track make it so that the desks can be configured in many, many ways.  They had no inkwell hole that worked great as a drink holder or garbage chute.  Kids of different shapes, sizes and mobilities can use these desks.   

So if these desks that I have are so much better (and they are readily available), then why do I still hate them so much?

Okay, how about these ones?
The acrylic one is cool, and would make a great sneeze guard at a salad bar, but it is definitely one size fits all. Besides, privacy and Windex costs would be definite issues.

Sure, it is a creative design, but how practical is this?  It is really not that different from the desk of my youth, except that it has less storage, but a bigger place to tie my running shoes.  My latte would tip over on this design.

Is this really that different from the sled desk?  I think you can put this desk on its end and use it as a lectern, but why would you? 

My wife, also a teacher, liked these desks at SFU.  Notice that both the chairs and the tables are on wheels, so that the learning spaces are very flexible.  The room is instantly convertible.  This is great for a seminar, workshop, or even a lecture format. 

I think the thing that bothers me about all of these formats (except the SFU one) is that you won't find these types of furniture in any place except an educational institution.  These types of furniture will not be found in homes or offices or in nature.  You might ask why that is a problem because don't we want kids to associate desks with learning?  I guess that is true to an extent, but I also want kids to know that learning happens EVERYWHERE, not just in a school, not just in a desk, and not in places where you can't detach the chair from the table.

In a future post, I will talk about some of the successes and challenges I've had working in a non-desk classroom.


  1. So how do we fit tablets and netbooks into the picture? Where are the outlets/charging stations? Where do you put the screen, how do you make it universally accessible? Is there a "front of the room" so that when an iep stipulates preferential seating that we know where that may be? What classroom management issues can I predict and plan for with the technology involved? So much to consider!

  2. Hi Andrea,

    I teach primary kids so we don't have great amounts of netbooks or tablets, at least not in my school. For the instruction part of my lesson, I usually gather my students on the risers, which forms a horseshoe around a carpeted area. The open end of the horseshoe faces toward my screen which is at the "front" of the room. (It's funny that you ask about the front of the room because one of my goals is to de-emphasize the front of the room because it is usually the place where I stand and blather away at my kids. I am trying to get a little tighter in my instruction.)

    After the instruction part of the lesson, students usually disperse all over the classroom (the risers definitely allow for more room than desks). I do have one student who usually uses his laptop all the time so he has a dedicated spot that he can use if he chooses. The spot is toward the front of the classroom. I also have four other laptops available for student use, but so far it has not been during instructional time. Students use the laptops where they choose but in a safe spot (i.e. not on the floor and not by the sink). They do bring laptops to the risers and the tables, but their favourite place is standing up by the window which has access to power.

    I haven't considered what would happen if all my students were using tablets and laptops on the risers during instructional time until now. On the down side, they would have to keep the portable technology on their laps. Mind you, I am writing this right now with my laptop on my lap, and the lapdesks (8x10 doc holders) are placed on the students' laps also which would emulate tablet use. The district occupational therapist says this is fine as long as students can place both feet on the floor. On the up side, extension cords and power bars can be run under the risers without being trampled on, you could tape them down or put a runner over the exposed extension cord.

    About the preferential seating, because the risers have multiple levels, like theatre seating, every student has full view of me and the Smartboard during instructional time. I also have one of those sound towers, so preferential seating in terms of access to instruction is neglible. If the iep unconditionally states that the student must be up front, you can designate a spot during instructional time.

    I hope this helps.

  3. It's a year later, and I'm wondering where you are now with this? After reflecting on your post, I created zones in my classroom last year for different types of activities, and also surveyed children about how they preferred to work and tried to meet their needs(I teach middle school). We made some changes that increased engagement, so this was time well spent! Thanks for bringing up a topic that helped me improve the experience for my students.