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Alternative Seating Within The Classroom

posted 19 Jan 2017, 06:53 by Craig Nicholson   [ updated 19 Jan 2017, 12:17 ]

Alternative/Flexible seating

Reflecting back on this journey takes me to May 2015 – Wigan was the destination of the ‘Google for Education Roadshow’ which I excitedly attended; an opportunity for Google staff to showcase their best and up-and-coming products and practices.

On my arrival to Wigan UTC, my wide eyes were immediately drawn to the structure, built within the gym hall, that I would be spending the day in, learning.

This was my introduction to the ‘Google dome’.

Breakfast bars laden with laptops and tablets greeted me as I walked through the door. Huge high-resolution screens hung on curved walls which hid a classroom-type scene which you’d think Willy Wonka (a techy version, if you will) might have built himself!

My choice of seating was the next interesting challenge – single-seater lectern chairs, a group picnic bench sited on artificial grass, curved, padded benches or an array of steps which lead the way to the ascended podium.

This was my first, real experience of the form ‘alternative’ or ‘flexible’ seating could take within the classroom.

It wasn’t a new concept – in fact, earlier that year I had been extremely disappointed to find that the Google HQ in London did not in fact have a slide for employers to descend floors quicker – I had read and seen examples of this on many occasions prior, mainly from practice in the US, and it was something we had already discussed back at school as a venture for the future.

Fast forward a month or so; post-Ofsted, post-SATs – my Y6 class were switching classrooms to prepare for a change in rooms the following year. On moving the furniture, I thought it was the ideal opportunity to give responsibility to the children on their seating and how they wanted the classroom arranged.

What occurred was extremely fascinating; the children chose a variety of seating (some of which they had acquired from other classes!) and positioned them in a range of learning silos – softer, fabric chairs in rows of 3 facing one-another, small stools positioned in a group of 4 around a wheeled whiteboard, horseshoe tables, bean bags etc.

On analysing their rationale, they said they wanted a classroom where they had a choice of seating; a classroom where there were options to work alone, in partners or in groups; a classroom where they could work independently and only draw on the teacher where/when needed. Epiphany!

What they wanted was a set-up they were familiar with, a set-up where they could be as free and as creative as they wanted, a set-up they blossomed in when they were in early years. Research tells us that children begin to lose their creative spark from around 5 years of age if not nurtured effectively – is it really just a coincidence that in school we impose formal structure on children at this age and start their ‘Victorian’ learning journey from Y1?

We now had a mirrored learning environment in our oldest and youngest (nursery aside) cohorts – this ‘top down, bottom up’ approach had worked effectively for the implementation of iPads (blog here) so why wouldn’t it work again?

We sifted (and still do!) through a plethora of research on alternative & flexible seating – these blogs by Erin Klein and Kayla Delzer contain some excellent research and opinion. Also, if you get a chance, have a look at a huge American initiative called ‘ditch the desks’ for more on this!

Some of this research points towards the aforementioned Victorian era. Compare the set-up of a Victorian classroom against most of those today. Is there really that much difference? Yet the Victorian model of teaching was built upon the notion of everyone learning everything at the same time, preparing for a life in an industry that probably doesn’t exist any longer. We live in a world where 40% of the jobs in 5-10 years don’t even exist yet. Can we honestly, hand on heart, say we are preparing our children for that world? Or, for that matter, can you?

Should we not be taking and learning more from the likes of Google and their innovative approaches? Even on our doorstep, we have companies who are following a more flexible work/learning approach and seeing the benefits in their employees – Visualsoft, Campus North & SpearheadInteractive to name but a few of our school’s affiliates.

So, here we are a year or so later having followed through on the vision. In every classroom you’ll now see an array of seating and  learning spaces completely redesigned to fit the needs and interests of the children. There are deck chairs, boats, pool loungers and even a bed in the classes learning about ‘Seaside Rescue’. In the ‘Jungle’ classrooms, there are canoes, logs, woodland floors and jungle lofts. You’ll see gym balls, breakfast stools, circular tables, horse-shoe tables, bean bags, exercise bikes, break-out stools, mats, artificial grass, reading lofts, sofas and a whole host more seating across school all implemented to increase motivation, collaboration, creativity and behaviour across the school, because the children told us that’s what they wanted!

Whats the impact?

The million-dollar question! The question we ask ourselves and each other every time we have an idea for something new or different in school.

The impact on behaviour has been probably the easiest to see; both in terms of compliant behaviour and behaviour for learning. Children are free to learn as and how they want and with various teaching and facilitation processes like PBL, SOLE, etc. in school, they are constantly working collaboratively in a supported environment at their pace.

Children are happier in school – we know this because they tell us in our ‘Time for Talk’ sessions or when completing ‘Progress Checks’. They are thriving on the responsibility and ownership they have over their learning and how/where they learn and say that school is so much more exciting because they can learn in a way that suits them.

“I like the pods because they're individual and you can just ‘get on’. When someone talks to you in group work, you can work alone and concentrate. There's a lot more space to work in them. I like the grass back in the corner, I like working with my back to the wall – it is confined and comfy.” Lewis, Y6 
“I like riding on the exercise bike while I do my work – it helps me concentrate when I’m reading” Charlie, Y3

Our staff are happier too...

“I must admit to being a little concerned about the whole idea of 'flexible seating' and especially how it would impact on learning. However seeing the choices the children make, and the freedom to move to another area, I can see the benefits.

Our children choose where and how to learn for various reasons; maybe to work at their own pace or they realise they focus better themselves. Giving them this freedom promotes independent learning. They now know where they work best.” Mrs Dowie (HLTA)


“Although the approach to flexible seating is still in its infancy, the green shoots demonstrate that seating choice and seating variety impacts positively on the culture for learning.” Mrs Kemp-Hall (Principal)


Craig Nicholson (Vice Principal) - 17th January 2017