Gone are the days of teachers instructing from the front of the class, writing on a blackboard. Today’s classrooms use technologies such as iPads and touch-screen whiteboards to enhance the learning experience. However, the design of desks has been slower to adapt to this shift in the classroom than in the office environment.
The desk and task chair have been cultural icons of the office for more than a century. Over the last decade, this symbol of the workplace has begun to crumble with the advances in technology and the anywhere workplace, with a number of studies examining the health risks of sitting all day.
Health risks of sitting
The research literature has shown that sitting all day can lead to obesity, elevated blood pressure, high blood sugar, and even increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. In the “war” on sitting, the workplace has evolved to include standing workstations, meeting rooms with bar-style stools, and even treadmill desks, all in an effort to get the body to move during the workday.
These alternative seating styles, combined with changes in workplace design, are allowing individuals to decide how and where they want to work. In turn, this new workplace freedom is prompting companies to reexamine what employees and their teams need to innovate and collaborate, and to drive change through the workplace culture to improve job satisfaction and ultimately performance.
Based on the research literature, the latest office designs are incorporating areas aimed at increasing collaboration. These coffee bar-style meeting areas, couches, and other comfortable seating allow for freedom of movement. More recently, these design concepts from the office environment have started to trickle down to the education environment.
Landmark research on standing desks
In landmark research done in 2014, Benden et al. examined the benefits of standing desks on energy expenditure and physical activity in three central Texas elementary schools. The study found that students who used standing desks expended more energy than those who sat.
However, more than just increased energy expenditure, the standing desks produced additional benefits. The study monitored students for their participation in class, including listening to the teacher’s directions and raising their hands when asked, and found that in classrooms with standing desks, there was an extra seven minutes per hour of engaged instruction.
Imagine the overall impacts of a 12-per-cent increase in productivity just by allowing children to be children and letting them move rather than focusing on sitting still. (Being a father of a three-year-old and a seven-year-old, I understand the need for kids to wiggle, fidget, and have freedom of movement.)
While the research into standing desks remains in its infancy, there are still many opportunities to support classroom learning based on these early findings. There is also continual research into educational curricula across the country to better understand how to teach children foundational skills and set them up for success.
B.C. school system encourages engagement
The B.C. school system’s new curriculum introduces the concept of letting students play a central role in their education as a way to encourage active engagement. The curriculum recognizes that children need flexibility to be successful. This includes integrating environments that incorporate technology and allow teachers and schools to shift how and where lessons occur, not restricting them to a classroom setting.
From an ergonomics perspective, it’s important to understand both the emotional and physical needs of children, as well as their level of overall development and how it relates to the learning curriculum. Classroom design for elementary school-aged children could include a variety of settings to allow freedom of movement.
These settings might range from seating with structured desks for concentrated tasks such as writing or reading; to areas where children can stand and move, where they are required to listen or actively participate on a smart board; to other mixed standing and sitting areas for small group activities. Ultimately, the furniture and design needs to support the different activities occurring in a classroom.
The next frontier for ergonomics
These concepts are similar to those used in the workplace. Rightfully so, given that the classroom is the training grounds for the next generation of leaders. As such, the classroom needs to be designed with the technology, furniture, lighting, and natural light to support these future leaders in their development stages.
School design appears poised to become the next frontier for ergonomics. Some of the major furniture manufacturers are beginning to conduct more research into the classroom and how this physical environment can better support students. With an understanding of these needs — and a view to workplace trends — it is possible to improve educational outcomes.
Aaron Miller is a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE) and an ergonomic consultant based in Kelowna, B.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.