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Furniture in the Collaborative Classroom: Desks with Wheels May Be Overrated

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I loved the idea of desks with wheels. My lessons usually involve some combination of partner work, small-group work, whole-class discussion, inner circle/outer circle discussions, independent work. Movable desks seemed to make sense for this kind of collaborative practice.

And I have noticed  a few distinct benefits:

  • It can be fun to push oneself around in one of these desks
  • It's very easy to push the desks around the classroom (no heavy lifting required) and scratches on the floor are significantly less likely to appear
  • Students can more fluidly shift between partners
  • It's easier for students to turn around to see what's happening in different parts of the room.

With that said, I can't say that this new desk necessarily makes collaboration easier for my students -- particularly since my students are already so adept at team work. Classroom furniture should reflect our pedagogical values. I do see the potential benefits of Node chairs, but it seems like a stretch to dub them "real world" or "21st century."

A few issues that I've noticed:

  • A student says "I feel like I'm trapped in this desk." This is still a traditional desk in many ways.
  • The writing space on the Node is rather small. This can cause discomfort when students need to write an exam. A piece of chart paper spread out over four desks for collaborative writing is a struggle because there are awkward gaps and protrusions that form when the desks are pushed together.
  • Students wheel around easily. However, there's something to be said for asking students to move their actual bodies (stretch their legs) to traverse the classroom.
  • Detachable chairs are convenient for Socratic seminars and fishbowl discussions. 
  • Students are still sitting, and sitting in the same way. It's uncomfortable for students to stand and write on these desks (they're too low). It's inadvisable to sit on top of them.
  • A friend who works at a different school notes: "We have these chairs too, and I often see them in rows."

Given the choice between the metal cages that are traditional student desks and the Node desk, I'd opt for Node. However, a better solution might be a learning space filled with a variety of furniture that teachers can use to suit a variety of purposes: couches and bean bag chairs for independent reading and informal discussions; a large seminar table with ergonomic chairs for more formal discussions; small tables with movable chairs for collaborative work, etc.

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Amy Williams holds Masters degrees in English and teaching. She was a New York Educator Voice Resident Fellow in the 2014-15 school year, and was a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Grant recipient in 2014. Her writing and lesson plans have appeared on ReadWriteThink, EdWeek Teacher, and in other publications. Amy was a tenured educator in New York where she taught grades 10, 12, English electives like Mass Media & Society and dual-enrollment courses with Tompkins Cortland Community College. She now teaches at an IB World School in Germany.

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Guest Tuesday, 25 October 2016