Sep 20 2013

Is It Time to Get Rid of Desks in the Classroom?

In an age where flipped classrooms and student-led learning is all the rage, some suggest it’s time to ditch the desk.

The desk, like the chalkboard, has been a iconic symbol of the classroom. But the chalkboard has long since given way to interactive whiteboards, document cameras and projectors.

For the most part, though, the school desk remains entrenched in the U.S. school system. But some voices in education are starting to call for an end to the ball and chain of the desk in favor of free-range learning.

Carl Hooker, director of instructional technology for the Eanes Independent School District, in Texas, wrote a mock obituary for the desk in a post on Edudemic:

[I]t seemed like nothing could stop the proliferation of the standard Student Desk in our school systems until the dreaded 2010′s. This was the beginning of the end for the Student Desk. This dark time in the Desk’s life began innocently enough. Schools were looking for ways to get more access to learning in the hands of kids. While this seemed like a novel idea to the Desk, one that would pass in time (like those 1:1 Lava Lamp days of 1968-69), this concept seemed to have staying power. The last few years of the Desk’s life would be a blur. Students began to come to class with some smartphone thingy and schools were even issuing tablets to kids. The Student Desk was no longer needed for physical support as it was in the past.

As preposterous as it sounds, this new idea of learning with mobile devices also meant that the Desk’s other primary strength (its ability to create neat rows) was no longer a necessity. Students needed to be able to move around and work in a variety of ways; individually, in small groups, or as a whole. The teacher no longer need to relay information down the rows, instead learning could happen anywhere and everywhere in the classroom.

Hooker writes that the poor Student Desk met its end after throwing itself into the “giant wood-chipper” behind the school. (Sidenote: Many of the desks in my school days were made of metal, but you get the drift.)

At an independent elementary school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., elementary school teacher Erin Klein has taken the idea of a deskless classroom from fantasy to reality. Her brand-new approach to classroom learning leans heavily on the idea that open, collaborative spaces foster more meaningful learning experiences.

A report from the MindShift Blog highlights what Klein did differently this school year:

For this upcoming school year, Klein will ditch the desks. But this doesn’t mean her students won’t have surfaces on which to work. Instead of desks, she bought a breakfast nook, similar to what they offer in restaurants. The nook tucks into a corner of her classroom and provides a place where students can work together, she said. Klein also bought two round tables to go on the outside perimeters of her classroom. In addition, she brought in a small, square table that fits two people, and is good for partner work.

In Riverside County, Calif., Tim Bedley, an elementary school teacher, tossed the desks and brought in the sofas. He also worked with parents to paint interesting murals on the classroom walls. The end result is a classroom that feels vibrant, creative and nurturing.

In his blog post highlighting his “unusual elementary school classroom,” Bedley outlines his classroom manifesto:

In 2007, I set out to transform my classroom into something special. No more butcher paper covering the walls. No more cold hard desks and plastic chairs. I wanted my classroom to be more like Starbucks than a hospital; more like a model home than a waiting room.

Tim Bedley unconventional class

Credit: Tim Bedley

Bedley’s and Klein’s approaches to classroom instruction are certainly eye-opening, but there are plenty of people who aren’t yet ready to let go of their desks. Besides, desks don’t have to go away; they can be innovative as new multi-touch, touchscreen desks prove.

Are you experimenting with getting rid of desks in your classroom or introducing a new kind of desk to your students? Let us know in the Comments section.

And if you’re feeling nostalgic for the good old school desk, take a trip back in time with “A Visual History of School Desks.”


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