When I think back on the classrooms I studied in – the seating arrangement was in rows facing the single blackboard right ahead of the class, in front of the class was a desk and a chair for the teacher, a small cupboard on the right or left of the door and the walls had charts made my us students on different subjects. The classroom was lit by daylight but we did have a tubelight and 2 ceiling fans.
I read a few articles on how a classroom layout should be when I was preparing to set up my own class in low-income schools in Mumbai and Chennai. I was struck by how much emphasis was placed on clear well-defined spaces in classrooms, designated corners for independent work or cool off space where kids can take time off and “have a space to call their own”. The idea of space, I believe is rooted in culture. Ask a typical lower-middle class family in India about their notions on private versus shared space and the answers may surprise a conventional western influenced/educated individual. This is simply because when you grow up in a studio apartment with nearly seven members of family then the idea of having “your own” space does not really strike home.
In classrooms where I taught, space was a luxury. I taught 42 kids in a classroom of almost 300 square feet and I also taught 27 kids in a less than 100 square feet room. In both these cases, I did not have the luxury of having designated areas in my classroom or private corners for my students to let off steam. Like in any conventional Indian classroom, my class too had rows of benches with kids packed like sardines facing the blackboard. I did not get to experiment much with group share like seating arrangements where students sat in groups emulating an adult discussion to exchange ideas. I did however try removing all the benches once to create a more comfortable seating arrangement on the floor and had parents come to me the next day complaining about how they pay fees so that their children could sit on benches and learn instead of simply sitting on the floor. Until then, I had neither viewed sitting on benches a value addition nor sitting on the floor as lessening one’s status. I googled for “sitting on the floor school” and I found articles professing shock over how bad some school in Nigeria is that the kids had to sit on the floor to learn or how no longer do kids in East Timor need to sit on the floor since some organization from the US gave them benches. Clearly, as per western norms sitting on benches in school is a step in social advancement.
I went back to reading to see what I could do to make the best of my situation. I plastered the walls of my classroom with reading material and activities to ensure that even if the students aren’t paying attention to me, there is some learning happening by looking at the walls. But the bigger problem was of course seating arrangement.
It was then I began questioning why is it that students need to sit down in lines to learn something. Can the same learning not happen standing? Of course, if a student is tired he or she could sit down but why was it not a choice? Why was it that when I think back to most classrooms I had been in I remember the teacher telling a standing student to sit down and to punish a student would make him or her stand? What was so great about sitting and that too sitting on the benches?
I asked the teachers in my school about why students had to sit? And here are some of the responses I got:
- They are easier to control when they are sitting
- I can see all of them at once to check if they are paying attention
- I get distracted if I see some children standing so I get them to sit
- It is disrespectful to stand or lie down when I am teaching
- When they go to colleges, offices where everyone is sitting and doing work they won’t have the practice of sitting for so long hence its better to get them into the habit right away.
I found the first four reasons pretty self-serving for the teachers and more like a Chinese assembly line supervisor response. The last one caught me by surprise and led me to question why cannot we stand in colleges or offices, why can’t we walk or even lie down and discuss business or argue ideologies, approaches and differences.
I began to impose no restrictions on sitting or standing or even lying down in class as long as we are not in someone’s way and the results were awesome! I did not have an unruly class as one would expect, there wasn’t any pandemonium or a whoop of glee or any such thing. Kids stood if they wanted to, sat if they wanted to, lied down on the floor if they wanted to; in fact by the end of the term, after I introduced new content in class students were allowed to talk a mini walk outside the classroom to absorb the idea and then join the class for discussion. I believe it was all very mature. I am not in a position to correlate student achievement with sitting or standing in class to say that because of these lack of restrictions my students did well or they could have done better if we were all seated at all times. But what I can definitely say is the small space no longer felt confining or stifling. A simple freedom in movement or posture led to a much more relaxed classroom vibe without taking away from the sense of urgency of learning.
I hear walking meetings are a rage now and some even say that stand-up meetings from World War I are making it back in vogue. But there are still very strong notions of propriety, formality and creativity associated with postures at workplace.I once was sitting cross legged on a chair while typing on my laptop in my office and my colleague remarked “you should be working in an advertising agency, that’s where people sit like this”.
All I am saying is that we need to move away from the industrialization notions of sitting or standing for productivity and creativity and just be good at whatever it is we are doing.
The only thing that would do is put authors of books like “How to sit powerfully” or “Stand your way to success” out of business, which may not be such a bad thing after all 🙂