When Will K-12 Classrooms Scrap Those Age-Old, Rigid Desk-Chairs?

Associate Editor
Brightly lit classroom with empty student desks

Remember that little desk/chair combo used by millions of students—and maybe even you—in school?

They’re still a mainstay in K-12, but there are rumblings that they’re on their way out. And good riddance, say some school leaders, educational furniture providers, and industry observers.

What’s replacing them is school furniture that may be on wheels, adjustable for height, more versatile and more comfortable. These desks, tables, and chairs give educators more flexibility about how they arrange a learning environment, or rearrange it, for collaboration or teaching with computers.

“Those ‘old school’ combo desks don’t offer that flexibility,” said Kyle Boudreau, the educational product marketing manager for KI, a Green Bay, Wis.-based company that is discontinuing that model of desks, which it called Intellect Wave. Sales of that style combo desk have been down. School customers want furniture that promotes student engagement and peer-to-peer connections, he said.

“In our school, we have lots and lots of desks,” says Robert Dillon, the director of innovation learning for the 2,800-student School District of University City in St. Louis, Mo., “and we have classrooms moving to some variety. Some have standing desks, some traditional chairs and tables. We’ve broken the momentum that 25 of anything is the right answer.”

Across the U.S., what’s getting in the way of wider adoption of flexible furniture in K-12 is “inertia, momentum, and tradition, which lead a lot of decisions around furniture purchases,” said Dillon, who has written and co-authored books about learning spaces, the most recent The Space: A Guide for Educators.

In school redesign, selecting furniture that fits the learning environment is considered a “key system element,” said Sujata Bhatt, a senior fellow at Transcend Education, a national nonprofit dedicated to accelerating innovation in the core design of “school.”

Traditional Classroom ‘Looks’ Go Way Back

Transcend Education uses a slide deck showing classrooms in the late 19th century, 1950 and today as part of its presentations to help educators re-imagine school. The visual is a powerful message about “what’s changed, and what hasn’t,” she said.

Kevin Stoller, CEO of Kay-Twelve, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based national company that provides furniture to schools, gets the same message across on LinkedIn with images he’s grabbed from movies and TV shows across the years, from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to “Superbad,” from “The Simpsons” to “The Goldbergs.”

“Most of the RFPs and projects we’ve been working on—for the past 12 months in particular—it’s very rare that it specifies one type of desk or type of chair,” he said.

More evidence that schools are beginning to broaden their furniture horizons is coming from the marketplace.

Bhatt, who previously was managing partner for innovation at the 56,000-student Boston Public Schools from 2016 to 2018, said the district has been investing $10 million in classroom redesign that includes different furniture choices and configurations from traditional desk/chair combos.

“The trend is really away from classrooms that put students in stationary desks in rows,” said Jim McGarry, president and CEO of the Education Market Association, which sponsors an annual EDspaces conference about educational facilities.

Ergonomics Research and K-12 Seating

Researchers reviewing 25 studies concluded that a better fit for a student’s seat and desk resulted in “an improvement in posture,” as well as reduced discomfort or pain.

Getting a better fit included using adjustable furniture, sit/stand furniture and tilt tables and seats.  Researchers cautioned that students need to be taught how to raise and lower furniture to fit their bodies. The findings were published in the journal Ergonomics in March 2016.

“What should students be sitting in—or what should the learning environment look like?” asked Tim Springer, who was professor and chairperson of the Department of Human Environment and Design at Michigan State University where he developed and led the graduate program in Facilities Design and Management. “I don’t know that there’s a good prescriptive answer. I do believe it should be different from most classrooms we see.”

Springer said he once conducted a study in a private California middle school where 7th and 8th graders were given a variety of tables, chairs and work surfaces to configure as needed for each class, returning them to their original “nested” position at the end of the period.

“The teachers ended up saying, ‘If we can relinquish a little bit of control, we see the benefit in autonomy and focus and learning, collaboration and engagement,'” Springer, who is now semi-retired, said in a phone interview.

The challenge was that the researchers tried to replicate the approach in an elementary school on the south side of Chicago where students were younger—4th graders—and from socioeconomically challenged backgrounds. When the furniture was delivered, the facilities personnel at the school objected, asking “How are we supposed to lock this down?” Springer told them, “You don’t. You let the students arrange it.” Even a willing, creative teacher in that classroom found it difficult to relinquish control and make the most of that adjustable furniture, he said.

The Future in K-12 Furniture

The infusion of technology in K-12 classrooms is one impetus behind experimentation with different learning environments.

“Once schools went to more of a 1-to-1 [students to device] environment, it eliminated the need for a big desk with storage for books,” said Stoller. “That prompted the change to do more with collaboration…and it blew up the floor plan.”

How long will it be before K-12 schools get rid of the rows of desks that put teachers at the front of the room in what is often called the “sage on the stage” teaching scenario?

They won’t disappear overnight, everyone interviewed for this article agrees.

“We’re talking about intentional design and syncing instructional practices with technology, tools, and physical space,” said Dillon. “We have lots and lots of teachers who say, ‘I get this,’ but it doesn’t feel like a building-wide change.”

Another issue is whether a school’s or district’s budget can support a purchase. New classroom furniture often comes after approved bond measures help build new schools or renovate older ones. But when money is tight, a perceived need for new furniture configurations is one of a long line of demands.

Finally, there’s the question of whether educators are invited into the decision-making process, and asked for their feedback about how furniture in their classrooms fits with their pedagogical plans for a space.

“For the next 10 years, I think we’ll see maintenance directors and operations people making decisions via inertia, momentum, and tradition,” Dillon predicted. That’s what happens in districts where “students, teachers and curriculum leaders aren’t at the center of these decisions.”

McGarry at the Education Market Association concurred that change could be slow. “It can be a cultural thing, and in many cases, it has to come from the top. If a school isn’t embracing one-to-one learning or project-based learning, the facility’s not going to change.”

Let’s see when Hollywood picks up on the change, and broadcasts it to audiences far and wide.

Follow EdWeek Market Brief on Twitter @EdMarketBrief or connect with us on LinkedIn.

 Image by Getty.


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10 thoughts on “When Will K-12 Classrooms Scrap Those Age-Old, Rigid Desk-Chairs?

  1. I just enjoyed your article on new styles of furniture for school rooms. You are correct in that most school districts cannot replace desks en masse until a bond issue comes forward (new construction and renovations are both places we have seen new and improved classroom furniture). Our new 6-12 campus has a wide variety of seating within classrooms. It was startling to some teachers, just like the ones referenced in your story. One item that all of us at the high school agree on: wobbly short stools are horrible for most kids. They are fine in collaborative areas or temporary work areas, but uncomfortable and dangerous for adult-sized teens in regular classrooms. The adjustable height and swivel chairs are great for students and staff alike. I would recommend that teachers bring in a few small tools to keep nuts and bolts tight – there is no way our custodians could keep up with foot rails and other highly movable parts. Different furniture is definitely the way to meet the physical needs of young people who need to do academic work all day long. Hint: before you purchase, ask sales reps for some pieces to experiment with for several months.

  2. I finally got separate tables and chairs- much more flexible. Those old one-piece desks are brutally unfair to left-handed students!

  3. Why are there no pictures of the new ideas??? That is literally why I clicked on the article. I KNOW the old stuff is on the way out, what I’m wondering is what are some of the new ideas. We got two classrooms of some cool new things, but I don’t know what the other options were. I would write a proposal for my room if I knew what the major companies were, or what they were offering in terms of options. Please think of illustrating articles like this more and with forward-looking photos instead of old ones. Believe me, we know what the old stuff looks like.

    1. Hi M. Emery – I work with VS America, a K-12 school manufacturer of ergonomic, flexible furniture. We have lots of images of example classroom layouts; if you want me to email you some just send us a note at info@vsamerica.com.

    2. Hi M. Emery, I work with Kay-Twelve, a school furniture dealer. Our CEO Kevin Stoller, was mentioned in this article. New classroom designs have come a long way and there are so many options. We offer a wide variety of these options and we also have some great 3D renderings I would love to send to you to show what today’s classroom can look like. If you’re interested, please send me an email at support@kay-twelve.com and I would be happy to send some examples over! Thanks!

  4. Sounds great. I’d love to have more flexibility in classroom design. But the fact is this: most school districts will buy the cheapest furniture they can find in the catalogue, design notwithstanding.

  5. T aught in a public school in Florida for over 32 years and I never had the desk/chair combination pictured. I had either tables ;trapezoid shaped or desks and separate chairs.

  6. Taught in a public school in Florida for over 32 years and I never had the desk/chair combination pictured. I had either tables ;trapezoid shaped or desks and separate chairs.

  7. This could become the “open office” plan of education. The open office plan was and is promoted by professionals from the most successful architect and design firms , all the major office furniture manufacturer’s, dealers, and commercial real estate firms. Open office saves on the real estate foot print cost because you put more people on less space. Good for the company, right? Prople can collaborate and be more productive. Excellent, right? And the private spaces will allow for areas of concentration. Just what is needed’ right? Privacy, the last benefit, is the only aspect that works. Open office creates more absenteeism and less productivity than your standard office. You can look up studies on the web sites of Gensler or JLL Real Estate. My point is change alone does not create a successful educational environment. I think furnitue should not be the priority. Balanced Literacy may be more important. Reading on grade level at 3d grade, and beyond, is more important. Furnitue is a noun. Learning should be a verb. Dont get caught up in the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Our educational has done much better with much less.

  8. I agree that change is needed but spending millions on new plastic furniture without more information is premature. Discipline , focus,experiential projects based learning should be first.

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