Parents and students alike are often very vocal about the impact of individual teachers on children’s learning – for better or for worse.
But do we ever consider the impact of classroom design and, more specifically, school chairs and desks have on our children’s ability to learn and participate in class?
"Well-designed classrooms can boost learning progress in reading, writing and maths by up to 16 per cent in a single year," says Prof Peter Barrett, emeritus professor of management in property and construction at Salford University.
Prof Barrett spoke about his research into the aspects of the physical school environment that impact on the learning progress of primary school children at a conference in NUI Galway last month .
“We looked at the impact of school infrastructure on learning with the assumption that major issues such as water, heating, sanitation and things like damp have already been addressed,” he explains.
The subsequent study of more than 150 classrooms with over 3,750 students in primary schools across the United Kingdom found seven main factors in classrooms which impacted on student learning.
Light (such as glare from south-facing windows), temperature (18-21 degrees Celsius is the ideal), air quality (significantly poor after pupils are in the same classroom for 30 minutes) were found to contribute almost 50 per cent to the impact on learning.
But there were other less obvious influences on pupils’ learning.
Prof Barrett’s research found that if children felt ownership of the classroom (such as names on coat hooks/lockers, their work on the walls) and had a variety of clustered/rows of desks and break-out spaces (depending on the subject being taught), they learned better.
Even overly-strong colours on the walls and too many posters and project work displayed in the classroom had a negative impact on their learning.
“We didn’t find any overall effect of the school itself because the classroom is the children’s world, so our advice now is to start with good classrooms and then create a good school rather that the other way round,” says Prof Barrett.
He adds that he doesn’t believe in “open and flexible” as a design concept for classrooms.
“If a space is too flexible and open and everyone owns everywhere, then no one owns anywhere,” he says.
Michelle Bergin, occupational therapist with Community Healthcare West who organised the conference – entitled 21st Century Schools: Inclusive, Flexible & Dynamic Learning Environments – says it's important to look at the whole school and classroom rather than just focus on the needs of individual children.
“The model at the moment is that I see a child with specific needs and recommend changes for that child in the classroom but if we put in universal design guidelines – and looked at things like movement breaks or exposure to fresh air and the natural environment throughout the day, all the students will benefit,” she says.
The negative impact of school chairs and desks – particularly if the chair is too big or too small for a particular student – is also a key issue.
Bergin says that children move dynamically when they are sitting down.
“We stop them doing that in class. And many children aren’t sitting in chairs that are the right height for them,” says Bergin.
Simon Dennehy, furniture designer and researcher into school furniture, says children as young as eight are experiencing pain in their backs and their legs from poor posture from sitting at ill-fitting desks and chairs.
“When children are working on a flat table, they pull their heads down towards the desk and their whole body slouches forwards,” says Dennehy.
“The biggest problem is the angle of interface on the table and the chair sloping backwards. School chairs are designed for lumber support but we think pelvis support is better.”
Observing primary school children in class, Dennehy says he felt “children were fighting with the furniture quite a lot of the time”.
He says that the vast majority of chairs in Irish schools follow a 1983 Department of Education design brief which no longer meets current EU standards.
The EU design standard specifically states that school furniture should be designed to encourage good posture.
Galway-based Alexander Technique teacher Richard Brenna says school chairs are doing much more damage to children than heavy school bags.
“The child bends his/her spine instead of the hip joint on a typical school chair and it’s the backward sloping chairs that are causing harm,” he says.
“Even adding a wedge-shaped cushion to the chair and a writing slope to the desk are effective measures to enhance breathing and avoid bending of the spine,” says Brennan.
A small study in which wedge-shaped cushions were introduced to 4th class students at Claddagh National School in Galway City found that the pupils improved their posture.
The class teacher also said that the students were more settled and able to focus. But what do pupils think?
Ailish O’Halloran, a pupil at Claddagh National School, says she loved the forward-slanted seat. “It was really comfortable and it stopped us leaning back on our chairs,” she said.
Brandon Brown, a pupil at the same school, says that he would like more movement breaks during the school day.
At Scoil Cholmáin Tuairíní, they have put hollowed-out tennis balls on the feet of school chairs to make their classroom quieter.
“We’d like rounded tables in our classrooms and carpet on the floor to make it quieter,” says pupil Stephanie Walsh.
“The chairs are really hard and when students swing on them and are fidgety, it makes it hard to concentrate,” adds Clodagh O’Donnell.
Gwen Cantwell, occupational therapist with West Galway Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, says studies have shown that mismatched chairs and desks are causing poor posture and even pain for some children.
“About 80 per cent of children are sitting at the wrong size of chair and table and they are spending 90 per cent of their time in school sitting.
“And 10-36 per cent of these children have pain from using a mismatched chair size,” says Cantwell.
“Schools are making decisions about classroom chairs on the basis of cost but we know flexible chairs and desks will improve posture and comfort and reduce pain. We tell children to sit straight, sit down, sit up and sit still but we have to ask is it time to change our instructions.”
See cleverclassroomsdesign.co.uk for the top 10 ways to improve the primary school classroom
Four common classroom mistakes which hamper learning
1. Poor air quality: Studies have found that the indoor air is of a poor quality after pupils have been in a classroom for 30 minutes. Some classrooms have windows that can't be opened when blinds are down which make it impossible to improve the air quality and reduce temperature.
2. Over-cluttered walls and windows: While it can be great for children to see their work displayed, research has found leaving 20-50 per cent of wall space clear works best.
3. Wrong school chairs and desks: Most children sit at tables and chairs which are mismatched to children's size and height.Recent research points to how forward-slanting seats (even those with a wedge cushion) and a forward-slanting writing slope on desks improve children's posture while working.
4. Overuse of primary colours: Their use on walls, floors and furniture can result in an over-stimulating learning environment, especially for younger children. Latest official universal design guidelines for early learning and care settings (aim.gov.ie) recommend neutral and calm colours for walls and floors with brighter colours confined to displays – and use of natural light as much as possible.