When fourth grade teacher Michelle Moore visits places like coffee shops, restaurants, and modern workspaces, she chooses her seat based on the task at hand.
A meeting might require a round table. A last-minute deadline might call for a quiet corner. A good book might pair well with a comfy couch near a sunny window.
“It makes sense that if something isn’t working for me, I can move,” Moore says. “So if I apply that to my own life, why aren’t we applying that to our students’ lives?”
Earlier this year, she decided to go all in. Over a three-day weekend, Moore overhauled her room at Our Lady of Mercy Regional Catholic School, rearranging it with tables, stools, carpets, and desks. She wrote a parent and student contract outlining rules for selecting and moving between seats. Then she waited for the feedback to pour in.
The students loved it. The parents encouraged it. The school supported it. What started as a weekend experiment blossomed into a schoolwide pilot program led by Moore and fellow fourth grade teacher Stephanie Cox.
Moore and Cox found that flexible seating offered more than mere comfort and Facebook-friendly photo opps. Their classes became more focused and productive. And students were empowered by their ability to choose, engaging with assignments in a new way — and learning about themselves in the process.
Take a look at most classrooms today, and you’ll find that they’re already strikingly different from the spaces from your own childhood.
“Some classes are set up in a U shape, and some are set up in groups of four,” says OLM Director of Advancement Julie Bebey. “But none of the classrooms are set up with just traditional rows of desks.”
The key, Moore says, is engagement. Students stuck in desks all day just don’t get work done. Even before flexible seating, it wasn’t uncommon for OLM students to gather in a hallway for a project, or to sit on a rug to read.
Flexible seating simply takes that freedom a bit further, introducing options like stability balls, wobble stools, and standing desks to improve student focus. And the research seems to back it up.
Moore pored over countless articles, blogs, and studies before rearranging her room. She sought hard data that supported the success stories she found online.
“It’s not as though we’re doing this on a whim,” she says. “When I set up my parent-student contract, I provided some of the research behind it, and the ‘why.’ It was always, ‘Why am I doing this for your children, and how is this going to benefit them?’”
Among Moore’s findings: flexible seating can give students a sense of choice, ownership, and empowerment. Students can burn more calories, improve their postures, and engage their metabolisms. Moderate physical activity can boost students’ academic performance, health, and on-task behavior.
For Moore and Cox, the effort has paid off. Their students choose their own seats, often moving multiple times a day to find areas and collaborators that help them be most productive. Their students understand that they are accountable for their work. And they’ve learned to avoid distractions — including arguments over seats.
Cox says her students seem to prefer sitting closer to the front of the room for math, further to the back for reading, and at a round table for collaborating. But the bigger point is that each student can find what works best for himself or herself.
“I like the wobble stools the most,” says fourth grader Conor, “because I can wobble and channel my energy so I can learn better.”
Moore and Cox overhauled their rooms relatively quickly with support from their school’s administration and parents. But the real beauty of flexible seating, they say, is that it’s just that — flexible. Teachers can take their time shaping their rooms and plans to test the waters, finding what fits their comfort levels.
“Even in second and third grades, teachers are using flexible seating for certain subjects, instead of the whole day,” Bebey says. “Or they’ll integrate some form of it for students who need it. As opposed to kicking a desk or disrupting another student, students can use that energy to bounce in their seats.”
Cox notes that many teachers adapt their plans based on the subject and the individual classes. Flexible seating might be less appropriate for a chemistry lab, for instance, than a math class.
While these details are important, Moore says the ultimate goal isn’t just to change the seating. It’s a larger paradigm shift that’s allowing AOPS teachers to help and empower students — especially in light of a job market that offers increasing flexibility in terms of roles and workspaces.
That doesn’t mean this forward-thinking approach is only benefiting students. It’s common for curious parents and teachers to stop in to try out the seats for themselves.
Moore says that many parents have expressed that they would have benefited from having flexible seating when they were growing up. For them ¾ and for Moore herself ¾ sitting was believing.
“I think the wobble stools are incredibly comfortable,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much I needed to move until I tried one myself.”