#ToYouFromTes: The seat of learning

2nd December 2017 at 07:30
The quest to design the perfect school chair began in the 19th century
Much time and resources have been devoted to creating the perfect chair for the classroom. But, as Dan Watson discovers, on this issue schools are caught between two stools

"The human body is very good at running, walking, standing still, and lying down – but not so good at sitting.”

If you’re reading this while seated at home or in the staffroom, the above may seem a surprising statement, but Witold Rybczynski, emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, knows what he’s talking about.

Last year, he published a book entitled Now I Sit Me Down: from klismos to plastic chair, a natural history, chronicling the history of the chair from Ancient Egypt to the present day.

Despite endless attempts by humans to design the perfect chair – from rocking chairs to thrones – sitting down is just not something humans were born to do, as he explains.

“When we sit, our weight is uncomfortably concentrated on the sitting bones. These are shaped like rockers, so we are stable laterally but unstable in the front-back direction. Thus, we need a back support,” he says.

“But the spine is not straight so that is a problem – we tend to slump, which creates all sorts of muscle tensions. Finally, sitting immobile cuts into blood circulation, which creates discomfort.”

This prompts a lot of questions, not least for schools. After all, if children are required to sit for hours on end each day, learning new and often complex information, shouldn’t the chairs they sit in be designed to ensure maximum concentration in order to aid the learning process?

‘Practical concerns’

Yet, if anything, Rybczynski suggests that school chairs have become more focused on other factors so that their primary use – sitting – is perhaps not even the number one consideration.

“I have a feeling that too many school chairs are chosen on the basis of purely practical concerns such as durability or stackability,” says Rybczynski. “Growing children exhibit a large range of body sizes, so it is unlikely that one size can fit all.”

He notes that many office chair makers now provide models in small, medium or large sizes depending on the sitter’s needs. This is quite different to most classrooms, where every pupil is given the same type of chair, regardless of the fact that children often grow at different speeds and vary in size drastically throughout their time in education.

However, this is not to say school chairs are an overlooked item in the design world. As Rybczynski explains in his book, the quest for the ideal school chair began long ago.

“When compulsory education was first introduced in Europe in the 19th century, researchers – especially physicians – were concerned that children were suddenly spending a lot of time sitting down,” he writes. “There were many attempts to design better classroom furniture.”

He cites anatomists such as Franz Staffel (referred to as the “father of the school chair”), Hans Strasser and Bengt Åkerblom, noting that their studies led to numerous modifications still in existence today.

“These included sloping the seat slightly and angling the back to provide better lumbar support,” explains Rybczynski.

Some even went as far as suggesting seat belts for chairs to help force children to maintain a correct posture. This would never be allowed now, of course, although no doubt some would welcome such an addition to their classroom.

While the focus on school chairs may have moved more towards functions like how easily they can be stacked and how resistant they are to damage, this does not mean that efforts to improve the designs of school chairs have stopped.

A fair chair?

Indeed, several trials have attempted to find designs that better suit children’s bodies in order to improve concentration. A 1999 report entitled Children’s Behaviour and the Design of School Furniture, by Professor Jan Noyes of the University of Bristol, found that certain designs were more suited to learning than others. But this came with the downside that back pain was often reported by children, owing to the fact that they rarely sat in one position for long.

As such, it was suggested that children should be given more choice over the chairs they sat in to maximise learning and reduce the chance of causing injury. However, given the constrained budgets of most schools, it seems unlikely many would be able to accommodate the individual seating design requirements of each pupil.

Yet, even if a school did want to go down this route and commissioned a designer to dream up a raft of chair designs for their pupils, they would find themselves having to abide by the stringent rules stipulating the design of school chairs set down by British Standard Institute (BSI) under standard BS EN 1729.

At a whopping 74-pages in length, this is not a document that can be dealt with lightly, and it covers everything from the minimum height and width requirements to the angle of the back support a chair must provide.

This may be useful for ensuring a basic level of seating quality for pupils across the country, but it hardly leaves much room for design experimentation – whether for academic benefits or visual effect.

At the end of the day, school furniture will likely always be more about function than form. Rybczynski’s memories of using school chairs underline this – and will no doubt ring true for many others as well.

“I remember my classroom desk as having a hard, bench-like wooden seat,” he writes. “Not particularly comfortable, I suspect, although it kept one awake.”


Dan Watson is a freelance writer. 

This piece was released behind the paywall for the Tes advent calendar. Track #ToYouFromTes on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to see which articles are being made free to read for 24 hours. 

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