Primary school teacher Vanessa Valois is excited.
The Year 5/6 teacher at North Ainslie Primary School in Canberra revamped her classroom before the term started, and is already seeing the results.
The principal at her school had told her staff about ‘flexible seating‘ – where the traditional layout and furniture of classrooms is abandoned and replaced with cushions, low tables, stools, arranged to encourage student comfort and group collaboration. The benefits of flexible seating were researched decades ago, and have been adopted in classrooms the world over by teachers adventurous enough to try it.
LISTEN: Apparently, kindergarten kids need full-on cyber safety lessons. A step too far, or necessary? We discuss, on our podcast for imperfect parents.
Forty years ago, US environmental psychologist Professor Robert Sommer said, ‘The teacher’s educational philosophy will be reflected in the layout of the classroom. The teacher should be able to justify the arrangement of desks and chairs on the basis of certain educational goals. There is no ideal classroom layout for all activities.”
Which makes sense because as most educators know, there’s also no uniform approach to teaching.
“With classrooms filled with a variety of learning needs these days, teachers need to adapt,” says Valois. Which is why 2018 was the year she decided to trial the technique. And so far, it’s a winner.
“It was so exciting to see the surprise on the students’ faces when they came in on the first day, ” she says.
The furniture is a mixture of purchases from Gum Tree and Ikea, that the teacher carefully sourced herself during the Summer holidays. With 36 different seating options, students have the flexibility to sit where they wish, according to their needs and mood.
Valois explains there's structure to her unconventional approach.
"The kids put their name on the chart so I know where they plan to and want to sit. It's set for one week, but there's lots of opportunity for change if it's not working."
It seems that Year 5/6 is the perfect age to attempt the new approach, as students are old enough to practice some self-discipline, and are seeking some autonomy.
Valois' main concern was classroom management, but she confirms that "the kids have responded really positively."
"If you think about it, normal school desks take up a lot of room, so there's much more space and freedom in the classroom, and they can move easily from one area to another."
Being a teacher, organisation and processes come naturally to Valois, so she's taken the flexible seating concept a few steps further and formalised it with her own teaching resource, called The Flexible Seating Management Pack.
The pack is available on TeachersPayTeachers, a resource-sharing site for educators.
It includes an Expectations Poster print out, so that students understand the purpose of the arrangement, and a Reflections Poster, which, as Valois explains, the students complete.
"It helps them assess what works for them, and they can get to know their learning-style better."
Despite her enthusiasm, and how quickly her class has embraced the concept, Valois observes that, "It's a considered teaching and learning strategy, not suitable for everyone."
But for her 2018 class?
"Both the teacher and the students love it."