THE CASE OF THE MISSING CHAIRS

THE CASE OF THE MISSING CHAIRS

BOX 2.1. The Case of the Missing Chairs DAVID HAMILTON, Scottish Council for Research in Education There is a school of thought in primary education that argues that there is no need to provide every child with a seat or a work surface. Support for this idea comes from various sources. New schools find the concept financially acceptable since it releases money from an otherwise fixed grant for the purchase of specialist furnishings such as display screens, storage units and mobile trolleys. Architects endorse the idea since the resultant increase in free space enables them to create more flexible designs. And finally, educationalists lend their weight to the scheme since it visibly undermines a long tradition of simultaneous class (i.e., whole group) teaching. The force of these economic, architectural and educational arguments has been considerable. According to one recent English review: “new purpose-built open plan schools rarely contain seating accommodation for more than about seventy percent of the children at any one time.” Not all practitioners, however, have found this innovation equally acceptable. Hence, like many other elements in the modern primary school, chairs and tables have become the object of prolonged and often emotive debate. Superficially, the arguments and counter-arguments are about the allocation of financial resources and the utilisation of available space. At a deeper level, however, they also interact with more fundamental concerns about the theory and practice of primary education. In short, discussions about tables and chairs are also debates about methods and curricula. The first part of this article explores the origins and assumptions of these debates. The second part relates their logic to the experience of a case study school. Throughout, two questions are considered: What are the shifts in educational thinking that have given rise to these discussions? How do these shifts relate to a reduced provision of chairs? The standard answer to these questions is that a lowered requirement of chairs follows automatically from a weaker emphasis upon class and jotter-based teaching. The experience of the case study school (and the argument of this essay) suggests that the case for this innovation is weak and inconclusive. CHAIRS: A VANISHING RESOURCE? At some point in the late 1960s (or so it appears) the idea began to circulate that a primary school could be efficiently furnished with less than one hundred per cent seating. The source of this notion is as yet obscure. The fact that there are no references to it in either the Plowden Report (1967) or the Scottish Education Department “Primary Memorandum” (1965) suggests that it may have been a grass-roots or even an imported (American?) idea. The rationale for limiting the number of chairs in a school derives from three assumptions: That the basic unit of teaching should be the individual child rather than the whole group. That it is possible to organise work programmes whereby children can be employed on different activities. That not all learning activities require a chair. There are two problems with this rationale. First, none of these assumptions specifically requires that the provision of seats should be fixed at less than one hundred percent. In fact, it would be possible for a teacher to accept all three ideas and still legitimately demand a full complement of chairs. This would follow, for example, if she added a fourth assumption: that children should be free to choose their own sequence through the various activities of their work programme. Indeed, if a teacher considered this last assumption to be the most important, then it would definitely rule out a reduced provision of chairs. The freedom of individual choice would, by necessity, include the freedom for every child to choose a seated activity. Thus, to restrict the number of chairs in a school is automatically to limit the number of curriculum options open to teachers and pupils. Certainly, an increase of chairs may also produce a shortage of space; but this is not an equivalent problem. Space can be created more easily than extra seating. The second problem surrounds the levels of seating that are usually considered as realistic (i.e., sixty to seventy percent). The derivation of these figures is as obscure as the origins of the initial idea. It is sometimes stated that a sixty-six percent (i.e., two-thirds) seating level fits easily where classes are subdivided into three groups. In such cases the expectation is that two thirds of the class group will need chairs whereas one third will be working at non-seated activities or out of the class area. On balance this explanation is inadequate. It does not justify the choice of three groups or indicate how a policy of group squares with the assumption that the individual child should be the basic teaching unit. (By the same token it would be just as reasonable to divide the class into four groups and have a seating level seventy-five or even fifty percent.) Given the educational weakness of the foregoing argument, an alternative source for the quoted figures is that they derive from the application of a standard architectural formula. By this means a school’s optimum seating requirements are calculated in the same manner as the size of playground and staffroom. Nevertheless, these requirements cannot be predicted unambiguously. They also depend on the kind of educational policy followed by a school. An optimum figure in one situation may be totally inappropriate in another. ACCIDENTAL DISSEMINATION? The rather hybrid nature of these ideas about seating levels suggests that they may have come into being for no other purpose than to focus attention on out-of-date classroom procedures. That is, they were formulated primarily to draw attention to the shortcomings of educational practice not as a model for changing it. If this last explanation is in fact correct, then the initial adoption of reduced seating levels may have been accidental—the reluctant or ill-informed act of a financially hard-pressed adviser administrator. Whatever their origins, the rapid widespread dissemination of these ideas was almost certainly attributable to concerned pressure of administrators, college lecturers and architects: three powerful groups in primary education. Although acting for different reasons—expediency, conviction or functional utility—their combined advocacy has been considerable. AT SCHOOL LEVEL In the early 1970s teachers from the case study school attended a local college of education for courses leading to the Froebel (early education) certificate. During those years, they first encountered the idea that a primary school class might be organised around less than one hundred per cent seating. At that time, however, the issue was of academic rather than practical concern, a matter for staffroom discussion rather than school-wide decision. In 1973 the situation changed. The plans for the new lower primary building had reached the stage where a seating level had to be decided. Consensus among the staff was difficult to achieve since individual members reacted differently to the idea that seating levels might be reduced below one chair per child. Basically, three viewpoints were expressed. One (small) group of teachers were prepared to put their beliefs to the test and try out the idea. A second group (probably the majority) accepted the general notion of a reduced provision but felt that their own situation constituted a special case. For example, one teacher argued that she preferred to teach writing by means of class lessons. A third group of teachers were less easily converted. They felt reluctant to abandon either the principle or the practice of providing a full complement of seats for their children. A characteristic feature of this last group was that they felt it was educationally important that each child should have their “own” chair. To resolve this issue the headmaster of the school was asked to act as an arbitrator. By his decision the seating level was duly fixed at sixty percent. In principle this action closed the debate. In practice, however, the teachers were left with a possible alternative: if the designated seating level proved inadequate, it could still be topped up with infant-sized furniture left over from the old buildings. The flexibility of this arrangement became apparent when some of the ordered furniture failed to arrive in time for the opening of the new building. The old tables and chairs were immediately pressed into service and, in a complete reversal of the original intention, were “topped up” by the new furniture as it arrived. Eventually, a surplus of chairs was created—which meant that each teacher could operate their own seating policy. Some chose the figure of sixty percent while others retained at least one chair for each child. This arrangement did not last for very long. Within a term all the teachers had built up their seating levels to at least one hundred percent. The topping up, however, did not herald a return to class teaching. Quite the reverse: it marked a recognition that an adequate supply of chairs was necessary to the individualised and balanced curriculum that the case study teachers were trying to implement. Thus, despite a certain sense of public failure among the teachers who tried to work with a reduced provision, the intervening experience had taught them a great deal about the relationship between teaching methods and seating requirements. AT CLASSROOM LEVEL The teachers who found themselves unable to operate with a reduction in chairs reported the following experiences. In the first instance they all found it impossible to avoid times when their entire teaching group was sitting on chairs. Sometimes this arose through the teacher’s own decision; at other times it arose through the actions of the children. Although the frequency of these occasions was rare and their duration short-lived, the teachers regarded them as an essential part of their work. In so far as these experiences served educational purposes that could not be achieved in any other way, the teachers were unwilling to abandon them for the sake of a handful of chairs. A second experience related to the use of chairs as a moveable resource. The teachers conceded that it might be possible to use less than one hundred percent chairs for much of the school day but had found that this usually required a certain proportion of chairs to be moved constantly from place to place. This occurred, for example, when a group of children wanted to set up a “school” in the “shop,” or a “hairdressing salon” in the home base. The teachers not only felt that the movement of chairs created avoidable disruption but also that the associated shortage of chairs inhibited their pupil’s choice of activity. A third observation (made by the teachers of younger children) was that a limited supply of chairs could interfere with the educational principle that certain well-used areas or activities (e.g., milk, sewing, reading) should have a fixed allocation of chairs. The justification for this policy was that the presence of chairs could help children to perform activities that might otherwise be too difficult. It was also argued in favour of such a policy that it helped to prevent certain practical problems (e.g., spillage of milk, loss of sewing needles, damage of books). In these instances the combined weight of the educational and administrative advantages was sufficient to convince the teachers of the need for extra chairs. Finally, all the teachers reported that they were unwilling to allow children to write while standing at a work surface or lying on the floor. The notion that children should be allowed to write in these positions has been one of the outcomes of the chairs debate. Without exception, the case study teachers reacted unfavourably to the idea. Like the erstwhile master of St. Andrew’s Grammar School, they felt that children who are learning to write should be encouraged to use a suitable surface and a comfortable chair. CONCLUSION This article examines a rather curious discrepancy between theory and practice. It focuses on a school of thought which holds that a modern primary school can be adequately equipped with less than one chair per child. Overall, it questions the practice whereby chairs are shared rather than a guaranteed resource. In effect, this means that chairs are downgraded to the same status as painting easels, water tanks and sand trays. As a result, special rules are needed to regulate the pupils’ access to them. In turn, these rules have an impact on the type of methods and curricula which can be used by teachers. It may be expedient to improve the provision of the painting easels at the expense of chairs. But, in the process, there is surely no need to make an educational virtue out of an economic necessity.   Source: Hamilton (no date). Reprinted with permission from the Scottish Council for Research in Education.


Comments are closed.