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Why do we make students sit still in class?

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Story highlights

An educator and mother wonders why many insist classrooms be still and quiet

Research led her to believe some students learn better with freedom to move

She found private, public and charter schools where teachers build movement into learning

Editor’s Note: Carolina Blatt-Gross is an assistant professor of art at Georgia Gwinnett College who studies art, cognition and the socially situated nature of learning. She has a doctorate in art education and 15 years of teaching experience at many levels.

CNN —  

As a graduate student, I had the opportunity to observe a number of idyllic, progressive classrooms where students danced to the pencil sharpener or sprawled across beanbag chairs while completing their work. I read countless books and articles about research that supports physical activity as part of academic success. It made sense to me – theoretically – that children should be allowed to move their bodies. Asking them to do otherwise, I came to believe, could be detrimental to both the student and the teacher.

Then it got personal. I had two children of my own, two fearless boys who are so busy they don’t have time to stop for uninteresting activities like eating, sleeping or potty training. Our eldest son lobbed himself out of his crib at 10 months and hasn’t stopped climbing since. Putting clothes on our younger son currently involves a high-speed chase followed by a wrestling match and, if we’re lucky, ends with at least one piece of clothing partially in place.

Obviously, it takes more than a little mental and physical effort for them to keep their bottoms in a chair.

This doesn’t bode well for academic success in traditional classrooms, where sitting quietly is a prerequisite for nearly all instruction. I cringe in anticipation of the notes my sons’ constant motion and chatter will prompt future teachers to send home. I worry that their intellectual prosperity will be curtailed by the simple, but daunting, expectation that they sit still for hours each day.

In my household and others, the question looms: Does sitting in any way help students learn? Why do we feel the need to tame students’ physical natures, rather than incorporate them into the learning process? By sending our children off to still, quiet classrooms, are we neglecting meaningful, hands-on learning that could be occurring through physical activity?

After all, the brain is ultimately an essential part of the body, a co-conspirator with those wiggly feet and chatty mouths that get little ones into trouble. As the late arts educator Elliot Eisner reminded us, we learn about the world through our senses, drawing information in through our bodies to feed our understanding of the world.

That the mind is nestled within our physicality is not a new concept, but perhaps a nearly forgotten one in our age of cerebral and cyber wealth. Even in the early 20th century, progressive educator John Dewey famously unbolted the desks from the floors of the classroom, arguing that education stems from experience. More recently, we’ve seen treadmill desks and bouncy balls substitute for desk chairs.

As an educator with an interest in authentic learning, I wonder if that is enough.

As the mother of super-physical children, I worry that it’s not even close to being enough.

The paradigm of the still, quiet classroom with neatly aligned desks unfortunately requires that some students spend a great deal of energy complying with physical restrictions rather than learning. Certainly, at some point, children need to learn to control their bodies. But making it an overriding concern in the classroom might be a waste.

Meanwhile, commitment to recess, art, labs and nearly any type of learning that involves the body is generally dwindling. As an educator and mother, I know that image is fundamentally at odds with the nature of children.

So, educators can either spend a great deal of energy trying to get students to conform to the expectations of quiet focus – or they can change the expectations.

On my quest to find educational arcadia for my children, I explored the options available in our neighborhood. Just looking around at the schools near my home in Atlanta – private, charter and public schools that my children could attend – I found innovative teachers and administrators who don’t want students to sit still and work quietly. They’re making changes to schools’ physically restrictive natures, sometimes for entire buildings, and sometimes just at the classroom level.

It wasn’t always obvious, and required me to ask questions and look closely at how classrooms were set up. Here were three educators I found who were finding ways to make movement a part of how their students learn.

Movement is the mission

Just as my concerns about my sons’ educational futures began to crescendo, we struck gold. A progressive private school opened mere steps from our front door. Focused on experiential education, a sense of community and child-focused flexibility, Hess Academy has my oldest, wiggliest son flourishing.

According to Kristen Hess, the principal and founder of Hess Academy, movement in the classroom is an extension of student choice.

“As adults we have the option of movement available to us,” she told me. “We fidget or doodle, we get up to stretch our legs, we walk to the back of the room, but we don’t give this option to children.”

The best learning environment, she said, has different options, not just a standard solution for all students. I could see her philosophy at work in a classroom where students worked, some sitting at tables, some stretched across the floor and some using their chairs as writing surfaces.

Hess’ first foray into education was as a gymnastics instructor and her active nature coalesced with her learning philosophy when she entered graduate school, she said. There, it became clear that “expecting children to disconnect from their bodies isn’t natural. We have five senses for a reason.”

Hess sees at least three roles for movement in the classroom: It’s a way to optimize focus and attention, to release pent-up energy so students can focus on a different activity, and as a vehicle for learning. Taking advantage of just one of these aspects, she explained, is usually insufficient.

“Unfortunately there is a trend of decreasing movement in our daily lives and spending less time outside,” Hess said. “We have to counter that in the classroom by giving students time to interact in meaningful ways. All of our teachers believe that movement enhances learning.

“The more you can use your body, the better you can learn concepts.”

The school itself has the feel of a beehive. During a recent visit, once class was moving around the school on a scavenger hunt. In another class, students scattered around the room to discuss ideas and create drawings for “Think Out of the Box Thursday,” where they transformed a given shape into creative creatures and inventions. The littlest ones conducted an experiment, setting an insect buffet outside their classroom window to see which foods ants would eat.

The activity often extends outdoors. The days typically started and ended on the playground, where all students got a physical outlet to burn off their extra energy before even entering the school. It’s an extension of the classroom, a place that marries play and learning.

Recently, when I arrived to pick up my son, I found him scouring the playground to locate and identify insects or collect food for caterpillars and grasshoppers. It wasn’t just my child’s curiosity at work; it was part of a classroom unit on bugs.

The learning comes home, too: His classroom’s tadpoles inspired him to give us nightly tadpole updates and regularly re-enact the birth of a tadpole from its egg by curling up under a blanket and popping out.

Hess Academy Principal Kristen Hess began her career in teaching as a gymnastic instructor.
From Hess Academy
Hess Academy Principal Kristen Hess began her career in teaching as a gymnastic instructor.

Many parents might assume that such freedom of movement means classroom chaos. They might believe their child would never succeed in such a setting, and they might be right: Not all children are suited to this kind of environment and not every teacher is comfortable or capable of managing it.

Truthfully, I would be skeptical had I not witnessed enough classroom settings to see that this approach works – but only if it is coupled with a clear structure. This is particularly important during transitions. Teachers who embrace this flexibility need the finesse to effectively shift students from less restrictive activity to more organized work. Knowing the students, their limits and strengths is key to understanding what techniques might work best.

Teacher Megan Anderson Angiulo explained that her classroom management techniques varied from year to year depending on the class. If she wanted to get students’ attention during a less-restrictive activity, she gave them a physical prompt, such as “Put your pencils down and put your finger on your nose.”

Redirecting their entire bodies – not just their brains – effectively moved students in the next direction. With a different class, she might clap a rhythm that students would repeat. With her current group, she laughed, that would set off a clapping frenzy. She’ll save the applause technique for another year.

“Ultimately,” she said, “you have to trust that they want to learn.”