I remember reading once about how McDonald’s had designed its restaurant chairs using ergonometric studies that showed how long it took for one’s butt to become uncomfortable. They then designed the chairs so that you would start shifting your cholesterol-laden posterior so that you would want to get up and leave after about 15 minutes. The theory was, that if you felt uncomfortable, you would eat and leave, and then the space would be free for the next customer to come in. The faster the turn-around, the more people could be served, hence, more sales and more profit. No need to bother with you after you had devoured your Big Mac and Happy Meal.
That is why, back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s the chairs at McDonald’s felt like hard plastic toadstools that you were able to manage to feel comfortable in for just about the time it took to scarf down a Combo #1. Your legs and fanny never matched the “patterns” in the molded melanin seat because the “person” whose end-zone that was modeled after was the “average consumer.” Anyone with an ounce of statistics training knows that half of the population is below average, and half is above average. No one really is average. And the seats are designed for adults. Ever see a kid sit still in McDonald’s? It doesn’t happen. The seats aren’t designed for them, even though they make up half of the customers. Ever wondered why your need to leave was just about the same time you took that last bite of the fries? It wasn’t your brain telling you to go, it was your butt talking.
El Paso and surrounding areas will soon be blessed with a large influx of military families, and with them, the need to build quite a few new schools. What do new schools and my reminiscences on McDonald’s have in common? Prakash Nair.
I once had the opportunity to speak to an architect named Prakash Nair. You have never heard of Prakash Nair, but the rest of the world has. Prakash is one of the leading designers of education spaces (or as we call them: schools) in the world. Prakash and his firm have designed schools all over the world, and actually delivers speeches about how the schools we design now are the same model of school we designed in the 1950s, despite all of our collective knowledge gathered since then on how the brain works and how the body interacts with the brain, or the ergonomics of learning. Prakash and his team are on a mission to end Industrial Revolution-designed campuses where students shuffle through halls like mice in a maze and sit in rooms where the most interesting thing is the window. New schools he says, look like old schools with little exception.
Don’t believe him? Go ahead, walk into a school built in the late 1950s or ’60s here in El Paso (They are easy to find. Most campuses in the El Paso area are at least 40 years old or older). Now go find a recently built campus. I dare you to find too much of a DESIGN difference. Now, if you really want to see something interesting, compare a classroom in an elementary school to one in a high school. They are basically the same! Essentially, we are saying no matter what grade level you are in, how big or how small you are, no matter what your learning style, the learning environment is the same. And it has been the same for almost 100 years now. Good luck kid. Go learn.
Nair wonders if school comfort level has something to do with student achievement. Are our kids comfortable in school? Would you be? Have you sat in a student desk for any extended period of time? It is insane. My big old gut rebels against me as soon as I sit down. Now try sitting in one of those torture devices for six to eight hours a day. I bet you get uncomfortable sitting in one for 10 minutes at a teacher-parent conference. Would you have one in your cushy office? Nope. No way. You have cushion in your adjustable Herman-Miller. Kids get hard plastic. You have Café Central, kids get McDonald’s. Who needs a cushioned seat more? Ask your kids or grandkids of they are comfortable in school. Remember, those seats in school are designed like 1980s McDonalds chairs: For the average student. No one is average, and no one fits the butt-form pressed into the seat.
Prakash and his partner Randal Fielding had an article about student comfort and learning, which was printed in Edutopia, where they discusses the 8 truths about students comfort based on brain research and ergometric studies:
1. Comfort Matters: You learn more if you are comfortable.
2. Some Pain No Gain: If your butt hurts in a chair, you pay more attention to it than to the teacher. Why spend several million on a building that the MAIN CUSTOMERS will be uncomfortable in?
3. Breathing and Learning are connected: Indoor air quality affects student and teacher performance.
4. Louder is not better: A large room where a teacher or student has to raise their voices to be heard, or there are loud noises, is counterproductive.
5. Cozy and cheerful wins hearts and minds: Why are we stuck in the one-size-fits-all learners model of school design?
6. Cafes are not just for grownups: Where do you do your best work? At work, or away from work, like on the golf course or at the coffee shop? Nair doesn’t suggest we let kids o wild, but he does suggest that there be created areas in schools for kids to congregate to work on projects, homework, and research. Cafes for kids essentially.
7. Comfort is important outside too: How many campuses are designed for outside comfort as well as inside? Kids are outside the actual building for a lot of time (recess, before and after school): Use that space for comfortable learning.
8. Emotions count in comfort: Larger schools produce feelings of anonymity in not only students but staff as well. Build smaller schools, and break larger schools into smaller learning communities.
Essentially, Nair says look, if adults demand comfort, why shouldn’t we demand the same for our students? Why subject them to dull schools, with hard chairs, bad air, anonymous, loud rooms, and enormous meeting rooms? Why not make the schools cheery, clean, mechanically quiet (for environment, not like “library quiet”) with comfortable places to meet on the outside as well?
I would add a ninth to Nair’s list however.
9. Comfort should not be based on price.
Why do we use that same plastic chair that has been in use since the 1960s? Nostalgia? Nope. Research shows it works? Nope. It is best for the kids? Nope. It is the same reason architects don’t build outside learning areas, and the same reason we build schools based on 1950s plans: Cost. It is the least expensive chair we can find to seat our kids. Cheap counts and cheap is king. We like to say we are getting the most amount of school for the least amount of money, but in fact, we are merely perpetuating the “low bid is the go bid” mentality that has driven school finances for time in memoriam.
We need to find solutions where there comfort is not a cost issue. Again, it is silly to spend $7 million on a building (typical elementary school cost) and $50 on a cheap cushionless-hard-plastic-molded chair.
Once we get kids comfortable, then true learning can begin, because in a battle between the brain and butt, the butt will always win.