View of a classroom from the back, looking forward to the large blackboard on the front wall over the backs of many stationary wooden chairs placed very close together.

The Politics of Chairs: What Kind of Classroom Would You Build?

design, The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

A chair is just a chair, right? Well, since you’re reading this blog you probably won’t be surprised that my STS answer is not necessarily – there’s a lot more to it than that. 

Dr. Zhu’s campus talk last month began with a fundamental concept in STS that I’d like to revisit: technologies are not neutral. That doesn’t mean, like some of my students first assume, that technology is simply either good or bad, like an angel or demon sitting on your shoulder. It means that technologies are expressions of things that we value as humans, such as safety, freedom, connection, privacy, and so on. 

A still from The Simpsons: Homer Simpson (middle-aged male cartoon character) with an angel version of himself on one shoulder and a devil version of himself on the other.
Technological non-neutrality is not this simple.

Let’s go back to chairs and specifically those you would find in an in-person college classroom. If you google images for “college classrooms,” you’ll find many pictures of traditional teacher- and technology-focused designs – the ones that probably pop into your own head when you think about a classroom. 

An image found searching Google for “picture of a college classroom” shows a traditional classroom arrangement.

But have you ever wondered why a classroom is the way it is, or if that’s the way it should be? That’s a question that intrigues scholars of built pedagogy, the study of the physical representation of educational philosophies. A fundamental principle of this field is that technologies are not neutral. A classroom is not just a space to learn, but a place that embodies beliefs, values, biases, and ideologies. It is, dare I say it, political in nature. For instance, the built environment establishes what bodies can move in space and how easily. A classroom that one student might easily navigate may feel drastically different for a student with a disability or injury.

As someone with a student-centered and discussion-based approach to teaching, the traditional classroom design actually makes it harder for me to teach. It tells my students to “sit down, listen, and watch the screen,” when I want them to talk to each other, talk to me, and grapple with open-ended questions. I have to teach against the values embodied by many college classrooms and against a space with a set of politics that don’t mirror the way I would prefer to teach.  

STS scholar Dr. Torin Monahan notes that classrooms can either constrain space and bodies – think of desks bolted to the ground – or allow for a wide range of freedom and possibility, like those found in “open classrooms” with movable furniture and organization. Classrooms can provide or limit opportunities for movement and freedom depending on the design of the room, and this in turn shapes the learning experience. Things like chairs may actually enhance or diminish student learning. Dr. Monahan would proffer that a more flexible classroom might help inspire more flexible, engaged learners. That’s the idea behind the dynamic workspaces built by big tech companies who want to encourage collaboration and creativity from engineers and designers. When it comes to chairs, classrooms may have something to learn from the corporate world. 

An open classroom design at Penn State
A Google office space

Dr. Monahan also points out that classrooms are often designed to accommodate emerging technology and not necessarily emerging pedagogy or the learners themselves. This is where we need to find a balance between technology and the people who use it. One radical idea: create spaces that take users’ input into account to construct the best possible learning environments. This could lead to more inclusive and adaptive design for a diverse body of students. Classroom design and the types of chairs we sit in not only make a statement about valuing how we learn, but also who gets to learn. Imagine walking into a classroom that you could transform based on how you teach/learn and what you were teaching/learning. For instance, in a course emphasizing collaboration and teamwork, an open classroom would allow for the quick rearrangement of chairs and tables to accommodate small group sessions. Movement, space, and organization complement the objectives of the class session and the needs of individual learners.

When you imagine dismantling a long-standing design to rethink it based on new perspectives and philosophies, you begin to realize how much our values, beliefs, and biases shape the world we’ve built around us, and how much that built world in turn shapes us. You start to see that it’s not only what we learn but how we learn and where we learn that matter. It’s something to think about the next time you sit down in a classroom – in a chair that’s so much more than a chair.

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