Monthly Archives: March 2015

Reimagining Classrooms: Wiggly Objects

Reimagining Classrooms: Wiggly Objects

“Once upon a time, Sara borrowed two wiggle stools from first grade…” That’s how second grade teachers Sara Lee, Penny Siebecker, and Taylor Hovish start this story. Last year, Sara and Penny had been intrigued by anecdotes from first grade about these colorful, plastic stools that look like oversized chess pieces with a rounded base. They were curious. Did students like the wiggle stools? And did they help learning in some way?

This year, as part of the Reimagining Classrooms (RC) project, Sara Lee ordered a larger set. The RC project kicked off last April after the parent community generously supported the effort through the 2014 Auction “fund a need.” The project invited teachers who wanted to significantly alter their physical classroom to take that risk, and to document their observations as we learned together from the changes. Teachers chose their own approach, guided by findings and key themes from previous years.

At Hillbrook, we know environment is not neutral–is not just a background upon which teaching and learning happen. We believe that environments invite and evoke different behaviors and types of thinking. And this year we are starting to understand we can use the physical environment to realize our goals of inclusion in the classroom as well. Alan Watts, best known for popularizing Eastern Philosophy in the United States, calls us all “wiggly objects.” And many teachers would emphatically agree. One of the key themes we have identified from previous classroom redesigns at Hillbrook is the importance of movement, not only in the sense of meeting a physical need, but also in the sense of creating flexibility in the variety of ways of being that can be practiced within one learning space. We aspire to create spaces that promote both fidgeting and flexibility.

2ndg_wigglestool2The second grade team observed a range of student responses to the wiggle stools: some loved the stools and wanted them all the time, others said they never wanted to try them again, some chose them only sometimes. The stools helped highlight how much second graders move. And they appeared to help some students meet this need while also joining, and perhaps focusing more on, group work.

The conversations across the second grade team increasingly turned to these wiggly objects. Many students loved them and they appeared to change the class dynamic; but were they really helping students? In December, they sat down with sixth grade teacher and research designer Ilsa Dohmen to find out: is there something we can measure about how the stools serve students? Together they designed a simple study comparing the effect of sitting in either a still stool or a wiggle stool while completing mental math worksheets.

On two different days this December, second graders came into their classrooms with tables set either with all wiggle or all still stools. To warm up for the lesson, they were asked to do their best completing as many mental math problems as they could in five minutes. About ten days later, students came in and experienced an identical warm-up with the opposite chair type and a different, but analogous, worksheet.

casualtenjamTeachers observed that during the data collection not as much movement happened as they were expecting. When Ilsa asked, Taylor and Sara told her they did not think the study worked to measure the effect they had observed during other class times. They felt the students had not wiggled as much as usual.

But it turned out, highly visible wiggle or not, it did work. We actually found that students sitting in a wiggle stool completed statistically significantly more math problems (with the same accuracy) than students sitting in a still stool. And in only five minutes! We suspect that this has to do with students being able to meet subconscious needs for micro-movement while also working more continuously. Instead of being a distraction to self and others, the movement can be better integrated with the class work, through the stool.

We were thrilled with the study results. Hillbrook is one of the few K-8 schools in the nation conducting this type of inquiry and it is so exciting to have significant findings we can share to inform further questions, and to guide decisions about how to design better spaces for children. In second grade, the study inspired the purchase of more wiggle stools. It also sparked discussions about ways to meet the physical needs of students who do not like the stools.

In his same lecture on wiggly objects Alan Watts continues “The physical world is fundamentally wiggly. We don’t notice this very much if we live in towns, and if we live in ordinary houses. Because, we build our streets and our homes so as to seem to be non-wiggly…. And so then we are also always in conflict with wiggliness.” He encourages his listeners to see their landscapes as blots, to recognize the contours and smudges that are present in the environment and to view what you are trying to create as emerging from these. At Hillbrook, we are continually striving to see our students as they are–to know them individually. Research studies like these allow us to isolate and measure the impact of specific actions or changes. And the results inform us all as we create ways for them to thrive as learners, both wiggly and still.

Testing our Center of Gravity

Testing our Center of Gravity

A few weeks ago, I was outside the art studio and a rush of eighth graders ran by. They were in a hurry because it was recess and they wanted to finish a petition. In it, they were demanding the “re-messification” of the art studio. They told me that it had become too organized, too adult, and needed to be returned to its former state. Across the Hillbrook campus this year, the buzz has been building; classrooms are changing and everyone has something to say about it.

Taking a look around campus, you may notice many of these changes. Over a dozen teachers last May nominated themselves to kick-off our experiments with the physical classroom. They agreed to spend time substantially altering their space, to asking questions about how the changes affected teaching and learning, and to sharing their stories. The changes included both physical redesigns, and a re-thinking about students’ role in that design. We asked, “how can we include students in the setup of the classroom, and in real decisions about its use? How can we offer students in the same classroom more choices about how they want to work?”

whiteboard-tableHillbrook is not alone in re-designing spaces. Visitors to campus tell us about “21st Century Classrooms,” “Innovation Labs,” or multi-grade classroom areas with no walls dividing them. And they come to visit us because we are re-designing differently: leading with questions, and following up with research and reflection. Rather than having architects determine the designs, teachers at Hillbrook planned their own changes, starting with the question “what do I want learners to look like in my classroom?” And because we have altered each classroom in a different way, and not all the rooms at once, we are in a unique position to observe differences, and to ask testable questions about the effects of our changes.

Take the arrival of whiteboard tables to some lower school rooms, for example. When replacing the individual desks, we had a lot of questions about how students would respond. How would their sense of belonging and place be altered when we took away “their” desk? Now that the whiteboard tables are in, we are noticing they create a different feel in the classroom. We notice that students (and teachers) feel more free to pull up a seat at a table than they did to join someone’s individual desk. We notice that we feel more comfortable adding to someone else’s writing surface, when it is erase-able, large, and not seemingly owned by an individual the way a paper is. We think we are seeing people apt to write more on whiteboards during brainstorming tasks, or to take more risks working out math practice problems. And we intend to find out.

Other teachers are focusing on physical movement. They have added new types of seating that include bean bags, chairs with wiggly seats, rocking stools, and sofa benches. One group of teachers observed that their wooden stools are being broken by students who are trying to use them as rocking stools. Do the rocking stools help students focus? Can we see a difference in productivity or engagement when students are able to meet their needs for movement while also doing classwork? Others are curious whether student choice of seating will improve their experience taking tests. Can you take a quiz productively in a bean bag? And does it lower your stress level to do so? We intend to find out.

We know that environment is not neutral. Every space invites and affords certain behaviors and types of thinking. When we as adults walk into a meeting with row seating, or a giant u-shaped table, or little circles of chairs, we understand a different kind of participation will be asked of us. And we intuit the range of tolerance for behaviors like snacking, whispering to our neighbor, or standing to stretch our calves. What do our classrooms say to our students when they walk in? What are we inviting them to think about or to do by the arrangement of our furniture, and the choices they have about how they use it?

At a recent Faculty Meeting, Alfie Kohn asked us what it would be like to move our school’s “center of gravity” away from the teachers and parents and towards students. How can we rethink what we ask students to do and not do, and what choices we give them, starting with what they want? How are we already doing this well and where could we benefit from taking a second look?

Last weekend at Open House I was at the table in the gym that advertised “Reimagining Classrooms.” In front of it were a desk chair, and a rocking stool. A visiting child approached, jumped on the rocking stool and laughingly declared, “Whoa, this is way too crazy a chair.” His mother and I chatted while he checked the limits of its sway–how far he could tip without falling, and whether when he sat at a table his arms on the surface braced his motion. The stool invited him to take a risk, and to share what he thought. And it turned out what he thought changed quickly with experiencing it. After a minute or two, having found his balance, he grinningly remarked, “I think I’m used to it now”. I hope we can continue to uncover similar surprises.