An Obituary For Student Desks

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek albeit thought-provoking post about the death of the student desk. I was inspired by new classroom set-ups, furniture and a push to an almost “Google-like” classroom workspace. Here is the “Obituary” in it’s entirety:

Student Desk ObituaryThe Student Desk (known by several aliases, most notably the Classroom Desk) died today when teachers at Bridge Point Elementary school in Austin, TX discovered that learning could happen in a variety of spaces that no longer necessitated their use. “We just feel like kids in this new mobile age don’t need to be confined to a small, uncomfortable desk.” said one teacher who chose to remain nameless for the purposes of this obituary.

Student Desks had a rich history in public education. Descended from its “parent” Anna Breadin, who is credited with “birthing” (designing and patenting) the student desk in the late 1880′s, the Student Desk really found a moment of growth and boom during the 1940′s. In this Industrial Age, when the need to put things in neat rows was prevalent, learning needed to take place in much the same way as factory assembly lines. Why would students need to move around the classroom? The only time students needed to move was to go to the bathroom and you better really had to go because it entailed carrying around a large wooden keychain that said, “Hall Pass”. Much like the ballyhooed and unrelated bell curve chart, it seemed that the Student Desk’s middle age was a time of great dominance in the classroom of America.

The Student Desk had a life-long fascination with putting students’ rear ends to sleep, a trait it mastered by the mid-1950′s. The 50′s were a time of transformation for the Student Desk’s life as it became a tool for protecting students during the “Duck and cover” days of cold war-era America. The Student Desk came in all shapes in sizes, especially by the 1960′s, a time of cultural change in our country. Tie-dye models and desks made from hemp would be built and later destroyed during this time, but one thing remained constant – their severe lack of mobility and comfort.

Student Desk ObituaryThrough the decades the Student Desk persevered through tough times, like the “Pencil graffiti” years of the 1970′s when students felt like its top was their own personal canvas. The 1980′s were no easier for the life of the Student Desk as numerous spit-puddles attacked their tops by sleeping, drooling teens (a trend made popular as witnessed at the :52 second mark in this scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)

Despite these rough times, the Student Desk maintained its dominance in the American school system. Indeed, it seemed like nothing could stop the proliferation of the standard Student Desk in our school systems until the dreaded 2010′s. This was the beginning of the end for the Student Desk. This dark time in the Desk’s life began innocently enough. Schools were looking for ways to get more access to learning in the hands of kids. While this seemed like a novel idea to the Desk, one that would pass in time (like those 1:1 Lava Lamp days of 1968-69), this concept seemed to have staying power. The last few years of the Desk’s life would be a blur. Students began to come to class with some smartphone thingy and schools were even issuing tablets to kids. The Student Desk was no longer needed for physical support as it was in the past.

As preposterous as it sounds, this new idea of learning with mobile devices also meant that the Desk’s other primary strength (its ability to create neat rows) was no longer a necessity. Students needed to be able to move around and work in a variety of ways; individually, in small groups, or as a whole. The teacher no longer need to relay information down the rows, instead learning could happen anywhere and everywhere in the classroom.

Depressed and no longer needed, the Student Desk ended its life by throwing itself into a giant wood-chipper behind the school. The Desk is survived by aged relatives like the pencil, the paper notebook, daylight savings time, and as of this writing, the paper textbook (which is currently on life-support in a Santa Monica area hospital). In lieu of flowers the Desk asks that you plant a tree in its honor for the wood that was used to make the desk and offer a donation to the Chiropractors Helping Ailing Inflamed Rears Society (C.H.A.I.R.S.). Finally, the family asks that in honor of the Student Desk that you write your school board and administration to rid classrooms of its kind. It’s time to move on, people.

I was surprised by the range of comments I got after I posted this. Some people felt like this was way too early to jump the shark on something like this, others were ready to throw their desks out yesterday but just need a funding source for replacements. Where do you lie in this debate? We’ve made our technology more mobile, thus making learning more mobile, but why do we still bolt ourselves to the classroom desk?

8 Comments

  1. Bill

    September 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    We’ve got wheels on our desks at St. John’s University. So they become tables for small group workshops and labs pretty fast.

  2. Rahul Akhaury

    September 13, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    Excellent article Carl.

    We have to move ahead and come out of Industrial Age.

    We need to relook at the “physical” facilitators of learning like desk, classroom and even schools!

    All our outdated in the current “physical” form.

    Learning had transcended the “physical” boundaries and the system should change and adapt itself.

    Excellent read!

    Thank you!

  3. Karen

    September 14, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    This would work brilliantly if ALL students want to learn and work, but in a middle school 7th grade classroom where kids just want to horse around and not work it becomes a huge issue. Granted, you will respond with “but if its interesting, kids will work”. I am sorry but this is just not the case. I have a handful of students who make it their focus to disrupt the class no matter we are working on. Mostly they are ADHD students whose parents will not put them on it. Otherwise, something like this would be fabulous!

    • Dan

      September 15, 2013 at 8:45 am

      I hate to say it Karen, but if it’s interesting, kids will work. What you may find interesting, students may not. It is about the level of student engagement. Through student-led inquiry in harnessing the child’s passion, your need to control your students through compliance will fade away. Students will still master the required standards, but will learn so much more than that as they develop asva 21st Century learner. I have seen this in practice with students of all ages – including 7th. :-)

  4. Stephanie Elder

    September 14, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    I love this. I too decided to ditch te desks this year. I replaced them with a variety of dining room tables, chairs, and bar stools. The students love it and it gives us much more room. We are able to use our iPads in groups and since we are paperless we do not need the storage.

  5. Andrew

    September 17, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    Last year, in my first year of teaching, I literally begged, borrowed, and stole enough tables to take the desks out of my third grade classroom. Since then, I have lost a table due to a broken leg and have not replaced it with anything. My students adapted last year and my students this year are feeling some newfound freedom to use a clipboard or the floor, or the wall as a work surface. I even chucked my desk last year which has made the room significantly more flexible. It may not be for everyone, but I appreciate the ability to have students ebb and flow as they are working over the course of the day.

  6. Ben Hartman

    September 21, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Teaching 5th grade, 24 kids, 1:1 w chromebooks….. We’ve established a “home seat” but have no seating chart or assigned seats. A combination of 26 chairs, 3 high stools, couple of beanbags and my 2 teacher chairs w wheels (which I share) along with 5 big tables make our space flexible, adaptable, and mobile. Seems disingenuous to encourage collaboration but not let them move around the room. I’d sacrifice a lot before my classroom setup.

  7. Carl Hooker

    September 23, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    Loving all the comments and creative ways teachers are changing their learning spaces. One of the hardest (but least expensive) thing to do was change paint colors. It’s hard for districts to support every color under the rainbow, but I’ve heard of some districts buying a “pallet” of colors to choose from. That way the teacher has some choice and the district can leverage bulk or large purchases.