Getting Students Out of Their Chairs (Better Learning For Schools #19)

Most concepts can be covered in the lecture hall, but are better experienced away from a desk.oncepts can be covered in the lecture hall, but are better experienced away from a desk.


I’m not an art-therapist by any means, but it is incredible how much insight can be gained by doing a little drawing activity with your students. When visiting school districts, as often as I can, I ask students to illustrate what a classroom looks like at their school. Regardless of the location or demographic of the school, it is alarming just how similar many of the student drawings are. The majority of illustrations seem to show some version of a teacher talking at the front of the room. The students sit in neat, orderly rows with vacant expressions or appear to be sleeping.
Such a wide-spread perspective of classroom learning as a passive, disengaged activity should cause us great alarm, especially in the wake of so much recent focus on the need for differentiation (e.g., Benjamin, 2014; Tomlinson, 2013), brain-compatible learning (e.g., Siemens, 2014; Sprenger, 2010), and the theory of multiple intelligences (e.g., Armstrong, 2003, Gardner, 1993). The educational giants of the past such as Aristotle, Dewey, Whitehead, and Montessori have all encouraged the need for activity and movement to promote learning (Stacey, 2008). The greatest insight on human development wasn’t developed at a desk, but on Thoreau’s two-year walk through the woods and around a pond. So why do kids still seem to be spending so much time in chairs?

The reality is that, as educators, we tend to do what is done to us. By that I mean that, as students, many of us experienced classroom learning that was largely teacher-centered—permeated by lecture and other forms of direct instruction. Now that we are teachers, many of us continue to perpetuate this traditional approach to the classroom. On occasion, we play a review game with students, have a class discussion or attempt to do something problem or project-based…but for the most part, our classroom largely resembles—and runs like—an 18th century, one-room school house.

This is really odd, because most of us would never try such an approach outside of our classroom.   For example, recently while I was on vacation, my mother got her first smart-phone and asked if I could help her learn to use it. I didn’t drive her to a school, sit her down in a chair, and start to lecture her. Nor did I require her to read the 182-page user manual and give her a stack of worksheets to complete. I did what any decent son (or teacher) would do when the stakes are high. I sought to make learning more active, participatory, and learner-centered. I showed my mother a few video tutorials on Youtube and demonstrated how to navigate some of the phone’s basic features and functions. She fiddled, practiced, asked several questions, downloaded a few recipe apps, and then went into the garage to show my dad all the cool things she could do. Now he wants a new phone as well. There was no lecture…just learning.

But it’s not just moms and smartphones. Recently, Mike Wesch, an innovative professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, posted a video of his students outside of the classroom, running around campus, playing a marshmallow war game. In collaboration with his students, Dr. Wesch created the simulation to help his students explore world history, global economy, sustainability, international relations, culture change, and structural power. These concepts could have been covered in the lecture hall, but were better experienced away from a desk. I would be interested to see what his students would draw if asked to create an illustration of what a classroom looks like.

I am not saying that every teacher needs to develop large-scale games for their students to play, but each of us is likely to get just a bit more out of our students if we providee more frequent time for play, discussion, problem-based challenges, collaboration…anything designed to make learning a bit more active. The first step seems to be for each of us to lecture just a bit less, hand out fewer worksheets, and try to design deeper learning that gets students away from their desks.


Armstrong, T. (2003). The multiple intelligences of reading and writing: Making the words come alive. ASCD.

Benjamin, A. (2014). Differentiated instruction: A guide for middle and high school teachers. Routledge.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. Basic books.

Siemens, G. (2014). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.

Sprenger, M. (2010). Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age. ASCD. 1703 North Beauregard Street, Alexandria, VA 22311-1714.

Stacey, N. (2008). Movement and dance in the inclusive classroom. Teaching Exceptional Children Plus4(6), 2.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2013). Differentiated instruction. Fundamentals of gifted education: Considering multiple perspectives.


Copeland, M. (2005). Socratic circles: Fostering critical and creative thinking in middle and high school. Portland, Me: Stenhouse Publishers.

Curtis Chandler can be contacted at:
Twitter @curtischandler6
Blog:  Better Learning For Schools

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