3 Reasons Why Traditional Schools Still Favour Stationary Desks and Chairs

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I worked in a shoe-shop part-time throughout the latter part of my high school years – and right through my first degree. I worked long days on my feet, rushing back and forth and serving customers.

And I loved it.

Not only did I love the social side of working in retail and talking to people all day, but I loved being on the move.

I remember starting my first full-time marketing job back in ’93 and, within months, I had terrible back pain. I couldn’t for the life of me work out what the problem was, until someone pointed out that I was now sitting for 38 hours a week (plus commute time).

We human beings are not designed to be sedentary. Mother Nature created us so we could run, swim, climb and walk. Of course, we no longer need to do that for survival – but we do need to do it for our overall wellbeing.

Thankfully these days, employers are recognising the importance of wellbeing and movement and are introducing standing desks, wellness programs that include team exercise and yoga, and even corporate sport events after hours.

It is, of course, also universally accepted that children need movement.

Not only do their developing bodies need regular movement to ensure muscle and motor development, but getting the blood and oxygen flowing is critical to their learning. As is learning by doing.

So, why then do traditional schools STILL have stationary desks and chairs in every classroom?

A friend of mine had cause to visit a traditional school only recently, and she was shocked to discover that the classrooms looked almost exactly the same as when we went to school 30 years ago.

True, the blackboard had been replaced with a smart board in a nod to new technologies, but still – row after row of desks and chairs, all pointed toward the front of the room.

At the teacher.

The point being ‘the important stuff is happening where the teacher is – look this way’.

Surely the real world should be recognising by now that the important stuff is happening WITHIN the child? Why still so much focus on the teacher in a classroom?

I remember when I was at school, you could guarantee that the moment the teacher left the room – pandemonium would break out. The ‘control’ the teacher exerted over the room soon evaporated the moment her attention was directed elsewhere.

It’s little wonder, really, that so many children lose their way when their last day of school is over and they make their way into the real world.

We don’t confine animals. Even our family puppy has had fair reign over the house at our place (at the expense of a few pairs of shoes and some apparently mission-critical pieces of Lego).

So, why still pin children to desk and chairs?

I think it comes down to three things.

Trust. Control. And the Focus on the Teacher.

Trust is a difficult thing to get your head around if you don’t have it. It’s why some archaic businesses STILL insist on employees being IN the office and AT their desks to be considered ‘working’. Those businesses are dying out, with those that trust their staff and encourage flexibility and remote home office arrangements easily becoming employers of choice.

Trust (or I should say, lack of) – and one upmanship – is counterproductive in a workplace, as it is at school. Traditional schools encourage children to ‘protect their turf’. “Don’t cheat”, children say as they wrap their arms around the work to avoid prying eyes. That’s what happens when children are ranked against one another. For one to go up, others must come down.

It’s not a great way to build a cohesive, supportive community – at school, or at work.

I recently worked in an organisation that adopted the Agile method of project management. Having attended traditional schools myself, it was quite an adjustment. With Agile, all team members are considered to be on a level playing field. No job titles, no job descriptions. Tasks are assigned on a priority basis and everyone is expected to work together and support one another. As the marketing member of the team, I often had policy experts writing media releases or vice versa, and we all learned something new.

It worked a treat, and it was such an enjoyable atmosphere to work in. I can only imagine what it must be like for the children in a Montessori classroom where it is completely natural for them to help one another. They wouldn’t dream of refusing to help – they love being asked!

Last year my son announced he would be taking leftovers to school for lunch from now on as he needed lunches that required heating up.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because I’ve learned how to use the microwave,” he said.

“Oh, great. Did Lauren show you how to do that?” I asked. (Lauren is his guide).

“No, Archie showed me. He’s in Group 3.”

Ahhh. Hence why he was so keen to show off his new-found skill!

Students moving around the room and talking to one another might seem, to the casual observer, like they aren’t learning. When in fact the ability to be mobile serves more purposes than one.

The second reason I think schools stick to age-old systems with desks and chairs, is that it’s about control.

Can a child be learning if they’re moving freely around the classroom? How can a teacher maintain discipline?

The fact is – the discipline is within the child.

It is only when a child is in control of himself, not artificially held in place, that there is discipline.

Discipline is a life-skill that our Montessori children learn from the moment they enter a classroom. They learn it because they’re given the freedom to do so.

Stationary desks and chairs seem to be about controlling the will of the child. The thinking is – if they are physically controlled, when the classroom is quiet – then there must be learning going on.

In fact, that set up suits the teacher, not the students.

A friend of mine, whose children attend a mainstream public school, told me only recently how disappointed she was that her daughter had received a certificate at school for ‘staying quiet and sitting still’. Really? That is what we value the most in our children? Keeping quiet and sitting still?

Where is the free thinking? The innovation? The teamwork? The respect for the child’s need to move around and socialise with peers?


A third reason stationary desks and chairs are still used in traditional classrooms is that there is still a mistaken belief that learning happens when information is transmitted from the teacher to the student, and so it is necessary for all eyes and attention to be on the teacher at all times.

Dr Montessori refers to this in her book, The Montessori Method:

“In this view, the teacher held center stage in the classroom, and the student was a passive receptacle of information, which was to be stored in the mind and recalled for examinations and possible use in the future.”

Of course, in reality, a teacher can no more make a child learn than a parent can make a child sleep (something I’ve learned the hard way!).

Learning – the process of taking in new information and making sense of it based on prior knowledge and experiences – is something that happens WITHIN the child.

In a Montessori classroom, it is not necessary for the children to have their attention on the teacher – as the learning happens between the student and the materials. The guide observes and provides input when required, but it is absolutely understood that the child learns best through discovery of new information. It is this process of discovery – rather than having information passively conveyed to them – that cements the information in the child’s mind forevermore.

Montessori children learn through trial and error what works. When they build the pink tower and one block is clearly out of place – they see it. They work out a way to rectify it.

When they’re counting spindles into spindle boxes and they run short or have some left over – they know they’ve made an error. It’s no big deal. They count them again to work out where they went wrong.

THAT is learning.

But it’s not easy for those of us used to traditional schooling to give up that control.

Is the child’s learning really in their hands, not ours? Can we trust the Montessori method when it’s so different to what we are used to?

Do we have an open mind to accept there might be a better way?

It is my fervent hope that the growing Montessori movement gains traction in mainstream schools. That we can ALL have an open mind to accept new information, even if it runs counter to what we are currently doing, or how we were taught.

It is said that the only thing that is constant is change – and yet the wheels are grinding exceedingly slowly in traditional schools.

I’m talking about an approach where we have faith in our children, where we stamp out the decades-old thinking that children need to be forced to learn.

Which brings me to a point I made at the end of my blog last week.

It’s a common question.

If we grant children freedom – freedom to move around the classroom and take control of their own learning – what happens if our children don’t like maths? What if they do nothing but science all day? Will they miss an entire subject altogether if they go to a Montessori school?

In short, no.

Our guides are observing our children closely. Because they’re not up the front of the class, trying to teach 30 different children the same thing at the same pace, because our children are self-directed learners, our guides know exactly what our children are – or aren’t – doing.

They know that Tommy needs more practice with his cursive ‘j’ and so does Mary, as well as Sarah. That’s why the guide is undertaking a specific lesson on that specific topic with those specific students. I’ve been in the classroom when my son has been involved in that particular lesson (I help with reading in my son’s class – it’s amazing how much you pick up just from being there once a week!).

They know that Matthew hasn’t chosen a maths-related activity for several weeks.

So – what do they do about it?

Send the child to the principal’s office? Set more homework? Detention? Write out ‘lines’ and hope it will sink in through repetition alone? (I still feel a bit ill when I picture the children back in my day doing that). Force him somehow to pick up the beads and tubes?


They don’t do any of those things.

In fact, at first they do absolutely nothing. They certainly don’t dive in the moment they notice a child hasn’t chosen an activity for a while. They give the child time to choose that activity themselves, in their own timeframe.

Only when the child has been avoiding the activity for an extended period of time – which could be weeks or even months – does the guide then work out a plan.

It might be to introduce an activity that she knows aligns with the child’s interests. Montessori children generally have the same guide for three years – so they get to know the children pretty well.

For example, if a guide knows a child has a particular interest in Lego, or dinosaurs or is going on an overseas holiday sometime soon, a maths-related activity aligned to that interest could be introduced.

Montessori guides not only understand the needs of each student, but through the prepared environment they also have the flexibility to introduce materials in such a way as to entice a child to take part.

So have no fear, Montessorians! Your child is in the right place, learning the right things, at the right time and in the right way.

In fact, there is no better place for them to be.

Until next week.

With love,

PS – Please take a moment and leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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2 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why Traditional Schools Still Favour Stationary Desks and Chairs

  • Once again, thanks for yet another fantastic article! I will be referring to the last bit, a common question I get from family/friends regarding what happens in the classroom when a child avoids a subject – this is probably the biggest objection I hear after describing the philosophy and I think you articulated it really well.

    This is also going to be mentioned at my staff meeting tomorrow as we’re also going through massive changes to build trust and flexibility in our organisation and I think the analogy is spot-on.

    Hope you guys are enjoying your hols x

    • Thanks for your feedback Jessika! I’m glad you’re enjoying my blogs. Let me know how you go with the staff meeting! I love drawing comparisons with work as I think many workplaces would benefit enormously from adopting the Montessori philosophy! – cheers, Chris 🙂

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