"Adult chairs are padded. Adult chairs roll. But the learners? Unyielding polypropylene."

I’m a big fan of Prakash Nair, the award winning architect and futurist, who has (at least for me) defined how schools and classrooms should be created in the 21st century.

I first read about Nair in some articles on Edutopia and later saw some of his presentations. I was intrigued enough to interview him for a podcast I did several years ago. Marco Torres says everyone needs to have a Yoda, and I have several. Nair is one of them, at least from afar.

Nair and his business partner Randall Fielding have written the bible of school design, The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools, that every single person who plans, designs or approves a new school should be expected to read. I have been influenced so much Nair and Fielding that I now go onto campuses and mentally take notes about how I would improve the structure, layout and furnishing of the facility if only I were the King of Schools.

I don’t just look at schools that way either. Stores and restaurants are fair game for my critical eye as well. Which brings me to McDonald’s.


Happy Meals, unhappy fannies

Back in the day, the McDonald’s corporation designed its restaurant chairs using ergonometric studies that measured how long it took for one’s posterior to become uncomfortable. They created a chair that would have you wiggling your cholesterol-laden derrière after about 15 minutes. The theory was that if you began to feel uncomfortable, you’d eat more quickly and leave, and the space would be free for another customer. The faster the turnover, the more people could be served, hence, more sales and more profit.

This explains why us geezers in the audience can remember that back in the 80’s and 90’s the chairs at McDonald’s felt like hard plastic toadstools. You could tolerate them for just about the amount of time it took to scarf down a Big Mac with large fries. We were there only for as long as we had to be, not as long as we perhaps wanted to be. It wasn’t necessarily your brain telling you to leave but your fanny crying out for relief.

I saw Prakash Nair speak at a conference in Texas a few years back, and he had an interesting point — almost as an aside — that’s worth retelling. He said that a typical new high school can cost upwards of $50 – $75 MILLION dollars to build. New schools like this have the latest air conditioning, heating, wiring, roofing, landscaping, wireless, theaters, interactive whiteboards and other modern features. Yet, with all that money spent on structure, we still purchase the most inexpensive, uncomfortable hard plastic student desk-chairs we can find. $50 million dollar building, $50 chairs.

Nair asked the audience if THEY’d tried out a student chair lately and wondered if any adult would be willing to sit in such a seat for eight hours at a time? Most in the audience laughed at his question, but it was the laughter of recognition. No way. Why, asked Nair, do the adults get the comfortable chairs, but the kids don’t? Adult chairs are padded. Adult chairs roll. Adult chairs might even have the cool mesh that keeps backs and legs from getting all sweaty. But the learners? Unyielding polypropylene. (And if you are a kid struggling with your weight, you may not even FIT into a student chair-desk.)


Why worry about student comfort?

And student comfort isn’t just about chairs. Nair & Fielding offer 8 Truths about student learning conditions that I believe all decision makers and classroom educators should consider:

1. Comfort Matters. If you feel comfortable, you will work better. “A considerable body of research about environmental design shows the positive effect comfort can have on learning, human productivity and creativity.”

2. Some Pain, No Gain. If you are in discomfort, you will not work at your potential.

3. Breathing and Learning are connected. Comfortable seating leads to better breathing. So does quality air filtration and ventilation.

4. Louder is not better. Loud areas such as cafeterias are not conducive to learning.

5. “Cozy and cheerful” wins hearts and minds. School design shouldn’t mimic airport design. If you feel invited in, you will go in. And small meeting areas work for kids as well as teachers.

6. Cafes are not just for grownups. A café is very different from a cafeteria. It’s smaller, it invites deeper conversation, it has pleasant vistas, displays of student creativity.

7. Comfort is important outside too. Comfortable outdoor spaces can extend the learning that began inside.

8. Emotions count in comfort. If you feel anonymous, you feel discomfited. Smaller communities breed more familiarity and connectedness. “It is difficult,” Nair says, “to overemphasize the need to create environments where students can feel both secure and significant.”

(I would add a corollary to Nair’s list: A school’s comfort level should not be determined by the low bidder.)


We need to learn what McDonald’s learned

Essentially, Nair says that if adults demand comfort, why shouldn’t we demand the same for our students? Why subject them to dull schools with hard chairs, bad air, anonymous loud spaces, and enormous meeting rooms? Why not make the schools cheery, clean, quiet (environmentally speaking, not library quiet) with comfortable places to meet on the outside as well?

One of the outtakes of the documentary “War on Kids” had parents look at pictures from empty prisons and pictures from empty high schools. They were not told which was which, but they were asked which spaces they would prefer that their children learn in. In every instance, the parents chose the prisons. That says a lot about how schools “feel” to our students and communities.

Going back to my McDonald’s story: Things have certainly changed over the years. Have you noticed how they are changing their seating model? Out with the loud areas, the sanitary white walls, and the “one size fits all” hard plastic toadstool seating. In with comfort and coziness. It certainly cannot be an inexpensive proposition to make all these alterations in up to 3000 restaurants. I call it the “Starbuckification” of McDonald’s, but the effect is exactly what Nair said about schools. If you are comfortable, you will perform better (or in McDonald’s case, visit more often). A large corporation would not make such a radical change in facilities unless they were pretty sure that they would reap their investment back in multiples.

One wonders why more school decision makers haven’t had the same idea about their facilities. It is a simple equation: If you (and your fanny) are feeling good, you will work better and learn more. And just to show that Nair is not alone in his Quixotic quest, there are now moves afoot in some school districts to create “Apple Store-like” areas in classrooms. Comfort and achievement may soon be trumping economies gained on the backsides of students.

So I’m wondering: Is your classroom a comfortable place to learn?

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