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 derriÃ¨re 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 cafÃ© 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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Nice article again Tim.
I look at schools and see aseptic hospital like buildings that teachers try to make more habitable by taping student work to the walls. By nature, they are not fun places to be. I hope that your Yoda is being listened to by the powers that be and write the checks to the architectural firms.
Keep up the good work.
Wonderful timing: I’m attending Reimagine ED at the end of September. The elements you mention should certainly be a consideration when designing effective library spaces. Thanks!
Prakash Nair just wrote this article about classrooms in the 21st Century School. It is a nice addition to this article:
Enjoy, and thanks for keeping the conversation going!
Before I read your message I saw a picture of what the desks and chairs looked like when I attended grade school(old chalk boards too). These chairs don’t look much more comfortable today. I passed this link on to our buildings and grounds director. He just e-mailed back saying that it was very interesting. Hopefully your article will help influence future purchases.
Being a wheelchair-bound teacher, I wish I had the power to make every single person that designs “accessibility” ramps at schools to first get in a wheelchair and see if they can easily get up and down the ramps. I bet most would not be able to. When you are talking about the comfort of “regular students” please also consider the needs of our special needs teachers and students. Comfortable classes are great in theory, but some of us have trouble even getting into the uncomfortable classes!
Great article Tim! I am happiest when I am in a positive, comfortable environment. I believe that is true of all adults, (that is why we spend so much money decorating and buying furniture for our homes.) Why would it be any different for students? I have worked in three schools with buildings that date back as much as 80 years. Still, in many areas of the buildings, walls, floor tiles, paint, cabinets and counters show their age with unappealing shades of “institution” peach, tan, pink and green colors. Budgeting to update even the most inexpensive features seems to have been overlooked. I believe that drab environment contributes to stifling the enthusiasm to learn. I’m glad school districts are seeking the creative vision and wisdom of architects such as Prakash Nair as they design new learning environments. I am hopeful the day will come when they apply some of these same conditions to update our older schools too.
I often wondered why schools that have been built in the past few years look like schools built 50 years ago, the only difference being perhaps better air conditioning. I am also familiar with Nair and his work, and have long wanted to visit the schools he has designed. Perhaps this site can start collecting examples of exemplary school design, based on the 8 comforts above.
I also wonder why superintendents do not see building schools as their only true and lasting legacy. Long after they leave or die, the schools they build will remain in place and their name will be on the wall as the superintendent that was there when the building was constructed.
So, if there are any Supers out there reading this, what do you consider when building a school? Do you use the same architects that design strip centers and prisons? Do you use schools only architects?
Wow, that got me thinking. I have a parent who donated a bunch of carpet padding, maybe we’ll make chair pads…
Thank you all for the feedback.
Here is some more from Prakash Nair.
I encourage all of you to do a “google” on Nair.
You wont look at your schools the same way again. I promise.
I totally agree with the sentiments of the article and also the comments that follow
We have worked briefly with Randy and Prakash and their team on two occasions, once when they visited Knowsley in the UK where we were working with the authority and their contractor and then also in the Cayman Islands on the High School programme there.
Team a go-go specialise in creating fun and inspiring places for learning and teaching and it is a constant battle to ensure that the vision of teachers and designers as well as children is not diluted by contractors and other purse holders.
Some of our work in the education sector can be seen here:
We are also currently involved in an exiciting primary school project in the UK and in contributing to a publication on the subject of the ‘optimum primary school learning environment’
I’m looking forward to hearing the rest of the comments from the group and some more interesting debate
How exciting that you are actually part of the change! I liked the way that Nair Felding let the users help design the workspace. I wonder how that model to could be scaled down to classrooms where students and the teacher help design their classroom learning space each year? Would students have a greater buy in if they helped design how the room was set up?
It was very informational and I liked it a lot
Anyone who spends quite a few hours glued to chair would know how restless one gets due to backaches and fatigue. If you are some who spends most of waking hours at the desk you must agree to buy a desk chair that cares for your physical health so that you work in peace. It is actually very detrimental for work productivity if one is constantly haunted by pains in various regions of body. Since, a chair is a serves as home for all the people at work, one must try quite a few chairs before making a purchase. A chair does much more than providing a place to sit. Ideally, a chair must take care of the health of the person who sits over it for more than usual hours. Human body is curvilinear so how can a stiff straight chair adjust to its demands at first place? A chair that does not care for the contours of human body is definitely not an appropriate one.:;
My current web-site
Thank yu so much!!!!!!!!!! I got so much resacrch done. I also was able to get my school comfier chiars!!!
I just got informed about some great stuff for school my friend Anika showed me
During the school days, I have extreme back pain and stiffness all day, and it becomes unbearable. Sometimes, it’s so bad I almost start crying. I get home and usually need to take a warm shower or bath just to relax my back. On the weekends, I’m totally fine though, no pain at all. There is nothing comfortable about the school atmosphere. Maybe I wouldn’t dread going to school so much if we weren’t treated like prisoners.
Does anyone have suggestions or links for more comfortable chairs? My daughter is in 2nd grade and has had back issues for a year. The last week of school last year they gave her a teachers roller chair and that helped a good bit. However, we need something without wheels and that can pull up to individual desks. Thanks.