Desk experiment doesn’t sit well with students

Early in the second semester, the World Languages department and the school administration removed the desks from foreign language classes, excluding the Latin classes, who have kept their desks, and the German and Japanese classes, who have never had desks in their rooms. This action is part of an ongoing experiment concerning the TPRS learning system. Desks were systematically removed from classrooms, leaving most students with a circle of chairs, or, if they were lucky, a few tables.

The experiment moved far too quickly and failed to consider the range of classes and teaching methods in the department as well as the effects on students. The experiment was based on the style of teaching in the German classes, which has worked well for many years. However, the majority of classes in the department are taught primarily in the traditional worksheet-quiz-test format. Removing desks from these classrooms does not change how the classes are taught, it simply makes teaching awkward for instructors and learning annoying for students. This issue is further complicated by the range of differing teaching methods among instructors who share the same room.

This is not to say that the deskless-TPRS experiment is without merit. The program has had several successes already. Lower level language classes (especially levels 1 and 2) usually involve less memorization and testing and instead use interactive games and basic conversation to help students understand. In these classes, desks can be bothersome because of the potential need to rearrange them for each class, which adds stress for the teacher and reduces the flow of activity for the students. Deskless classrooms appear to have helped these classes in both of these regards.

This is not the case in higher-level language classes. These classes focus on grammar and other skills requiring memorization and writing or reading practice. Students in these classes are more likely to write essays and take tests regularly – both actions that require desks in order to be executed practically and effectively.

While it is possible to take a test without a desk, not having them can make these kinds of assignments unnecessarily difficult. Picture fifteen students, each trying to center and balance their quiz and a textbook that is being used as a writing surface on their knees, slouching over their laps as they attempt to write. This position is not conducive to students doing their best work. Even having tables do not solve this problem, as having fifteen students crowd around two tables – the same tables that are used to seat two students each during AP exams – is both uncomfortable and encourages cheating by proximity.

The experiment also failed to consider how the higher-level classes are taught. For most daily activities, sitting in chairs that have been arranged in a circle is not necessary. Desks provide a sense of personal space in a classroom, and generally help angle the student in the direction of the teacher. Happy Kumbayah circles reduce this sense of personal space as well as a student’s will to focus.

Classrooms need desks. They are one of the practical, fundamental parts of learning.  Whether or not the teacher chooses to use them is up to them.