One winter morning, I walked into a classroom at Brigham Young University. Then I walked back out. Then I walked in again…was I in the right place? Was I in the right century? Instead of the familiar octagon-shaped tables that we usually crowded around for assessment class, there were a whole bunch of these all over the room (though in a rather boring gray, the green would have been much more fun…):

picture of a node chair
The Node Chair

Being the mature graduate students that we were, my classmates and I immediately rearranged the whole room, leaving racing space in the middle. We raced around the room in our new chairs. We speculated on the impact the chairs might make on the type of learning that occurred in the classroom (we were studying instructional design, after all), analyzing details of each feature and debating whether it would enable new pedagogy or distract learners. And I’m sure we learned something about assessment in class that day, but I don’t remember that part.

Flash forward several years. I’m looking for case studies on classroom desks because I think they might make interesting design study–an artifact that reflects culture and affects pedagogy. And as I’m looking for case studies of desks, I find a visual history of  school desks, and there is that strangely-shaped piece of furniture that appeared years ago! It’s called a Node Desk.

So I do some more investigating. I go to the website of the design company (Steelcase) and check out their educational research section. And what do they have there? Research and case studies of active learning, creativity, etc. This was a website for a furniture company. They made furniture, educational furniture being just one type. But much of their website doesn’t discuss furniture at all; it highlights the surrounding experiences and culture.

I did some more searching and found they often worked with IDEO (including on the Node Desk). Again, it all fits together nicely. Steelcase is serious about design and seems to adroitly move among design discourses. They consider processes, experiences, systems, and cultures as they design artifacts.

Plus, someone made this gem:

Now, although the Node Chair looks cool and has some unique features (see here), it didn’t exactly change my learning experience. We did the same things we always did, we just had more furniture in the way. The desks felt a little flimsy, making some of us nervous about placing our laptops on them. Most of the desks ended up clustered around electrical outlets on the edges of the room. They might not have lead to more effective collaboration, but they did afford easier access to outlets! In the end, I think our teachers were annoyed by the lack of organization and by the clusters of desks around the edges of the room.

Not surprisingly, dropping a new type of furniture into a room doesn’t change pedagogy, just like plugging in a SmartBoard doesn’t result in 21st century learning.  And there were other (unintended) consequences in actual use. So the artifact didn’t exactly revolutionize our classroom. But who knows–maybe elsewhere it has.