|What's Wrong with This Desk?
by M.K. Holder, Ph.D.
introduction | medical concerns | exam handicap | what's the big deal? | institutionalized discrimination
Would it surprise you to learn that the timed test scores of some students may be raised or lowered depending on the type of desk in which they sit? Or that some students are often unfairly accused of cheating when they write at a certain kind of desk? Would it concern you if your child or pupil had to sit at a desk that could cause chronic back, neck, and shoulder pain? Ten to thirty percent of all students are routinely subjected to these, and other, desk-related problems. Why? Simply because a few policy-makers and furniture buyers take infrastructure bias for granted. Side-biased tablet arm school desks represent an obstacle to learning from pre-school through university. Yet this is a problem that may be easily solved by better informed parents, students, teachers, administrators, classroom designers, and furniture buyers.
A right-biased tablet arm desk does not offer left-handed students the same arm support that right-handed students enjoy. Depending upon the width of the half desk, and the way the student holds the pencil, left-handers are susceptible to back, neck, and shoulder pain. A left-hander who writes with an inverted or "hooked" (bent wrist) style at a narrow desk must twist around in a contorted posture that is awkward and uncomfortable. Consider the following student experiences:
Handicap on Timed Tests
Because many left-handed students have to twist their bodies around, facing to the right, in order to write on a right-biased desk, students may be unfairly accused of cheating. But more importantly, the inefficient and awkward writing position that some left-handers must adopt in this kind of desk can cause slower handwriting, placing many left-handed students at a real disadvantage on important timed examinations. Thus, for tests that have a time-limit to complete, left-handers should not sit at right-biased desks, but at a full desk or table.
What's the Big Deal?
The bottom line is this : Anything that interferes with a student's ability to learn and perform warrants serious attention. In my experience, this desk could literally make the difference between a passing and a failing grade (when I have placed students who lacked comfortable seating, or were relegated to sit in desks only available at the back of a large classroom, at full, well-located desks, their scores improved one letter grade).
Historically, school systems and universities have either (a) failed to understand the serious problems associated with biased classroom desks or (b) assumed that purchasing a certain percentage (5%-20%) left-biased desks was adequate. But we know that all students work better at full desks, with ample room to comfortably write, and use their book or laptop computer. Full desks can be individual desks or tables that two or more students share. Side-biased half-desks represent sub-optimal, sub-standard seating for students. The strategy of purchasing a certain percentage of right-biased seats and a certain percentage of left-biased seats only ensures that at any point in time, a certain number of students (both left and right-handed) must endure biomechanically incorrect seating that distracts from their ability to concentrate and perform their best.
The Problem with a 10% or 20% Left-Biased Desk Strategy
For Administrators, Designers, & Buyers
Fair, unbiased seating is comparable in size, quality, and price -- there is no justification for buying new side-biased desks. When we buy biased tablet-arm desks, we institutional discrimination (against both left- and right-handed students). The good news is that, while there are many intractable problems in the world, desk discrimination is not one of them.
For Students, Teachers, & Parents
Tired of awkward, uncomfortable biased tablet-arm desks that make it difficult for students to concentrate and perform their best? Think there is nothing you can do about it? Think again. The decision to purchase these desks is made by a single person or a small group of people who want the best for their students and their school. Clearly, they do not appreciate the serious problems associated with side-biased tablet-arm desks, or they would not buy them. Make it your job to inform them. All you have to do is (a) find out who makes desk-buying decisions at your school and (b) print this article and send it to them. For K-12 schools, ask your principle or school superintendent who makes desk-buying policy and decisions. Universities and colleges often have a furniture expert either in the purchasing department or architects' office, who works closely with classroom committees who make these decisions. Send policy makers this article, along with your polite request that school policy be implemented which stipulates that no new side-biased tablet-arm desks will be purchased. (And tell us about your success.)
Anyidoho, Kofi. (2002). Excerpt from "Memory & Vision". PraiseSong for TheLand. (Legon, Ghana: Sub-Saharan Publishers), p. 25.
Holder, M.K. (2003). What's Wrong with This Desk? Handedness Research Institute papers. URL: handedness.org/action/fairdesks.html
m o r e . . .
R E L A T E D C O N S I D E R A T I O N S
Teaching Left-Handers to Write
Many left-handed children are only permitted to write with the left hand, not actually taught how to write. Without proper instruction, a child may develop a needlessly uncomfortable, inefficient, slow, or messy way of writing. Find out why writing left-handed is not just the opposite from writing right-handed, and what you can do to help a child master left-handed writing.
Forcing Left-Handed Children to Switch
Well-meaning parents and teachers worldwide often force left-handed children to switch to being right-handed. Find out why it is a bad idea to force a child use his or her less skilled hand.M O R E A B O U T H A N D E D N E S S
Learn More About Handedness
Handedness is not as simple or as straightforward as it first appears. Learn more about hand preferences from the Handedness Research Institute white papers. For instance, do you know why some left-handers are unfairly accused of cheating? Did you know that most left-handers have the same left hemispheric brain specialization for language as right-handers? Find out more by exploring HRI's web site. Here are a few places you can start (coming soon, please visit again) :
Left-Handers in Society
Ever wonder what school is like for your left-handed child? Or how your workplace looks different to left-handed co-workers or employees? What tricks have students learned to cope with the ubiquitous bias against them? Learn how millions of people worldwide cope with being left-handed in a right-biased world : Visit Left-Handers in Society, a website collaboratively-built by left-handers. (Of course, you could also ask left-handed relatives, friends, and co-workers about their experiences.)
R E S O U R C E S
Print Your Own Posters
HRI makes it easy to spread the word by providing free posters you can print and post in classrooms, or give to parents, teachers, adminstrators, and students. The "What's Wrong with This Desk?" and "Half Desks Hurt Students" posters are suitable for both International A4 and US Letter paper sizes :
Handwriting Letter Guides
Different school systems and different countries use different styles of letter guides to help children learn to write. Find several standard styles (including Zaner-Bloser and DeNealian, print and cursive) at : Handwriting Letter Guides (coming soon)
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