Sit at Your Desk and Do Your Work

Imagine if our educational system taught children an unhealthy habit.  If, for example, teachers all took a few minutes every day to coax students to puff on a cigarette, or to demand that they eat a just little more junk food?  What if the report card reprimanded a child for crossing the street too cautiously?

We would, I feel sure, want the school to change that policy right away.

Well, there is a suspect habit that most schools everywhere encourage, not as a side point, but as a major goal.  Perhaps the centerpiece of our elementary education involves teaching students this skill:

Sitting still.

A recent medical study, published by the American Heart Association, implicates prolonged sitting in significant health risks.  According to the paper, authored by scientists led by Prof. David Dunstan at the Heart and Diabetes Institute in Victoria, Australia[i], people who sit for long periods have significantly elevated danger of dying of cancer, heart disease and a host of other nasty conditions.  Surprisingly, even people who get plenty of exercise suffer increased risk of disease if they sit for long periods during the rest of the day.

Learning to work at your desk is one of the classical goals of elementary education.  We demand that educational institutions teach children this skill.  We expect that students in the first or second grade should develop the ability to sit at their desks, quietly, without disrupting their neighbors, for substantial periods of time.

Education writers praise prolonged sitting in various ways.  Anthony Rao, Ph.D., co-author of The Way of Boys: Raising Healthy Boys in a Challenging and Complex World (2009), strongly advises parents to expect boys to need physical activity.  Even Rao, though, includes advice for how to get active boys to sit still:
Sit still drill. Designate a particular time each day to practice. Decide on a small reward to offer (i.e. a cookie or a penny), set an egg timer, and allow him to hold and focus on the timer as he sits. “It really helps boys to feel that the time they have to conquer is real, something they can hold,” indicates Rao. For younger boys, start off with one minute, and if he can stay calmly in his seat, reward and praise him. Do this every day, increasing the time by 30 seconds.

Rudolph Dreikurs, guru of discipline by natural consequences, tells this story:

Max is a second grader who for a couple of weeks was constantly out of his seat, leaning on his desk, and doing his work from a half-standing position.  His teacher finally asked him whether he preferred to stand or sit while doing his work. Max said that he would prefer to stand. The teacher explained to him that he would no longer need a seat and that his chair could be used somewhere else in the school. Max’s chair was immediately removed, and he had to stand up for the rest of the day. The following day, at the beginning of the period, Max was asked whether he preferred to stand or sit for the day. He said that he preferred to sit. His chair was replaced. Max no longer tried to do his schoolwork from a half-standing position.[ii]

Some other time let us think about how forcing the child to choose one position for the whole day does not seem extraordinarily natural.  For now, let’s notice that the teacher triumphs when the child gives up, and decides to sit for the entire day.

The goal of getting students to sit does not go away when the students get to higher education. A professor at MIT, Gian Carlo Rota, in listing the lessons that he wants his students to know, begins with “lesson one: You can and will work at a desk for seven hours straight, routinely” (from Gian Carlo Rota, 10 Lessons of an MIT Education).[iii]

The efforts, by and large, work.  I teach on the college level, and my students can sit at their desks for a whole class, whether called upon to listen to a lecture, to read, to write, or to carry on a discussion.  Somewhere along the line, the little girls and even the little boys have learned this basic academic skill, and college students display it effortlessly.

Many of the little boys, and some of the little girls, need medication to enable them to learn this skill. The number of prescriptions for drugs to help students sit still has gone up precipitously in recent years, and Jann Flury reported in 2008 in Education News that well more than 10% of our school children – three or four times as many boys as girls — have prescriptions. [iv]

Of course, medical fads come and go, medical studies report a correlation, and subsequent studies deny it . . . perhaps we should withhold judgment on sitting, and think of sitting as innocent until proven guilty.

But I wonder if this most basic goal of elementary education has been bad for our health.

[i] The study was published in the American Heart Association rapid access journal report in January this year.  Prof. Dunstan heads the Physical Activity Laboratory in the Division of Metabolism and Obesity at the Baker IDI

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