The teacher's performance at the front of the classroom is impressive: an encyclopedic command of the facts, a clear voice that projects to every corner of the room, an engaging delivery peppered with the right amount of anecdotes and humor, and an organized way of driving home key points.

Yet, as students fidget and squirm at their desks and steal glances at the clock, it is evident that the lesson is not connecting with its audience. Left too long in uncomfortable seats, the students have lost their concentration, and a learning opportunity has been wasted. Compound that by the mountain of hours that students are sentenced to sit in ill-fitting desks and chairs in the nation's schools and universities, and it adds up to a critical challenge for education administrators.

Just as instruction has evolved to embrace the different ways students learn, classroom furniture also must change. Rigid rows of standard desks with attached chairs aren't necessarily the most effective method of engaging students, especially if children are confined to those desks for hours on end. Chairs suitable for listening to a lecture or doing table work might not be appropriate for working on the personal computers that are common in the modern classroom.

A successful student-centered classroom must have furniture that allows students to work comfortably, that can be adjusted to meet the needs of a variety of user sizes and shapes, and that offers different kinds of seating for different activities.

“You want to fit the environment to the student rather than fit the student to the environment,” says Cheryl Bennett, an ergonomic specialist at the Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., and chair of the Ergonomics for Children and Educational Environments committee of the International Ergonomics Association.