Is ‘sit up straight’ sound advice?

Monday morning first hour. You scan the room and immediately notice Jason, as usual, slouching in his desk. His legs are sprawled out under the desk in front of him, while his shoulders lean against the top of the seat back.

He looks comfortable, maybe too comfortable, or as comfortable as you can get when you’re 6 feet tall squeezed into a typical school desk or airplane seat.

Is he tired? Is his posture defiant? Is he having a bad day? Is he trying to goad you?

The popular “common sense” view is that this casual, slouching posture is not conducive to engagement or learning — and needs to be corrected. Google “academic posture” and you’ll find lots of good advice on how to deal with Jason. In short, tell him to sit up straight.

Here’s what I found on “Professional Learning Board” for teachers, which is representative of what’s out there:

“In order to develop attentive listeners, it is essential to encourage students to sit up straight with their back against the seat, feet placed firmly on the ground and hands on the table. This is the optimal position to ensure good learning and processing of information.”

But new research shows that might not be the case. According to a study of Japanese fourth graders, reported in this month’s Scientific American Mind, a relaxed posture may actually help students concentrate better on challenging math.

In the study, 28 children were outfitted with electrodes to record their core muscle activity while sitting upright. Then they were given math problems to solve. As the students did more and more difficult problems, their core muscles relaxed and they began to slouch.

The researchers hypothesize that “slouching frees up some cognitive power that would otherwise be tied up in sitting up straight, allowing them to do better on tough math problems than they might have otherwise.”

To be clear, they are not talking about what’s best for your back – any chiropractor or physical therapist would agree that sitting up straight is generally best.

But how do you do your most challenging work? When you’re at home grading essays or planning a new lesson, are you seated with back straight, feet on the floor, arms on the table? At this very moment, I’m slouched back in my chair, legs out under my desk, hardly a model of good posture. Sadly, this is how I usually look when I write.

Do people in those new creative Silicon Valley offices, like Google and Facebook, sit with perfect posture? In their beanbag chairs? I doubt it.

Of course, one study isn’t proof that slouching is actually better for your cognitive processing, but I’ve never seen any research-based evidence for the sit-up-straight dogma. I wonder if this policy reflects more on our need to feel “in control” than any actual student engagement results.

At this point, the truth is we just don’t know how much posture matters to engagement. I hope future research will shed more light on what works best – and how much it matters.

Maybe 10 years from now, we’ll be telling everyone to kick back and slouch like Jason when the bell rings.