How teachers arrange the furniture in classrooms gives a peek into how teachers teach. Look at these photos taken last year of elementary and secondary classrooms that have different furniture arrangements.
Note the different arrangements of desks. In the first photo, rows of movable desks face the front of the classroom where the teacher’s desk is located. The second photo has a horseshoe pattern of tablet armchairs across from one another. The third photo is of an elementary classroom that is chock-full of materials and children working on different activities with adults sitting on the rug and chair working with individual pupils. And the final photo is one of a secondary classroom arranged in rows where each student has a tablet and a smart phone.
Now, take a look at photos of classrooms over the past century.
Five decades later when movable desks and chairs replaced the traditional bolted down ones, a photo shows a typical classroom.
Note the regimented order of these classrooms a century ago and even five decades later. True, those desks were bolted down a century ago and were even a teacher then so inclined to arranging small groups of students–and such teachers were around–they could do it but had to overcome the furniture arrangement. But a half-century later, with movable desks, rows were still there in many classrooms but not others.
Are the changes in how classrooms are furnished and how students appear dramatically different? Yes and no.
The “yes” part is in how students are dressed and how there are more examples now of different ways to arrange desks and chairs over the decades. The “no” part is that while different ways of organizing furniture in elementary classrooms is evident and apparent for anyone who ventures into a kindergarten and first grade classroom, that is much less the case for secondary classrooms.
Do such photos of classroom furniture give observers a glimpse of how teachers teach? Yes, they do but only a hint. Here is my reasoning.
a.Furniture arrangement is seldom mandated by a school board, superintendent, or principal. The teacher decides how to use classroom space. Furniture placement, consciously or not, expresses the teacher’s views of how best to teach, maintain order, and how students learn. Thus, an observer gets a clue to whether teacher-centered and student-centered instruction* (including mixes of both) will prevail.
b. When all students face the teacher’s desk or teacher at the blackboard (now whiteboard or “smart board”) where directions, daily homework, textbook readings and quizzes are registered, whole group instruction is encouraged including class discussions (recitation was the word used in the early 20th century). Teacher-talk gains higher priority and legitimacy than exchanges between and among students.
c. Surveillance is easier for a teacher when rows or tables are in rows. Threats to classroom order can be seen quickly and dealt with expeditiously.
d. Such a configuration of classroom space limits students’ movement within a classroom to that which the teacher permits.
e. If desks are arranged into a hollow square, horseshoe, or tables are scattered around the room permitting students to face one another and talk, student-centered instruction where student talk and decision-making are prized becomes a much stronger possibility.
Note, however, that furniture arrangements do not determine how teachers teach. Classroom rows, tables, or horseshoe configurations are no more than clues to what teachers believe and practice in their lessons. Keep in mind that for the early decades of this century when desks were fixed to the floor, there were still teachers who ingeniously and with much energy overcame that obstacle and introduced student-centered practices into the classroom.Such furniture may have discouraged many teachers but it did not prevent some from altering their teaching practices.
So a glimpse of classroom furniture is useful as a starting point in assessing how teachers teach but it is only a small part of how teachers structure lessons and carry out activities. Far more information about what happens in the classroom would be needed since teacher-centered instruction can, and often does, occur even when seating arrangements look student-centered.
Furniture arrangements and the placement of students, then, are not random affairs.
They are the result of teacher decisions stemming from beliefs in keeping order and how students learn best in the age-graded school within which teachers work. So when I enter a classroom, the first thing I note and record is how desks and chairs are arranged in any classroom.
*In using the language of “teacher-centered-” and “student-centered” instruction, I need to be clear that I do not favor one over the other. Both forms of instruction and hybrids can be effective with different students at different times in different contexts. Classroom arrangements offer only a hint of what teachers believe and how they teach. That visible sign is only that, not the full picture of daily lessons.