Arranging Classroom Furniture: An Unobtrusive Glimpse into How Teachers Teach

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.Science+room

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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.

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Now, take a look at photos of classrooms over the past century.

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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.

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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.

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*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.

30 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

30 responses to “Arranging Classroom Furniture: An Unobtrusive Glimpse into How Teachers Teach

  1. I’m not so sure that layouts are ‘…result of teacher decisions stemming from beliefs …’. I did 5 years in the secondary classrooms in the UK and found peers, managers and authorities were a more significant influence on the layout of classrooms than my beliefs.

    • larrycuban

      Good point, David, that teachers organize their student seating arrangements based not only on beliefs but also peer influence,and other factors.

  2. Maria F

    I’m interested in viewing the image lowest on the page more closely (the drawing of different classroom arrangements) and wonder if you can suggest how to track down a larger version and the source. Thanks. Interesting post, Larry!

  3. Alice in PA

    This time I think you may be reaching a bit. Moveable desks mean they can be moved during class. I like the rows at the beginning because of what you said about the daily agenda type items and I can easily take attendance and pass out papers. Then, more often than not ( and I actually plan for it to be more than 50%) the students move them selves and their desks into a new configuration for the next part of the lesson. While I am not saying whether that is typical or not, I think we need to be careful of the claims we make from the evidence of static photos. It works the other way to. Just because there is a collaborative arrangement does not mean that those activities occur or occur in any meaningful way.

    • larrycuban

      What you say you do in your classroom, Alice, I have seen done many times in many other teachers’ rooms. In my experience of visiting classrooms, it does occur but I would not call it “typical.” Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • Alice in PA

        I, too, would not call it typical. And I agree with your claim about classroom layout being an indicator of classroom culture. I was calling into question the idea of making a claim from a static picture. You added the idea of visiting classrooms and that added a lot more evidence. I just think that we, as educational researchers, need to be careful when we give evidence, even in non-scholarly places. Many of my fellow K-12 teachers discount almost all ed research based on incomplete portrayal of evidence in write-ups because they will say (and in many cases rightfully so) that there are multiple ways to interpret the evidence. And as a result they are losing out on productive ideas.

        Since we come from different disciplines, science and history, perhaps we view evidence differently since historical evidence is maybe more static?

        Or maybe I am just hyper sensitive since this year I am focussing on my students giving strong evidence for their claims, and giving rebuttals, as they discuss their findings during classroom labs!

      • larrycuban

        Thanks again, Alice, for your follow-up comments. There are multiple ways to interpret evidence, as you say. Writing history is the best example of that since written history is interpretation of fragmentary evidence. Whether our disciplines differ in their approach to evidence, I am agnostic. After all, I do read a lot of history of science and history of medicine and the merger of history and science in interpreting evidence goes beyond facts, phenomena, and the like being static. You got me thinking about different disciplinary approaches to evidence. For that, I thank you.

  4. Pingback: Arranging Classroom Furniture: An Unobtrusive Glimpse into How Teachers Teach | Educational Policy Information

  5. As an English teacher, I quickly realised that I needed an arrangement that meant minimal movement of children, desks and chairs when their activity moved from whole class, to small group, to individual. If you position desks in groups of 4 and think about pupils’ sight lines, it’s possible to use a set up where the 3 changes in activity above involve no movement at all of bodies or furniture…just heads.

    One layout I still see in many schools, but think ought to be banned, is the classroom that has PCs situated along three walls so that the teacher teaches a room full of children’s backs…which happens even with the smoothest of revolving chairs.

    • larrycuban

      Joe, thanks for offering the example of how you arranged desks when you taught English. The less-than-subtle point I am making in this post is that furniture arrangement is another tool that the teacher has to achieve the goals he or she sets for student learning.

  6. Teacher ed programs should have a course on classroom design and set-up, seriously. I am one of the only teachers at my school that uses tables. The tables seat four students. I chose the tables when I first started teaching thirteen years ago because students needed room to do layouts for yearbook. I agree with Alice that collaborative arrangements don’t necessarily result in meaningful student collaboration. Cuban’s article concedes this as well. However, I agree with Cuban that a collaborative arrangement unconsciously influences how teachers think about planning instruction and interacting with students. Experience with collaborative arrangements (even with little or no meaningful student collaboration) gives teachers the mindset that this way of instruction is manageable and useful. Once teachers are comfortable with keeping order in the classroom with a collaborative arrangement, then they can begin to develop strategies that facilitate individual, partner, table, and whole class instruction. Without a positive experience with collaborative seating, most teachers with movable desks will not move them. And while rows of desks don’t preclude student collaboration, such configurations certainly don’t encourage it.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Steve, for chiming in on this post. What you say makes sense to me given my experiences and frequent observations of classrooms and teacher interviews.

  7. I think there is another influence that is starting to affect how a classroom is arranged and how the teacher teaches, student laptops. The teacher at the front of the room with students in rows hiding behind laptop screens is just asking for students to wander the internet during class. Technology has given teachers mobility; they do not have to be at the front of the room. Of course there are the little details like not all classrooms have the technology or that many teachers like being in the front of the room in control.
    JoeN’s comment about the computer arrangement around the three walls is well taken, but the alternatives are much, much worse. Having the computers in rows facing the teacher is absolutely the worst arrangement for several reasons. For a dual purpose classroom with computers and desks the computers against the walls is the only arrangement possible. The teacher has to be able to see the screen to help the student and the cables have to be out of the way.

  8. Thanks for highlighting one of the many, involved decisions teachers face, sometimes daily, as they consider what is best for optimal student learning in their classroom. As others point out, the best choice may vary from day to day, or within a period depending upon the task at hand; it may also vary based on the specific subjects taught in any given day, as many teach more than one subject. In some ways, this decision poses a situational, dynamic dilemma where a teacher considers preferred pedagogy versus district mandated instructional methods, classroom management demands, students’ learning styles, students’ ZPDs (zone of proximal development), specific process or content standards, and desired learning outcomes, to name a few. Just another day in the life of a teacher!

  9. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Again an interesting post by Larry Cuban. How does your classroom looks like, btw? (Mine actually changed a lot today during class).

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  12. alliflowers

    The student desks we use are terrible for moving or small group work. We arrange our desks so that they will best fit in the minimal space we have in our classrooms so that when we walk amongst our students we don’t trip over their backpacks.

  13. Pingback: 10 Wishes for Schools in 2015 | maelstrom

  14. Love your essay! As a teacher I really do hate the rows arrangement as it automatically sets up the kids as passive recipients of teacher knowledge. Also, kids tend to arrange themselves (if given the choice) with the least interested kids in the back and the more motivated students in front, not exactly optimal. In my classroom desks are in a horseshoe shape so everyone is “in the front row” and can see and hear well if teacher is doing an introduction to something, which hopefully is short. Then students are encouraged to move their chairs around and cluster in small groups for the next step of learning.

  15. Pingback: Furniture and Design Within the Classroom Environment | The Classroom Experience

  16. Pingback: A better AIA | Panfilocastaldi

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