Do photos of classrooms and the arrangement of furniture give observers a glimpse of how teachers teach?
Yes, they do but only a hint. Here is my reasoning.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Such a configuration of classroom space limits students’ movement within a classroom to that which the teacher permits.
- 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 children and youth can work in small groups or individually, student decision-making 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 bolted 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
One teacher who thought through her classroom furniture design is Kayla Delzer, an experienced second-grade teacher in West Fargo (ND). She recognized that how elementary school teachers organize a classroom’s furniture and environment has a lot to do with how one teaches. Many teachers holding beliefs in creating other ways of teaching and student learning do what Delzer has done. They do not take existing classroom furniture for granted. But it takes an acute eye, much thought, grit, and a few dollars to make it happen. Here is her story as it appeared in EdSurge, October 1, 2015.
It’s been my dream to make my 2nd grade classroom look more like a “Starbucks for kids”, and less like, well, a classroom.
Think about when you go to Starbucks to complete some work. Why do you choose to work there? Where do you choose to sit? I usually gravitate towards the comfy seating choices like the couches and big chairs, and yet, I see people choose the tables and chairs over and over again. Regardless, when you walk into Starbucks, you have choice. You get to choose where you sit. No one checks you in and directs you to a spot, telling you that you must sit there for the remainder of the day to do your work. If you need to get up, walk around, or choose a different seat, you are free to do so….
Before I even purchased a single thing, I thought about why I was doing a classroom redesign. If we truly want to prepare our students for the real world, we need to put them in responsive, dynamic environments that reflect life outside of a traditional classroom. And what’s that life outside like? Full of choices, where adults are responsible for their own learning. As a college student visiting my classroom once said, “It’s like you’re treating them like little adults.” And as my teaching has changed, my classroom design needed to change right along with it.
After consulting Erin Klein, a classroom design guru who has been “ditching her desks” to avoid “the cemetery effect” for a few years now and sharing her experiments on her blog, I thought about my classroom and the traditional chairs and tables I was given–and I came up with a plan.
Looking around my classroom, I quickly realized that I had far too much furniture, so I got rid of four tables, my huge teacher desk, 20 traditional chairs and a file cabinet. Next, I started looking for resources to redesign and repurpose what I already had. I looked around my house and in my storage closet to pull some pieces that I wasn’t using, and scavenged Hobby Lobby for some new purchases.
What came out of that was flexible seating and open floor space: I thought about my students who would prefer to stretch out on the floor, and I purchased yoga mats and bath rugs for them to lay out on and work. Simultaneously, my fellow educators contributed extra clipboards they weren’t using so students would be able to write just as easily.
Now, I have a large, open area for whole group instruction and five remaining tables, each designed with a specific purpose:
- a small group instruction whiteboard table with stools
- a stand-and-work table with no chairs
- a crate seats table
- a sit-on-the-floor area with core disks or pillows and work table (see to the right)
- a stability ball chairs table
Do you have a seating plan or arrangement?
No, I don’t have a seating plan for kids. I allow students to responsibly choose where they work every day. When they arrive in the morning, they make a choice for the day but are free to switch places as they see fit throughout the day. I have enough seating options in our classroom that there are never issues about running out of one type of seating.
How do you ensure students are selecting smart choices to work?
At the beginning of the year, students spent an entire day trying out each of the seating choices. After that, I let them began to let them self-select their seating daily.
One big note: Students know I always reserve the right to move them.
I think this is an important step in the process. For example, one student who stands and works originally swore up and down that he would work best on the stability balls–but that changed. It only took him falling off the chair once and almost bouncing out the door for us to both realize that it probably wasn’t a smart fit for him.
One big note: Students know I always reserve the right to move them, and they know I always have their best learning in mind.
What about your students with behavior issues?
The behaviors of my students who have exhibited aggressive or distracting behaviors in the past have significantly decreased. There is power for them in the choice to select where they will work. They know the work isn’t optional, but choosing where they work is.
Did you do it all at once, or introduce these changes slowly over time?
I had the option of “work rugs” (glorified bath rugs … for students last year, but only a few students utilized them. So, things have changed over time. you want to just try a few things without breaking the bank, I would start with a few work rugs or yoga mats. Or, just take the legs off of a table, lay it on the ground and get some cheap pillows for students to sit on. It’s also easy to raise a table for students who prefer to stand and work. Don’t feed the fears–just try it and see what works for you.
Where do students keep materials?
We have work bins in the corner of our room where students keep folders, math journals, and other personal items. We use community supplies at each of the five tables, and I have individual baskets of supplies for students that choose to work on yoga mats or work rugs. If you don’t have work bins for students, get three drawer stackers and place them throughout the room, or put materials in baskets. You may have to get creative and repurpose something you already have–or something that another teacher has, but isn’t using.
If we take a look at classrooms over the past 70 years, we are seeing the same type of learning environments, year after year. The world is changing, yet our classrooms are remaining much the same. Revitalizing space is a straightforward way to let students exercise choice in the learning environment and find academic success on their own terms.
Now several weeks into our school year, I can’t imagine going back to traditional seating. Distracting behaviors have been almost completely eliminated while engagement and student participation are at an all time high. And as I look around our classroom, I feel proud of what we have accomplished–a Starbucks for kids.
Delzer’s Classroom is the last of the photos.
*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.