Angela Watson is an experienced elementary school teacher, coach, and blogger (see here). She offers pros and cons of various ways to arrange a classroom leaving it up to readers which configuration of desks best reflects their beliefs in teaching and learning and the realities of managing a crowd of students.
At a time when the nation is returning to full-time face-to-face instruction after 18 months of pandemic schooling, thinking about organizing and, perhaps, changing classroom furniture becomes a possibility. Why? Because how to furnish and arrange furniture in a classroom is a peek into the heart and mind of a teacher’s ideology of how students learn best and watching them at the same time.
Watson offers teachers various options to consider. Moreover, she recommends changing seating arrangements over the course of the school year as classroom norms evolve, content and skills shift, and relationships with students mature.
Although she speaks to mostly elementary school teachers, I have seen thousands of middle and high school classrooms where seating arrangements vary including options that Watson evaluates.
She describes the seating organizations she uses:
- Stadium Seating (or Angled Rows with Desks Touching)
- Modified U (or Horseshoe)
- Groups (or Teams)
- Combination (desks in various positions)
Watson offers her analysis of these seating arrangements.
Stadium seating (angled rows with desks touching)
Pros: Enables the teacher to see what every child is doing, gives all students a clear view of the front of the room, can take up less floor space than other arrangements, makes it easy for students to work in pairs or move their desks into groups for cooperative work
Cons: Does not work well with a large number of desks because students will be too far away, less effective in terms of management when more than two rows are used, less suitable for classrooms that use cooperative learning methods for the majority of the day
Yes, I do think that placing your students’ desks in rows is a perfectly acceptable classroom arrangement! I like having desks in angled rows (also called stadium seating) because all the kids are facing me. This helps me see if they’re on-task and makes it easier for them to concentrate.
Because the students’ desks are touching one another (and not completely separated), the angled rows mean that students can work with partners without having to move their desks because they are sitting right alongside one another. When it’s time for group work, they can easily shift the desks to work together in fours, or sit at tables in the back of the room or on the floor.
The advantage of angled over straight-facing rows is that the angle makes it easier for students to see and leaves space in the front of the room for a rug, open area, overhead projector cart, podium, table, and so on. The photo above shows the angled style in a different classroom, this time with a projector cart in the middle instead of a rug and the desks pulled much closer to the front of the room. This room is larger than the one above, and I rarely had students move their desks for group work: they did partner work with the person next to or behind/in front of them, and then for group work, they moved to sit at the tables and rug areas you see placed around the classroom. They absolutely loved this because it gave them the opportunity to get out of their desks and sit some place different!
Pros: Allows you to fit many desks into a small space, students talk less during teacher-direct and independent activities when they are further apart from their friends, make partner work simpleCons: Spreads children out considerably so that it can be hard to address them all, makes group work harder because the desks can’t easily be moved around
As shown above, I began one particular school year with 22 desks in a modified horseshoe shape, leaving a small break in the middle and sides of the desk arrangement to use as walk-through spaces. This created a large center space that I could stand in to see each student’s work….
Pros: Can save floor space even with many desks, supports cooperative work.
Cons: Promotes off-task behavior, distracting for many students.
This was an arrangement I wasn’t able to use when I had close to 30 kids in my class, because when children were facing one another at their desks, it was just too much work to keep them from talking during teacher-directed instruction and independent work times. However, I have found that there are some smaller classes of children who can handle sitting in groups, and it also worked well when I taught in schools that promoted a lot of collaborative learning. This arrangement shows 3 groups of 5, with 2 kids who could not handle the groups sitting by themselves off to the side. I loved having the groups angled like this because all the kids could see the board and I could stand in one spot and see everyone’s face and work area….
During my last year in the classroom, I got rid of the desks and switched to tables! I had been wanting to do this for years, and when I stepped foot in the room in August and saw how the custodians had stacked all those desks in a corner, I realized how much more room I would have. I had all the desks removed and replaced with tables (oh, yes, the custodians looooved that idea), and I was THRILLED with the results. You can read more in my blog post Tables vs.Desks. I do keep desks for children who have a hard time working in close proximity to others. The desks are situated near the tables: if a child has issues, he simply moves the desk back a few feet and gets himself together, then rejoins the team later….
What’s missing from Watson’s account are ways that elementary and secondary teachers arrange student seating in art rooms, science labs, maker spaces, writing workshops, and music instruction. See below:
Between Angela Watson’s experience with organizing seating arrangements in her elementary school classroom and the range of classrooms within secondary school buildings with diverse curriculum, teacher-design for seating groups of students within 750–1200 more square feet gives insight, tiny as it may be, into how teachers believe it is best to teach and how students best learn.