What Shape Are You?
Classrooms come in all shapes and sizes and in most cases we have no control over the shape of the classroom. Occasionally, if we are lucky enough to be there, we might be involved in the design of a new school – although most of the ‘Education Building Revolution’ are not negotiable! There is certainly evidence to suggest that classroom design is significant in its impact on student learning.
However, we do usually have some degree of control over the placement of the furniture in our classroom. Like many teachers I have a preferred layout.
I tend to prefer the classic horseshoe layout. I like the idea that everyone can see everyone else. As the teacher I like to be part of the group. I think the horseshoe promotes a sense of equality and sharing. Hence I started my year by arranging the classroom in this shape. In my small rural school my average class size was somewhere around 15. This year I have 24 students. While this set up definitely worked for class discussion it didn’t work so well for most other activities.
The school promotes the idea of small table groups in years 7 and 8. My group is a year 8 class so I decided to play along and arranged my tables into groups of four. I carefully placed the chairs so that they all faced the whiteboard as well as facing their table group. I moved my teacher desk to the side of the room so that I had a massive space immediately in front of the whiteboard. My plan here was to use this space for circle work, we could move our chairs or sit on the floor. The students took quite happily to this layout. They accepted the limitation of four to a table (a management strategy to deliberately split some of my students up). They also started to use the floor space (I brought in some cushions and throw rugs – although we have some trust issues about leaving them in the room when we aren’t there!). Interestingly I regularly came into the room to find the teacher table moved back to the middle of the whiteboard – clearly other teachers feel more comfortable in that spot!
A few weeks ago I came into the room to find the tables rearranged into two long formations – large groups of 12ish leading down the room towards the whiteboard. It immediately felt wrong but I thought I’d give it a go. It might be the intermediate step between small table groups and my beloved horseshoe. It took me less than a week to decide I didn’t like the dynamic it created. Even when I changed students around (the good old seating plan strategy) students were less focussed on tasks and engaged in more ‘silly’ behaviour. My feelings were confirmed when the maths teacher asked if I minded if she put the furniture back into small groups as it wasn’t working for her either.
The next week we shared our space with NAPLAN – so the tried and true exam formation appeared … one desk with two students sitting opposite each other. Great when the only task is a test paper not so great for spreading out texts, workbooks, pencil cases, netbooks, etc.
In 2002 I spent a year traveling and teaching in the UK. I taught at one of the more ‘difficult’ schools according to OFSTED and while I implemented a wide range of strategies to get my students ‘onside’ for learning, one of the most effective was the arrangement of furniture. I had 30 students in most of those classes and a huge double classroom. I divided the space into two areas:
- the forward area was the ‘learning zone’ – arranged in two rows arching around the blackboard and flip chart with my desk off to the side of the classroom. This made the space more intimate and focused on learning tasks. We didn’t have to shout to talk to each other and we weren’t distracted by people walking past the door (at the back of the room).
- the back area was the ‘do not disturb zone’ – arranged in a large group table and a reading corner with the bookshelves. If you chose not to ‘learn’ you could sit in this area and not disturb the others in the room. This involved not hurling abuse or actual objects at me or anyone else and was rewarded with being marked present on the roll!
As I reflect on classroom layout, my focus goes to the position of the teacher’s table. I still like the idea of removing this to the side of the room. I like roving around the room and sitting with students at their tables. If I want to have a class discussion I sometimes sit on a chair in the middle of the room. I like the idea of not being tied to or hiding behind my desk. I like the idea that the teacher isn’t the focus point.
There is no doubt that how we use the physical space in our classrooms influences the dynamics of our students and their focus on learning.