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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Rearrange the Desks: Reposition the Students' Seats to Help Retain their Attention

Move the chairs to open their minds.
By Evantheia Schibsted
Credit: Hugh D’Andrade

Long gone are the days when desks were literally bolted to the classroom floor. (Did anyone really want to steal those uncomfortable contraptions?) Yet in some of today's schools, they might just as well still be permanent fixtures, lined up in a grid with regimental rigidity. Students continue to sit in the back of classrooms, unable to hear or see well, disengaged and eventually discouraged, while their teachers long for inexpensive ways to improve the classroom's effectiveness.

Enter Franklin Hill, a well-regarded facility planner and futurist who advises educators on how to do just that. "School classrooms should have no bad seat," says Hill, a former middle school and high school teacher. "Poorly designed learning environments distort the information presented to our students by hindering their ability to see and hear and participate. This hampers their ability to learn."

For nearly two decades, his Bellevue, Washington-based educational-design firm, Franklin Hill & Associates, has worked on major projects throughout North America, including the Disney Celebration School. But Hill is keenly aware that most public educators don't have the luxury to design a school from the ground up -- or even renovate existing structures.

Despite limited resources and occasional administrative resistance, however, Hill believes public school teachers can enhance learning in their classrooms simply by applying what he calls "no-cost or low-cost" solutions that include making sure no student is more than 15 feet from the instructional source, whether that's a teacher, an overhead projector, or a video screen. He also advises being aware of light sources to prevent glare on computer screens or chalkboards. He cautions against seating arrangements that either create awkward viewing angles for students or prevent them from hearing information clearly. However self-evident such tips may seem, if they're overlooked, as Hill claims they frequently are, students easily can be stymied.

Robert J. Wankmuller, science chairperson for the Hauppauge School District, on New York's Long Island, knows this firsthand. When he taught chemistry in another school district, Wankmuller had two classrooms with different seating arrangements. One had tables and lab stations in the middle of the classroom, where students faced each other the entire period; the other combined rows of desks in the front of the room with a lab-activity and cooperative-learning area in the back.

"I saw a big difference in student behavior," says Wankmuller, explaining that kids in the classroom with two distinct areas behaved better and performed better on exams. "It wasn't because they were any brighter. It was the seating."

Wankmuller says seating arrangements should reflect the type of activity going on. "Students need to know that different things are expected of them based upon where they are sitting. They should have a different mind-set [for each area]."

So, he explains, in the lab and cooperative area, they should be talking together and figuring things out. When they're arrayed in more traditional rows of front-facing desks or chairs, they should raise their hands when they want to ask or answer questions.

"Students need to see some direct connection between what they hear in lecture and what they do as a hands-on activity," Wankmuller says. The transition from one classroom layout to another can be used to segue between one approach to learning and another. "When they regroup, they need to talk about what they discovered [in the other setup] and link that to the next topic. It's not easy to do, but the variety helps them focus."

Evantheia Schibsted is a contributing writer to Edutopia.

Comments (47)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Krystalyn's picture

I don't like to keep the same seating arrangements for a long time. I like to keep excitement and make sure that my students are able to engage with each other in the learning process. I can say that I have a fairly nice size classroom with 21 students and areas that house centers for reading. I do believe that the arrangement of students does have an eddfect on their engagement in the class. Not only the arrangement of the desk but also the people that they choose to sit around. It's the start of a new year and I'm still learning my students but I do konw that I will be changing my room around shortly.

Rebecca Southwick's picture

I highly recommend Fred Jones' "Tools for Teaching" as a must-read. If you only have time for a part of it now, read section 2, chapter 4, "Arranging the Room".

Trish Gervais's picture
Trish Gervais
Middle Level Science teacher from northern Maine

I've arranged my classroom many different ways. I've taught first and third grade and now teach grades 5-8. I use tables and chairs because I can't stand the connected desks. The best arrangement I've found is a u shape, with a twist. I have the students face away from me-or facing away from the center of the circle. They turn their chairs around for discussion and face out for work time. This arrangement allows for plenty of floor work or demonstration space. My students also have the option to seat themselves anywhere (floor,etc.) during work time as long as they do not disturb others. This let's students who need to get up work standing at the counter if they want. Turning chairs around is their cue to be good listeners and that their participation in discussion is required.

Kristine Bekker's picture

Dismayed at articles that tell you what is good/best for kids, but provides NO examples, or real world workability! ack!
Thanks for adding great ideas and resources teachers!
Unfortunately I think a lot of crowded classrooms (esp in California) will have to cobble together mismatched, broken furniture and cram it all into overcrowded rooms.
Something that I found that does not work: is having middle school kids FACE each other while you're trying to give instruction. I think thats why people just default to rows. You really have to control their social or any-distraction-I-can-find nature. So, I do change the seats to assist with attention on lecture days vs. group discussion/project time.
One thing you CAN control is where YOU are...I move around the room a lot, and often project onto various walls- a screen on one wall, white poster paper hung on another, or on the white board. Don't let the board or screen limit your mobility.
I've also found success hanging long strips of poster paper from the ceiling (almost the floor) to divide spaces, block morning/afternoon sun & glare, and best yet give secluded space to kids who need less distraction. (that was my "free" fix, you could also purchase fabric) I was able to do this with a weird space near the door, where kids would look out at what what was happening outside, or could be distracted by anyone else in the room. After hanging the paper, the kids in that area could no longer see outside, or half of the kids in the room, the only thing to look at was forward towards me and the board.

Don't be afraid to keep trying different designs and layouts. Middle & high school kids love the variety!

Kevin Dooley's picture
Kevin Dooley
7th and 8th Grade English Teacher

It's important to get them up and moving, but teaching students quiet and orderly transitions to different seating modes is essential as well. Practice, practice, practice.

Mel's picture

[quote][quote]Jeff Schultheis

Parent / Guardian

Posted on 7/28/2010 7:51pm

Ridiculous

It is a joke how badly teachers suck.[/quote]

Thank you for your gross over-generalizations. Thank you for being constructive in your criticism, and for remaining positive with your commentary...[/quote]

Yes, and the fantastic grammar and people skills that are just essential to make change. I am going to assume that this person is a huge failure. At bare minimum, he is a two-faced hypocrite. The first step to making change begins on a foundation of respect for the teachers and the profession. The attitude of the original poster is that of an arrogant fool. May the Lord bless his children to have more respect for education and people than he does.

Mel's picture

[quote]I want to think that this website is a bad joke. Sadly, it is not. I learned all this stuff in college in the 90s. I taught briefly and put it into practice. I think I should blow the dust off of my textbooks and start a blog. The real joke (a sad one) is how badly teachers and schools suck.

Get in your school and change it. I am in the process of changing my son's sucky school. It ain't easy. You gotta make friends on the inside and that takes time. We are forming transition teams with preschool and child care facilities. Next I'm working on parent surveys. Follwing that, changing the report cards.

Fix kindergarten and work my way up. Give parents a voice. Change the assesments which drive instruction.[/quote]

Please tell me that you, sir are the joke. If your respect for the entire education system and the educators is really what you say, that makes you a hypocrite and an arrogant fool.

My best bet would be that you taught for two years maximum. Just enough time for you to know that you can't cut it. (of course your grammar and sentence structure speaks volumes in that area as well).

Your close minded over-generalizations and simpleton solutions without any practical prior knowledge on which to formulate a complete and coherent thought is exactly what is wrong with education "reform."

The best thing you could do is pray to the good Lord that your children have the ability to overcome their parenting and contribute effectively to society.

Juan R Velazquez's picture
Juan R Velazquez
Fourth Grade SEI Math and Science teacher from Houston, Texas

I read this article about two weeks ago and today, while I was arranging the furniture in my classroom, I found myself measuring distances within the classroom to be sure that I kept everyone in the golden triangle...

Debi Lewis's picture

This article was written in 2005 and SO MUCH has changed in the last five years. There are great ideas, but in California, you can barely move in our overcrowded classrooms much less design the perfect space.

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