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

Debi Lewis's picture

I am going to try and contact Franklin Hill (author of this article) and see what his thoughts might be. This was written in 2005 and boy have things changed since then. Maybe he can give us some insight.

Debi Lewis's picture

Sent Mr. Frank Hill an email this morning along with this blog link to see if he can offer those of us with very crowded classrooms some inspiration and ideas........we'll see!

Debi Lewis's picture

Thank you for the recommendation, but who has classrooms that size???
I am going to try and find the book today.

Debi Lewis's picture

I got a response from Frank Hill almost immediately...he may chime in on our blog!

Rhoonda Howard's picture
Rhoonda Howard
6th Grade Language Arts/Social Studies; 8th Grade Language Arts

I only have 30 students, but because they are sixth graders, the desks are big, and my room is LONG, like a bowling alley. A couple years ago, I had the desks facing the long wall to make sure that nobody was too far from the front of the room. But I had NO floor space.

It sounds illogical, but I changed the desks to face the short wall, and this put several students far away. But it gave me a lot of floor space in front, and in the back of the room. I removed every spare chair and table from the classroom. I have counters so I put the few remaining working computers on the counters. Students either stand or put THEIR chairs backwards and kneel on the seat of the chair. People come into my room and remark about how BIG it looks.

Teachers tend to keep too many things. Weed it out; get rid of every spare piece of furniture. I've even considered removing half of the desks (only keeping 15) and using those as "work tables." My students always come to the front or back of the room for direct teaching. (We use the GLAD - guided acquisition language design - methods.)

Students can be trained to sit well on the floor. For longer periods, you can have them arrange the chairs at the front of the room, w/desks pushed to the back. Then they return to the desks to do their work. If you think only having half the number of desks will not work, think about how many kids will crowd around a table if you let them work at the only spare table in the room. :) (There are a couple tables in my room, but they are now desks.) Even if I had computers on tables, I would eliminate those chairs and have students take their own chairs to the computers.

I have saved big sheets of cardboard and students often use those as "tables" on the floor. They stack neatly behind a bookcase or on a counter. It would be nice to have a clipboard for every student though. You can also have two students share a textbook at one desk.

You could probably even get rid of desks completely. Students can always sit up against a wall and use their chair as a desk top. Or push the desks to the walls around the perimeter of the room and enjoy a big circle sitting on the floor, or two concentric circles of chairs, in the middle of the room. I love the extra space we have to GET UP AND MOVE.

Best tip: Get rid of every unnecessary item taking up floor space.

Richard's picture

Great article and very interesting comments!

I created some software to help increase engagement in my classroom by creating better seating plans. I won't go on about it here but stacks of other teachers find it useful now.

Can download it from

Hope it helps :)

Suzan Winkelman's picture

This is the time of year to think about classroom arrangements! I am truly amazed by the number of students some of you have in your rooms. I feel for you all and wish you luck!

i really like the author's idea of the students facing each other with an aisle down the middle. I will try that arrangement out for some lessons.


Theresa's picture

Too many desks, too little room. When my class sizes were under 30, I could be creative and try various arrangements. I would have the students propose, debate and decide on the new arrangement. When there's 36 tables and chairs in the room, like this year, there's a physical limitation. There's going to be students more than 15 feet from the screen/board. It can't be helped. To make it worse, whoever designed our classroom tables have never been in a classroom. Or maybe the fault is with our furniture buyer. Our desks cannot touch because the legs are splayed out too far. The table legs take up more space than the writing table so there's wasted space between every desk. At my son's brand-new high school, it's even worse. The chairs are too big to fit under the desks - at all. The students sit on the edge and lean over the desks. My son complained of back pain all year. Well designed furniture could go a long way to improving tight conditions.

Theresa's picture

I was expecting an increase this year, but was still dismayed to have 36 in a sixth grade class. I can't begin to imagine how the California teachers deal with over 40.

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