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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

Ken Meshke's picture

It's amazing how many desks you can fit into two concentric semicircles with an aisle down the middle. Nobody was any further away than the second row and it afforded a rather large space right in front for demonstrations and memorable silliness. (a shortcut to long term memory)

Kathleen M. Faulkner's picture

How timely! The article and accompanying comments reinforce for me that a classroom should not be static,and that their are many ways to arrange it! I love the idea of having the students practice rearranging the desks.

I will be working in my classroom today, and looking at the space with a critical eye and an open mind!

Pierre Poulin's picture
Pierre Poulin
6th grade teacher, Montréal, Québec

I agree that a major change has to occur: no more rows please ! The new classroom setting I introduced last year is one answer as of what to do for 21st century education. Please have a look on these two web sites :

Pierre Poulin's picture
Pierre Poulin
6th grade teacher, Montréal, Québec

Hello everyone ! I'm so glad this issue is finaly addressed !

Last year, I have developed this seating arrangements in my grade 6 classroom. (www.iclasse.ca) My point is to develop 21st Century skills for both, students and teachers (I'm also a PhD student).
The fact that it looks like an Internet Cafe attracted teachers and seduced the students who were least motivated in school.

This year, I plan to develop even more into a new design for my classroom. I simply hate rows and I feel it gives the wrong message to students when we keep using them.

Heather Mason's picture

While I have a large classroom, it has a strange layout with lots of counters and cabinets. That means there is only one place for my desk (in the front) and my screen and projector are install to the side of my desk. Neither are my decision, but were based on where existing wiring is.

I find that traditional rows work very well when students first come to class or when I'm giving instructions. Students are looking where I want them to look and paying attention. Plus the rows make it very easy for subs when I am out. However, once I no longer need their attention up front, they are free to move. Desks move for group work...but more often students like to ditch the desks and work on the floor or on the counters. Many students like to sit in the corners or in the bookcase (I have large bookcases), for independant work. When we are having a large class discussion, we just move into a circle. If you come into my class at the beginning, you see rows, but rows are only the starting point.

Alison Cohen's picture

I'd like to recommend the book "Spaces & Places." It has loads of photos from all sorts of classroom spaces in PreK-5th grade, including well-organized areas for whole group and small group reading,classroom libraries, literacy work stations, teacher desks, and storage areas. You'll love the "before and after" pictures. http://www.stenhouse.com/shop/pc/viewprd.asp?idProduct=9122

Anna Pilloton's picture
Anna Pilloton
Program Coordinator

George Lucas expressed the link between the "built environment" and the "learning environment", and how inspiring design in facilities and space can lead to exciting learning for students. There is a growing interest and commitment to thinking of classroom configurations differently, and some great solutions coming out of design-based organizations such as Project H Design. Check out their approach toward more interactive computer labs (and other education-based designs): http://www.projecthdesign.org/projects/bertiecomputerlabs.html

Whitney Hinman's picture

Yes, I am expecting 38 students next year, and I too would like to see what the experts have to say about fitting all those kids in and meeting all of their diverse needs. I move around my classroom all the time precisely because there are always kids in 'the back of the room'. I know that in California and across the nation, teachers have more to deal with than ever, at in my 15 years of experience. But, thanks for trying to help! Here's to keeping our hopes up!!

Debi Lewis's picture

You must in be in California...we are expecting up to 45 in our classrooms in grades 4 - 8 in the fall....35 in lower grades. I, too, am trying to be optimistic, but with more than 40 and our small classrooms (we don't even have space for a bank of computers) there are no options for seating. I had students in the back who could not even read the overhead last year. I am with you...trying to be creative and optimistic.

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