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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

Luann Smith's picture
Luann Smith
High School Spanish teacher in Portsmouth, VA

I agree that some diagrams would have been nice. My class avg. is 32 students in a room designed for a max of 28. I hate rows and I love grouping, but this is a challenge. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.

Lora Ma-Fukuda's picture
Lora Ma-Fukuda
mom & former exec producer @edutopia.org

[quote]I agree that some diagrams would have been nice. My class avg. is 32 students in a room designed for a max of 28. I hate rows and I love grouping, but this is a challenge. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.[/quote]

Great point! Not sure if these sites will be useful to you, but I found two places that help teachers plan the layout of their classrooms:



Also, this site is a bit challenging to navigate, but we've discovered all kinds of terrific classroom photos on teachers.net. Here's an example:
*I searched on "photo tours" on their site to find them.

Good luck!

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

In my class we use both a whiteboard, where their warm-up exercise is posted, and an LCD projector on a screen, where there are visuals and interactive notes.

So students can see both, two halves of the class face the middle of the room with a central aisle. There is no "back" of the room.

This also works well for discipline as no students are far from the "front" and cannot "hide" to be mischievous.

Stephanie Hawkes's picture

[quote]At the beginning of the school year, my classes practice moving the desks into every arrangement I can think of. I'll say, "Now I need to see 6 groups of 5 desks." "I want 2 rows of 7 desks and 16 chairs in two rows of 8 in front of the desks." "...an inside and outside circle with 15 chairs in each, desks pushed to the perimeter of the room." We take a minute between each arrangement to discuss strategies on how to improve and how to make the next arrangement. It is well worth the 45 minutes of practice, as the students are then able to arrange the desks QUIETLY and SMOOTHLY within just one minute. If I need the desks in another arrangement for the next class, I'll often ask my class to arrange the desks prior to leaving.My sixth grade students also love "rug" time, where we all come to the front or back of the room to sit on the floor.[/quote] Great idea to practice the different seating arrangements. I would love to have straight rows for direct teaching and tables for group work, but don't have the space. Teaching students to form different configurations in less than a minute sounds like the next best thing.

Jeff Schultheis's picture

Room arrangement... projects... I can't believe what I read on this site. We learned how all of these things improve outcomes when we were in college. All I have to do is blow the dust offf of my textbooks to find it. There you go. My new education blog is born. Just open my college texts from the 90s and start typing. It is a joke how badly teachers suck.

Jeff Schultheis's picture

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.

Mary Beth Jaquay's picture
Mary Beth Jaquay
Grades 5 through 8 Science and Social Studies

I teach in an urban middle school. As some of the other teachers have noted, I too typically have my students desks arranged in a circle. I also have obtained several bean bag chairs for the kids to move to when writing notes, working in groups ect. The kids love it and are respectful. One thing about this type of arrangement, it allows the teacher to become a part of the learning team in that I occassionally join the circle in discussions...

Mary Beth Jaquay's picture
Mary Beth Jaquay
Grades 5 through 8 Science and Social Studies

I am currently teaching in an urban middle school environment and like several of the teachers posting here, I too use a circle as a classroom arrangement. It receives many complimentary comments from visitors to my class. This arrangement allows the students to be on the same level, it ensures the attention of the group is on the matter at hand and most importantly it allows me to become a part of the group, particularly during discussions. This is also the perfect arrangement for problem solving. Additionally, I have obtained several bean bag chairs to permit my students greater comfort when working in groups, taking notes (when they have left glasses home)... The students love the chairs and are respectful of their environment, taking pride in its organization, structure and materials taking definate ownership of it.

Mary Beth Jaquay's picture
Mary Beth Jaquay
Grades 5 through 8 Science and Social Studies

This is also a great way to reinforce team work and problem solving.

Corah's picture

Jeff Schultheis
Parent / Guardian
Posted on 7/28/2010 7:51pm
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...

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