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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.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach in a small classroom in an urban high school, but I am able to move the desks to form a large circle, seating 12 very comfortably, and up to 20 students, a little tight. It's really nice. No one's looking at the back of someone's head. As a teacher, this arrangement is great for returning papers, talking one to one with students, and group discussions. This works because the tables that I have "fit" together to form the circle, actually, two half circles. When my numbers move up to 28, then I have another set of desks on the perimeter of the circle. This is less ideal as those on the fringes often are apt to be withdrawn from the class and aren't as easy for me to circulate among. One of the oddities of this arrangement is that I have a student who last fall in a different classroom setting was withdrawn from the class. Now he is now sitting in the middle of the circle, which is great to see.

Sirius's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My average class size has been 30...which still has enabled me to be creative with seating. Students would shake their heads at me throughout the semester because the desk arrangements changed throughout the week. I would make a large (tight fitting) square of 7 on two sides and 8 on the other sides for class discussion, have them slightly angled in rows for notes, have 3 rows of 5 with a space in the middle and 3 more rows of 5 for a lecture day when I wanted to use proximity for everyone, arranged in squares for small group projects, arranged into 3 large tables for something else -- the point was -- the desks aren't fixed and with a small amount of effort rearranging the furniture can start the day out with the kids getting into the right mindset. The biggest problem I found was that I teach multiple subjects throughout the day in a high school setting where I had a different set of students each period. Arranging my lessons for the variety of classes so that I didn't have to try to move furniture between classes was sometimes a challenge. The second challenge for me was those rare students who still...after 15 weeks of the desks changing twice a week would ask, "Are the desks going to stay this way?" when they would come in and see something different....

Beth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an early childhood teacher, and so most of my instruction is done at the "carpet area" with the students sitting together around me in a circle. I have specific squares on the carpet where students must sit, and this position changes each week. I love it, and I can't imagine doing it any other way. Even when I was in a first grade classroom, I would always call my students to the carpet to give instructions before an activity. The close proximity really does seem to help.

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

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. Mixing things up now and then really keeps them alert and focused.
On some mornings or after lunch,if I see kids looking snoozy, I'll tell them they can stand up rather than sit, as long as they aren't in the way of anybody else or distracting others. So often we're telling the kids to sit down, but some kids just need to be able to get up. I always remember this when I end up sitting for far too long in one of our teacher workshops!

Patricia Langston's picture

I have never been able to keep my classroom in one place, much to the dismay of the custodians and my principals. I am constantly moving my students around into different settings. This allows them to work in different groups and get to know everyone. They get to work with different strengthes and abilities (inclusion, esl, aig, etc). It also prevents them from getting too comfortable in any "cliques."

We do a lot of projects and discussions so it is important they get multiple points of view, they only get this if we mix the groups up. At first they REALLY did not like this, but now they look forward to mixing it up and want to see who they will be with.

Besides, if we don't move the desks, we have no room to build projects on the floor, like the cadavers we're making right now from miscellaneous items representing the different body systems we finished studying. Creativity is flowing like crazy!

Christina R's picture

I've been struggling with student attention since my principal removed the desks and replaced them with round tables. I like that students can't play with things in their desks, but the kids are now interacting with each other instead. (Great during collaborative activities, but not during instructions.) I've been playing with the idea of a lesson area, seperate from the work area at the tables. Given the information in the article, I think this may start to solve the problem and give my students a chance to focus on the lesson. Now I just need to figue out how to establish that area without moving chairs everytime we transition from one area to the other.

Debi Lewis's picture

Wow.....I had 39 students in my classroom last year and we could barely breath much less creatively move the desks. It would have been nice to have some diagrams with the article.

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