George Lucas Educational Foundation
Schools That Work
Learning Environments

The Optimal Seating Plan? Letting Your Students Choose

Allowing students to move the furniture can help you differentiate instruction and give your students more agency in their learning.
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How you arrange your seating can be an asset for differentiating instruction. Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, California, uses different seating configurations for independent work, collaborative work, mini lessons, and large-group discussions.

Through scaffolded guidance from their teachers—which includes a personalized learning platform, daily goals, and a culture of formative assessment—students understand how they learn best and what resources they need, enabling them to choose and set up the seating arrangement that works best for them each day.

Summit uses furniture with wheels—trapezoidal and rectangular tables and soft fabric lounge chairs with tablet arms—to make it easy for students to move the furniture. Used furniture networks, like The Reuse Network, can be great resources, says Myron Kong, a Summit real estate team member, who adds that another way to lower costs when purchasing furniture is to aggregate all school orders into one.

Here’s how Summit creates a flexible learning environment to support differentiated instruction.

Understand Your Students’ Needs

Before you can plan your physical space, you need to know the needs of your students, and surveys can you help you figure those out. Try questions like “Do you want to work independently or with a group?” and “Do you want to learn from a Socratic discussion or a video?”

To learn more about creating surveys—and to learn about other free tools Summit uses to differentiate student learning—see “Challenging Every Student in the Room.”

Plan Your Physical Space

Design different seating configurations students can choose from when they come in. Chris Kelly, a history teacher, suggests asking yourself about the best spaces for independent and collaborative work, and how many students will want mini lessons.

“Have a clear, data-driven objective for why you want students to rearrange the space in the classroom. It is easier to articulate, get buy-in, and have students appreciate the personalized ways that you are helping them to learn,” explains Cady Ching, a biology and AP environmental science teacher.

Post-it Note Goals

Post-it notes with academic goals written on them posted on a whiteboard.
Post-it notes with academic goals written on them posted on a whiteboard.
Students’ Post-it note goals

Before breaking out into the different seating options, Kelly’s students write their goals for the day on Post-it notes and stick them on the whiteboard. They write down what they want to accomplish for the day, noting specific tasks or what they hope to achieve by working alone, with a group, or in a mini lesson. The goals can be things like helping their fellow students after they finish a chapter or unit, understanding specific skills, or reaching certain checkpoints. 

This increases transparency and allows Kelly to better help his students. It also enables students to make the best choices for their own learning, choosing their seating arrangement and their collaboration partners.

Independent Work

Have your students move tables against the walls. Their backs will face you, increasing transparency. “If they’re working with their computers [or other materials], I can see specifically what they’re working on at a given moment,” says Kelly. This transparency enables you to check in on your students, offering encouragement or guidance when needed. This table configuration also limits distraction, moving students away from others’ discussions.

Collaborative Work

Have your students move tables to the sides of the classroom and work in groups of two to four students per table. With one group per table, your students will be able to make direct eye contact with each other and share their screens or resources with each other, says Kelly. For larger groups of up to six students, push two tables together. Make sure there’s enough space for you to walk around each table so you’re able to check in with every student. 

Four high school students sit at a table with their laptops and talk to each other.
Four high school students sit at a table with their laptops and talk to each other.
Summit students collaborate.

Mini Lessons

When doing mini lessons for small groups of two to three students, have them move a table to the middle of the room. “For a larger mini lesson, place students at the center in collaborative seating, preventing a ‘teacher-at-the-front-talking’ mode. Facilitate think/pair/shares during the lesson,” suggests Kelly. When doing mini lessons for larger groups, resources such as overhead displays can be a factor in determining the placement of groupings. Media carts with a projector and speaker can create more flexibility, or a projector can be ceiling-tracked to save floor space. 

A teacher is standing by a projector talking to three students who are sitting at two small tables pushed together. A group of six students are working together at the side of the room, and three students are working by themselves at the back of the room.
A teacher is standing by a projector talking to three students who are sitting at two small tables pushed together. A group of six students are working together at the side of the room, and three students are working by themselves at the back of the room.
Three Summit students receive a mini lesson from Kelly while others work on their own and in groups.

Large-Group Discussions

For group discussions, like Socratic seminars or fishbowl discussions, group students in the middle of the classroom. “They sit in a circle, facing each other, usually with no tables so that open body language is encouraged. It gives them an opportunity to both show knowledge they researched in preparation for the Socratic seminar and to have the quiet space for discussion,” says Ching. Aukeem Ballard, a Habits, Community, and Culture teacher, uses this same table-less circle configuration for whole-class discussions. In fishbowl discussions, 15 students sit in a circle at the center of the room and discuss a topic, and the other 15 sit outside the inner circle, listening and taking notes on the discussion. 

High school students sit in a circle for a discussion.
High school students sit in a circle for a discussion.
Summit students and Ching circle up for a discussion.

“No matter what the physical space might be, it’s the students making decisions to learn that marks a culture of learning,” says Kelly. “It matters more on who is in that space and the kinds of decisions that educators make to set students up to make positive choices for their learning.”

Why We Chose Summit Prep for Our Schools That Work Series

Summit Prep is a high-performing charter high school that leverages a personalized pedagogy and smart use of technology to help a largely underserved demographic achieve impressive results and success in college. With 68 percent minority enrollment and 41 percent eligibility for subsidized lunch, the school boasts a 95 percent graduation rate, which is 12 points higher than the national average for all students. And Summit Prep has a 99 percent four-year college acceptance rate.

In 2015, 58 percent of 11th-grade students in Summit’s district, Sequoia Union, scored proficient or above on the Smarter Balanced Assessment for English language arts. At Summit Prep, 82 percent of students scored proficient or above on that test. Summit students similarly outperformed both Sequoia and the state of California on the Smarter Balanced Assessment for math in the same year.

Furthermore, the school has a replicable model of instruction, as evidenced by its continued expansion—there are now eight Summit schools in California and three in Washington, and more communities have requested that Summit open schools in their areas. And Summit makes its innovative personalized learning platform available to other schools for free.

View a transcript of this video

Chris Kelly: If you’re going to work independently to catch up, you’ll actually turn the tables toward that wall. If you’re going to collaborate, you’re going to be at this table or you’re going to be at this table. All right, go.

By differentiating in a space that’s small or where you have a lot of students we are able to set students up with the learning situations in which they can learn best.

Penelope Pak McMillen: Here at Summit we serve a wide range of students and so you’ll see a varying degree of skill within an academic classroom. Providing flexible space gives students the opportunity to learn in different ways. And it also gives the teacher the opportunity to coach them properly in a personalized manner to reach their learning goals.

Chris Kelly: If you guys want to work independently, what is going to be the best place and the best people to be next to you to work independently? Those who want the mini-lesson are going to come to this table.

We provide a lot of flexibility for learning environments, whether it’s flexibility in terms of the physical space, flexibility in terms of the different choices that students have. You see students seated toward the back of the room. Those students are working independently. The students who are at the tables have chosen to collaborate, which is something they thought through and made part of their goal-setting. And then you have the group of students that chose one of the two mini-lessons and that takes place in the center of the classroom.

Student: Is it better to have more body paragraphs or conclusion?

Chris Kelly: Sometimes a student will write a better thesis and the conclusion than they do at the opening, because they’ve had a chance--

Kayla: We wanted to collaborate, because we’ve been helping each other on the steps that we had to do. And especially since they’re so long we kinda thought, “Oh, let's just work together.” Also, I think if we were to be at other tables we’d probably be more distracted.

Kayla: Like, each slide has a different objective.

Taylor: This is, like, summarize each slide in your own words, I guess.

Kayla: Yeah.

Taylor: When the classroom’s flexible we can learn a lot more from each other and it forms a better bond with the students within the school and also the staff members.

Penelope Pak McMillen: You may walk by one room and see work time and the teacher floating around and giving one-on-one support to kids. Or you might see the teacher in the middle of a small group giving a quick mini-lesson on something, then moving right on to the next group of students. Or you might see kids in a circle engaging in a Socratic seminar and having a dialogue about an issue that is tied to their class content.

Student: How is e-waste to cycle?

Student: You buy something and then companies start making more products.

Cady Ching: Today in biology I grouped them together in the middle of the classroom so that they could have a space that was conducive to a discussion.

Student: Is e-waste preventing our choice or our duty?

Student: I think it’s our choice, because nobody really tells us to do it.

Student: I agree with you. I feel like it’s our choice right now, but it should be our duty ‘cause it’s important to make the world a safer place.

Cady Ching: Other students are in the process of gathering information for the experimental design project. So, they were seen in the outside, facing outwards so that I could see their screens and help them work through any distractions they might have. It’s hard sometimes to stay focused, especially as freshmen.

All right, go ahead and move.

If they’ve mastered that or if they are ready to move on to the next thing, then our classrooms, you know, support that transition by being able to very quickly move desks and chairs into different groupings for the next part of the class period.

You guys move quickly and safely.

Penelope Pak McMillen: It is important to have furniture that allows me to create different types of learning environments for the students. And, so, we have tables that have wheels on them, so it’s easy to transition into a different configuration. It doesn’t disrupt the learning too much.

Aukeem Ballard: Buenos días.

Students: Buenos días.

Aukeem Ballard: Everybody can talk about what this quote means to you and what your response is to the quote.

Student: You can’t control your circumstances always.

Aukeem Ballard: I will have a whole-class discussion. It’s called a whip-around and we’ll go around the entire circle and have people share-out that way. It just is a way so that we hear more voices and make sure there’s a diversity of thought in the room.

Janet: Some of us are minorities and, like, we have experienced certain things that are--

When we’re sitting in a circle and everyone can look at each other and be aware of each other I feel like it makes you learn a lot better. Like, you grasp concepts more once you see a face.

Penelope Pak McMillen: What’s really exciting about the flexible space is that it allows kids to really understand what type of learning works for them and it equips the teacher with ways that they can deliver more personalized instruction to the kids.

Student: It makes a lot more sense.

Cady Ching: Yay!

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Lisa Mims's picture
Lisa Mims
5th grade teacher /Education blogger

Thank you Laura! I hate when I walk in a room, and the presenters have decided where we, the adults , are going to sit.

dbohannon's picture

I thought the video was insightful. At my school, I am a traveling teacher. So I teach in six different classrooms, and just so I have some kind of organization, I make a seating chart. At the beginning of the year, I will make a random one. As the year goes on, I will let students find a partner, and then choose a set of seats with that partner if they have gained my trust. I think doing this helps them feel comfortable connecting with someone they know.

Brittney Valente's picture

Liz, great observation! I have noticed myself that children enjoy learning in all aspects of the classroom. Many children are Kinesthetic learners and enjoy learning by doing something and actively engaging. I agree that not every child will sit in place to learn. For example, my brother who had ADHD had a very hard time sitting in place to learn. Having your students get up to learn and actively engage is a good strategy.

Jacob Thomas's picture

This is really interesting. I like the idea of being so flexible in the classroom. Are there ways to adapt this on the elementary level maybe with smaller desks? This may sound odd but for some younger students sitting still is an issue as well. Are there any adaptations to chairs perhaps to make this easier?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Jacob, I use wobble stools, adjustable height folding tables, kneeling desks (which are simply traditional desks with adjustable legs removed) and plastic scoop rockers to allow students to collaborate in various parts of the classroom. I also have some stand up desks and a sofa table where many students can gather around standing at the same spot to easily collaborate. Although all this being said, my best flexible seating tool is still just an area on the carpet where students can break out into and get right to collaborating. You can see an example of the kneeling desks I created and scoop rocker in two of the pictures near the end of my blog post.

Stephen DeBoer's picture
Stephen DeBoer
Follower of Christ, husband of one, father of three, high school science and music teacher, pianist, avid reader, passionate about the Kingdom of Heaven

Thanks for this great post!!

If you are interested in more information and resources about how to adapt the learning space for collaboration, check out this webpage, the result of an inquiry project that a group of us produced recently as part of our M.Ed. studies...

Ambreen's picture

Excellent article! I like the idea of taking a survey of the class first, gathering data, and analyzing it with them. This would give them an idea of WHY they are making the choices for their seating arrangement, rather than just thinking this is a chance for them to sit with their friends.

Any time I have asked my students to choose their seats themselves, I have seen mixed results. For some it works wonders, because they are able to make a smart choice for themselves. Others need reminders and help in making a good choice (these are elementary students). I will try the steps provided in this article before letting students make their choice, so that they have more ownership of their decision.

Alexandria Burgin's picture

Great article! I like the way you broke everything down and went so in depth with the affects and solutions for this type of seating chart! I am not yet a teacher but plan to teach secondary after I get my degree. I also like how you take student need into account and broke down each type of learning taking place. This is such a good article, especially for someone who is new to teaching like me!

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