George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Traditional classroom with desks in rows facing teacher's desk in front of the blackboard
"Look at your learning space with 21st-century eyes: Does it work for what we know about learning today, or just for what we knew about learning in the past?” -The Third Teacher

Does your classroom mirror the rectilinear seating arrangement popular in Sumerian classrooms, circa 2000 BCE? Or is your classroom seating flexible and tricked out with the IDEO designed Node Chair by Steelcase? What classroom design changes can you do on a budget that supports learning? Those questions and more are answered below.

The Basics

To rethink your student seating arrangement, use Kaplan's floorplanner and try out with names like lasso, the robot, and the big x. Then think about classroom space fundamentals:

  • Flexibility: Students should be able to easily transition to functional spaces, such as a class library, literacy center, computer area, stage, reading nook, etc.
  • Belonging: Learners should feel like the space is theirs. Put up pictures of kids and exemplary work. Put up posters that feature diverse faces.
  • Interaction: By turning their seats, students should be able to quickly work with a small group.
  • Attention: Show off valued materials. (Elementary school teacher Chris Weaver displays books by inserting them into inexpensive vinyl rain gutters attached to her walls.)
  • Neat: Supplies, tools, furniture, and books should be stored instead of left out (see Scholastic's Survival Guide and list of clutter busters, and Pinterest's DIY Classroom).
  • Concentration:
    • In 2011, Kenn Fisher, head of the OECD Programme on Educational Building, stated that air quality, temperature, and lighting are linked to student behaviors and academic performance.
    • A number of studies on temperature with office workers (not students) demonstrate that excessive humidity and class temperatures above 77 and below 72 degrees Fahrenheit degrade mental output and attention span. As the instructor, you might be hot from continuously moving all day. So set the temperature for your students.
    • Sound-absorbing materials will help students focus. (Ask your administrator to buy Roxul Rockboard 80, Mineral Wool Board, or other low-cost acoustic insulation. If a parent or administrator asks why, explain that noise can release excess cortisol, which impairs the prefrontal cortex's ability to store short-term memories.)
    • Do fluorescent lights negatively impact cognition? Dozens of studies on the subject since the 1940s offer contradictory conclusions.

Also, your classroom walls are important learning real estate -- spaces to fill with content-related murals, posters, banners, whiteboards, and bulletin boards.

Make Sure Bulletin Boards Are Teaching Tools

My first classroom bulletin board featured a hundred hand-colored carp. Sadly, my tribute to oily freshwater fish had nothing to do with second grade curriculum. This would have displeased a high-strung principal that I talked to a while back -- he bragged about making an instructor tear down a bulletin board that didn't display standards-based content with clear visual communication. Bulletin boards today are expected to reinforce concepts, skills, rules, and routines; to present exemplary work; and to showcase students' photos and awards. The best of them are also decorative, alliterative, and playful.

Consider creating a graphic organizer on a bulletin board in front of students while introducing a new concept. As the display grows more elaborate, students' conceptual knowledge will deepen. Later, you can refer students back to the display. Conversely, challenge them to collaboratively design a display that visually organizes their content understanding, using something like Heidi McDonald’s book report templates. But check to ensure that no misconceptions or misspellings have been posted.

To enhance eyeball appeal, Kim's Korner suggests making bulletin board borders with wide ribbons, hot-glued crayons, or laminated wrapping paper cut into strips.

Find more bulletin board inspiration at the following sites:

Classroom Environments: What Does Research Say?

While their conclusions are not irrefutable, recent studies point to the classroom environment features that benefit students.

Do students in classrooms learn better than students in portables?

Perhaps not. No statistical difference in test scores was evident when those two groups were compared, according to Robin Stubbs Collins' dissertation.

Are heavily-decorated classrooms too distracting?

Off-task behavior lasts ten percent longer in heavily-decorated classes, reports Carnegie Mellon's Anna Fisher, Karrie Godwin, and Howard Seltman.

Video Tours of Exemplary Classroom Environments

For our benefit, generous instructors (mostly elementary teachers) have posted videos of their classrooms on YouTube:

Elementary School Classroom Videos

Middle School Classroom Videos

High School Classroom Videos

  • Don’t miss Ms. Navarro's purposeful bulletin boards, whiteboard organization, bins with self-trackers, and other classroom design innovations.
  • Alejandra Costello helps a high school math teacher organize her class.
  • Classroom Caboodle shows teacher supplies that you can buy at a Dollar Store.

Here's one last tip. During the opening minutes of my first class, I almost always project a spectacular video of Ocean Beach. As they arrive, students sit spellbound as white water greets the earth and is reclaimed by the sea. Faces relax, a sure sign that kids are ready to learn.

What classroom designs or organizational tips do you use in your classroom?

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Todd Finley's picture

What a great question, Heidi--and one that probably applies to a lot of teachers. I think the best option would be to plan for the room to be extra-mobile. No doubt you are also taking advantage of mobile carts. I'll ask my design expert Blake Wiggs if he has any ideas on this subject. -tf

Scott Bedley @scotteach's picture
Scott Bedley @scotteach
Teacher, Creator, Un-Maker, Foodie, Global School Play Day

Heidi, What a unique situation you find yourself in. I would approach your administrator to have a site-wide conversation on the matter. Maybe you can get to the place where admin is matching up teachers to share classrooms based on similar set-up arrangements philosophy. Another approach would be to have the administrator give you time with those sharing the space to collaborate on one agreeable set-up and find a compromise together. During those conversations the admin could encourage people to take another look at room environment and the information out there. you could then share the article and others about creating the most functional education space imaginable with what you have at your school. I hope this helps in some way. It's not an easy situation you find yourself in, but creating staff wide conversations about this topic may move your entire site forward pedagogically.

Teaching Possibility's picture
Teaching Possibility
I believe in the possibility of education.

These are great thoughts! Thanks so much for the ideas! I long for tables with wheels...I think I've actually had dreams of those. :) Last year, I asked one of my classes how they would improve/change the room to make it more conducive to different types of learning. These 9th graders had some really good insight into non-expensive changes. Maybe they should lead the discussion with the teachers and administrators. I find ideas from students are more powerful than from fellow teachers. :)

Teaching Possibility's picture
Teaching Possibility
I believe in the possibility of education.

I have a big book bag! And sometimes I solicit helpers to bring in things. If I had my own room, I would want it to be extra-mobile for all the different activities we do. I'm not sure if I mentioned that this was a high school setting. Thanks so much!

Blake Wiggs's picture
Blake Wiggs
Instructional Coach

Heidi, this can be tricky -- especially, when one person prefers traditional rows, while the other prefers collaborative group-work. Keep in mind that empathy is at the heart of design -- It's important to involve your fellow colleagues and students, when possible. If this is a trending issue throughout the school, you could potentially pitch it as a school-wide design challenge.

Not sure how your day is structured, but it sounds like the issue mostly surrounds seating arrangements; if that is the case, you and your colleagues could concentrate on minimizing transition time as a first step -- this maybe as simple as putting tennis balls on chair legs, creating the Optimus Prime of floating teacher-carts, modeling and practicing classroom rituals (i.e., students set up / rearrange desk formations before and after class), or assigning roles in each team to help with set-up & cleanup (i.e., gathering and replacing materials).

Teaching Possibility's picture
Teaching Possibility
I believe in the possibility of education.

These are all good ideas! We have wall to wall carpeting which cuts down on movement noise when moving desks. I have at least four different seating formations that I use depending on the activity and lesson of the class that day. It would be cool to teach these formations to students and every day say, "Okay, we are going to use formation A today" and they would know what that means maybe with a visual on the wall. :) Thanks for chiming in!

Todd Finley's picture

I'd also recommend going over transition expectations (how to move efficiently without banging into neighbors) in slow motion a couple of times in the beginning to minimize disruptions. Good luck! -tf

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Heidi - have you seen the desk olympics? It's a fun way to teach students to quickly rearrange desks into various formations. Just name the formations like events ("Who will win the Pairs Event today? Get ready to follow that with the ever challenging Inner/Outer Circles!"), and then challenge the students to move as quickly (and quietly) as they can into each one. It's time well spent for saving lots of time over the year, not to mention making them smile every time you need to rearrange the room.

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