Adults who think back to their time in the classroom may remember arrangements of rows of desks and industrial-looking seating. Classroom design was built around students facing the chalkboard, and teachers typically placed their desks at the front of the room to keep an eye on their students.
Such arrangements have steadily been on the way out as classroom environments are changed to promote learning. According to the education resource The Professional Learning Board, different classroom arrangements have their own benefits and drawbacks. But the liberty to alter classroom layouts means teachers can experiment with what works for their teaching styles and which arrangements benefit their students.
While rows may enable educators to see all students and keep them focused, students in the back may miss out and/or lose focus. Circle arrangements work well for class discussions, enabling all students to congregate around the teacher and participate in the conversation. ‘Circle time’ is a frequent component of pre-school and early elementary school lessons because it directs focus on the teacher and feels more intimate than laying the room out in rows.
Group seating is another arrangement teachers may explore. Desks are arranged so they form small tables. Students can work collaboratively and discuss assignments. However, maintaining focus may be challenging when students are facing other students and may be more likely to chit-chat among one another.
A study involving fourth graders in Germany investigated whether certain seating arrangements promoted greater student participation. Traditional rows and a semicircular layout were studied. Children in the semicircle asked more questions, but in both layouts, children who occupied central seating locations asked more questions and participated more per lesson.
Another study conducted in 2015 and published in the journal Building and Environment found that changing some elements of classroom design can increase student learning outcomes by 16 percent. Air quality, lighting and students’ sense of ownership of their classroom impacted the students’ abilities to learn more than seating arrangements, advises the study. Giving children choices, including flexible seating options, such as bean bag chairs, mats or cushions, standing desks, sofas, or individual workstations, can help students find arrangements that are best for them. Furthermore, teachers who rearrange furniture so that classrooms are cozy and inviting may see their students thrive.
Lighting also is an important factor, particularly when glare can impact the ability to see smartboards or personal tablets, which are now widely used in classrooms. Natural light is preferred in classroom environments. In fact, students in classrooms with big windows and daylight progress more quickly in reading and math than those in darkened rooms, according to a Heschong Mahone study cited in Science Direct. Overhead fluorescent lighting may interfere with student learning.
Educators are urged to see their classrooms from students’ perspectives to evaluate how design may be impacting learning. A few easy changes can add up to big gains for students and teachers alike.