I am trying to decide how to arrange my classroom with 22–27 chemistry students per class. Last year, my desks were arranged in the traditional manner: rows with an aisle. This year I’m thinking of setting the desks up in pods of four or in pairs. Do you have any advice on desk arrangements?
—Melanie, Huntley, Illinois
We’ve all seen pictures of (or even experienced) classrooms where individual student desks were bolted to the floor in straight, orderly rows. This is certainly the exception rather than the rule today. But there are several factors to consider as you explore different seating arrangements.
Safety is a priority. If you’re in a typical chemistry lab, you probably have an area with lab tables and a “classroom” section with individual desks or small tables. This area is probably not as large as a regular classroom, so your placement options are more limited. Whatever arrangement(s) you use, be sure students can enter and exit the classroom efficiently and backpacks, electrical cords, and other materials can be kept out of the walkways.
Logistically, determine the focal points of the classroom (e.g., whiteboard or projection screen, demonstration table) and be sure that your arrangement allows students to see presentations. Put materials such as handouts, staplers, calculators, or pencils where students can easily access them. If space is tight, count the number of students in your largest class assigned to the room, add one or two to allow for move-ins, and ask if extra desks can be stored elsewhere.
Review student individual education plans to determine any special seating requirements. Make sure seating arrangements can accommodate the visual, auditory, and physical needs of your students as well as any assistive technologies or devices they use. (One year my seating arrangements included space for a student’s service dog.)
No single seating arrangement is “best”—each has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the learning activities. If you use a mixture of instructional strategies in your class, you’ll want to consider using a variety of seating arrangements.
Traditional rows of desks or tables facing the focal point are often used for teacher-centered activities (lecturing, giving directions, or presenting on the whiteboard) or for independent activities (tests, silent reading). Many teachers use this arrangement as the “default.” However, there are “dead zones” in the corners and the back of the room with this arrangement; students in the front center also are more likely to get your attention. While this arrangement minimizes distractions, it also limits student-to-student discussions since students are looking at the backs of other students.
With a U-shaped arrangement, students can see each other, which fosters student-to-student discussions within a large group. This is also useful for teacher-centered presentations, as you can maintain eye contact with all students. As students work, you can zip across the inner space to provide assistance where needed. For large group discussions, you can close the U into a circle and sit with the students, sending the message that you are part of the discussion. However, this takes up a lot of space, and some students may be easily distracted during independent work.
If you do a lot of collaborative activities, consider pushing desks together. Pairs of desks are good for turn-and-talk activities, and groups of three to four are appropriate for cooperative learning. You can also use the lab tables for small group work, unless equipment and materials are set up for another class. In pairs or groups, be sure students can still see a screen or focal point for instructions or debriefing. This arrangement could be distracting during independent work.
Here are two examples of classrooms I’ve visited where teachers had routines in place to align the seating arrangements with the learning activities:
- Students came into the middle school classroom and sat at individual desks in rows. They worked independently on a bell-ringer activity while the teacher took attendance and then introduced the lesson. The students pushed the desks together in pairs for the first activity. The teacher debriefed with them and then had each pair team with another to form groups of four for the next activity. The teacher monitored the discussions and assisted the groups. At the end of the lesson, the students returned the desks to the rows (default).
- Students in a high school chemistry class sat in a U-shaped formation, oriented to the front of the lab where there was a demonstration table and the whiteboard. The teacher easily maintained eye contact with all students as he presented the material, since no one was “hiding” behind another student. This arrangement was conducive to the think-pair-share activity the teacher frequently used. As the students did practice problems, the teacher looked over their shoulders and assisted when necessary. For group work the students moved to the lab tables. They then returned to the desks for the lesson summary.
Some teachers may worry that changing the seating arrangements, particularly during a class period, is confusing and time-consuming and that students prefer a consistent arrangement. In the classrooms described above, the seamless transition between activities doesn’t happen overnight. The teacher needs to communicate the reason for the change and the norms for appropriate behaviors.
Let us know how your new arrangements work!