Arrange Desks to Meet Objectives

The classroom management strategies of effective elementary and secondary teachers often include a variety of desk arrangements. Placing students in seating arrangements that are specific to particular lessons can encourage student participation and objective mastery. From traditional rows and full circles to learning pods and horseshoes, the way desks are arranged will affect a classroom's dynamics. Knowing what benefits and drawbacks are inherent to a seating arrangement will help in matching the best positioning of the desks to learning objectives.

In a traditional seating arrangement, student desks are lined up in rows so they can focus their attention on a blackboard, projection board, or place from where the teacher addresses the class. With desks in rows, the classroom environment is favorable for lessons that include lectures or presentations. Rows discourage student interaction and encourage individual seat work. It's no wonder why this type of seating arrangement is mandated for high-stakes standardized testing! Situating the desks into rows usually allows for a teacher to ambulate effortlessly around the classroom, a key factor in monitoring student progress. Likewise, it should be easy for students to access classroom supplies like the pencil sharpener.

While you won't have to worry about students scrambling over furniture to reach an emergency exit when desks are in rows, you will have to deal with visibility issues. Those seated towards the classroom's rear have to contend with obstacles blocking their line of sight; furthermore, the distance from the rear to images on a board may pose difficulties for students with vision problems. As with all kinds of seating arrangements, a teacher should anticipate these issues. Address them prior to students' arrival by first sitting in each desk to experience how well one can see about the classroom.

Rows encourage students to be good listeners. Likewise, rows can be conducive for both problem-solving and analysis. In some circumstances, though, two heads are better than one. Paired rows encourage interaction between sets of students. In this formation, students can be paired up by ability if necessary. Some students may be more productive when sitting next to a peer; however, teachers may notice that the close proximity may cause more disruptive behavior or increase the noise level of the class. Paired rows work well for shared work; conversely, they can taint classroom ethics by making it easier for neighbors to cheat.

When lesson plans call for small groups to construct projects, seats can be arranged in pods or clusters. In groups of three to seven, students can share ideas, supplies, and the workload. While it is not always necessary for a teacher to assign students to groups, doing so can allow you to arrange students by ability or learning style.

Small groups are inclined (and usually expected) to talk. Because of students' close proximity to each other, the classroom's overall noise level may increase. The teacher will need to address volume concerns prior to pod formation. While students won't be moving about the classroom as frequently (if at all), they still need to be able to access supplies and the door without jumping over obstacles or bumping into classmates. Foresight is key. Avoid hazards and discipline issues by teaching movement procedures and volume expectations before beginning work in pods. Setting clear expectations helps curb classroom management issues before they become a problem.

Aside from noise, there will be visibility issues. In pods, students won't always be facing the room's focal point as they would in rows. Now that they face each other, the likelihood for distracted attention increases. Provide students with directions prior to rearranging the desks to avoid speaking to students' backs. Those whose classroom dimensions allow for a vast open space on the floor may find it helpful to give directions while the students gather there.

Pods allow for the focus to be on the learners more so than the teacher. With the teacher's main roles being that of facilitator and monitor, he/she will need to see each and every student easily. Teachers need to be able to physically reach students without difficulty too. As for students, being able to see the teacher at all times is just as important.

If you are planning a class discussion as part of your lesson, consider moving desks to form a circle, semicircle, or horseshoe. Although this may restrict movement for large classes, this formation allows for an exchange of ideas between peers like a Socratic seminar. Like this, students can see each other. The class can easily focus its attention on the speaker; however, this may be intimidating for some. All classes will need a bit of practice at interacting this way to increase their comfort level. Some students are inclined to contribute orally more often than others. Visual aids can help them monitor the frequency of their contributions. For instance, students may toss an index card with their name on it into the circle's center. When their own pile of cards has been exhausted, they must act as listeners only. Listening skills take practice. Assign students to take notes during the discussion or follow it with a written reflection to encourage good listening skills.

A variation of this type of seating arrangement involves a smaller circle of desks inside a larger circle. (The same concept works for the horseshoe arrangement too.) The larger group on the outside observes the discussion taking place among the students seated inside the smaller circle. Older children tend to be more comfortable with participating in this way, but even they need to practice the technique several times before they gain confidence.

The way desks are arranged in a classroom can make or break a lesson's success. Put your learning objectives first to help you decide what arrangement is in the students' best interest. Your room will present you with physical obstacles. Your room's dimensions, the number of students, the desk type, and location of electrical outlets may limit your choices. You'll have to consider the behavior of individuals as well as IEPs too. Plus, rearranging the desks takes time. Once you know what seating arrangements work for your lessons and classes, train students to move their seats to a particular place. Avoid inconsistency, however. Constantly making changes can disrupt the learning process. Remember that your students will need practice at learning how to behave when the ordinary seating arrangement changes.