Making Room for Learning

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When I walk into a classroom, the first thing I notice is how the desks or tables are arranged. You can tell a lot about what types of teaching and learning happen in a classroom based on that one simple thing. Don’t get me wrong: there are great things happening in classrooms in which kids sit in rows. But there are more opportunities for collaboration, more conversations, and more chances for kids to feel like the work they are doing really matters when the classroom is arranged with that in mind. Herman Miller, the design company, published research in 2008 called Rethinking the Classroom that details increased student engagement in classrooms with collaborative spaces. Based on this as well as best practices published by the Anytime, Anywhere Learning Foundation and the One to One Institute, I urge teachers to reconsider rows.

One of the great parts of my job is coaching teachers in using technology in their classrooms in a way that really impacts student learning. Teachers are often surprised when I don’t even open a laptop on my first visit. Instead, I ask them about their room arrangement. My goal in this conversation is to help the teacher realize possibilities. I have heard several reasons for putting students in a more traditional forward-facing arrangement. Frankly, I don’t think any of them outweigh the benefit of a more collaborative arrangement. Let’s see…

I need to learn all of their names

It’s September, and, in a secondary setting, 150+ students are walking through the door of the teacher’s classroom. The first thing most teachers want to do is learn names. I wholeheartedly agree that learning student names is a very important way to start the year. But do they have to sit in rows for a teacher to do that? Greeting each student at the door, circulating during work time, responding to student emails and discussion posts, and getting-to-know-you activities are all much more effective than staring at faces while giving the directions for the day.

They need to be able to see the front of the room

Especially in our district, in which every instructional space has a wall-mounted interactive white board, this is critical. But I have a little analogy for this one. Most people have a room in their house in which they watch television. In this room, are the couch, chairs, and other furniture all facing forward in rows? Or do some people sit sideways? Most of us don’t relax theater-style, in rows of increasing height to allow for the best possible viewing experience. Most of our classrooms don’t need to look like that either. Kids are perfectly capable of turning their heads, leaning a little in a chair, or flat-out moving around the room to be able to see what’s being projected up front. Don’t let the small amount of time spent looking forward each day drive the entire mood of the classroom.

They’re not doing a group project right now

This is usually followed by its companion statement; I put it this way for a test. I think part of the reason for this thinking comes from the idea that collaboration and communication have to be a structured, planned part of a unit. But we know that, as adults, we talk and work together in very informal settings. Since our job as educators is to prepare students for their futures, we know that we have to allow them to work together, share knowledge, peer teach, problem solve, and discuss learning at unscheduled intervals throughout the day. Group projects are one very structured way to help teach these skills to students, but it doesn’t end there.

This is how I like it

We all have preferences in how we like things. I don’t like ketchup with my fries. But guess what? Both of my children do. So when we have hamburgers, I set out the ketchup. Likewise, it is too teacher-centric to plan a classroom for students around my personal style. I encourage teachers to ask their students how they’d like to work, and brainstorm a solution from which everyone can benefit. I was in a classroom last week in which the students didn’t even have a seating chart. They sat where the needed to sit, next to the person with whom they were working. Some of them pulled up chairs alongside the end of a table, and others moved to the floor to a quieter spot near a corner. That kind of environment was full of energy, and fun to watch!

Working with a video team and teachers from around our district, I produced a training video that can help guide teachers to thinking differently about room arrangements. The video can be used to inspire teachers to try something new, and also gives some details about the benefits of different room arrangements. Feel free to use the video to motivate teachers in your district to make more room for kids to work together. Collaborative space leads to collaborative work. Collaborative work leads to better work. Two heads are better than one, remember?

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