Your class set up: to give students a voice, to help promote collaboration, or to elicit compliance?

This year during our staff orientation week, one of our colleagues presented on the dynamics of classroom set-up. He had just completed Masters work in how classroom design can impact student learning and with inspiration from the Reggio Emilia approach, design thinkers and Starbucks, he shared a lot of great reserach to help our teachers prepare their physical spaces for the for the beginning of the year. 

When it comes to classroom set-up, it seems that there are three models often at play: eliciting compliance, promoting collaboration and honouring student voice. Since walking into your classroom is one of the first impressions students get about you, let’s take a look at these three models to see what the physical space of our classrooms might be saying to our students and what it might be saying about us as teachers. 

1) To Elicit Compliance

Usage: moderate 

Features: desks in rows, all students facing the front of the classroom, seats typically assigned by the teacher

This set up not only says to students, “I am in charge”, but it also says, “I own the learning”. By placing students in rows, all facing one location, we communicate that the teacher is the primary source of knowledge and that the majority of student learning will occur while they are looking at the teacher holding court at the front of the classroom. This also says to the students that they will be typically working on their own, on whatever business the board or teacher at the front of the room dictates. The assignment of seats tells students that the teacher owns their decision-making over where they work best and communicates to the student that they are in a particular seat for a reason. 

2) To Promote Collaboration 

Usage: high

Features: desks in groups, students facing a variety of ways, seats either assigned or chosen 

This popular set-up says to students, “You will need to work together!”. It also communicates that a majority of the learning will occur with one’s peers, rather than with one’s teacher. Students know when they walk into a classroom with groups that the class is probably going to be rooted in inquiry and discussion. This set-up tells students that they will be engaging in learning experiences, rather than lessons. Assigned seats typically communicates a strategic variance in groups based on skill level, while student choice of seats promotes autonomy and the idea of figuring out whom you best work with. 

3) To Give Students a Voice

Usage: low

Features: flexible seating, class set-up designed by students, students’ cultures are taken into account in classroom design, students chose where and how they work

This set-up, although rarely used, communicates to students “you know how you learn best and your voice matters”. In this type of set-up, teachers will hand the reigns of classroom design over to their students and allow them, through a process like the MYP Desgin Cycle, to figure out how to set up the classroom in order to meet their learning needs. What this often looks like is flexible seating – areas for group, partner and individual work; workstations on the floor, workstations made up from comfortable furniture like exercise balls, beanbag chairs and stools. This type of set-up can accommodate both introverts and extroverts, allows for student-friendly social groupings (not social groupings dictated by the teacher) and generally creates a comfortable, yet dynamic learning environment. By allowing students to chose where and how they work, the teacher is showing that they respect the voice of the students in their classroom and that the students are valued as important decision-makers in the learning process. 

Of course, seating arrangement is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to how we engage with our students. Nonetheless it is work examining the message that a teacher can send to his or her students via the choices they make (or don’t make) regarding the classroom space. 

How do you set up your classroom? 

What is your experience with these models of classroom set-up? 

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