desks in rows

Are Desks in Rows a Bad Thing?

May 12, 2022

When I was a new teacher, I made it my mission to denounce everything about the traditional classroom space. I learned in college about how the modern classroom was originally designed to prepare students for life working in factories.

Sit in rows because you will someday stand at an assembly line in the same orientation. When the bell rings you can move to your next class, because someday that factory bell will signal the same type of movement. These desks weigh a hundred pounds because why would you ever need to move them? They just need to face the front of the room where the teacher stands, which is the center of all learning and instruction.

The overhead fluorescent lights are intimating the lighting of a factory floor, so you better get used to it in school, because you will spend the rest of your life under them at work.

No need to decorate the walls of your classroom with frivolous art. The factory is a place of work and productivity; the classroom should be as well.

As a young teacher, I was aware that most of my students would not work in factories like they did at the beginning of the twentieth century. And the ones who did most likely would not be in ones that resembled those when the modern education system was designed. The workplace has changed, and yet the primary physical classroom design hasn’t.

From a TEDx talk, to blog articles, to staff meetings, I made it known everywhere I could that the modern classroom is outdated and not useful. This zeal for protesting the traditional classroom space primarily originated from my own experience as a student. For most of my secondary school experience was spent in rows sitting in desks that probably had gum my grandfather stuck under 50 years prior. I used to always try to find the desk furthest from the teacher so I could attempt to nap without being caught. And when that was not an option, I’d count the holes in the drop-ceiling, or read the fading inspirational posters that were hung on the walls before I was even born.

The No-Rows Rule

So often these spaces did not inspire me, and I was quick to blame ‘the system’ that I thought desperately needed reformation.

So on top of being highly vocal about the need to abolish the traditional classroom, I decided to model that reform in my own. To start, I made a ‘no-rows’ rule in my room. Desks were set up in groups, and while I regularly changed who sat in these groups, the orientation of the room was always in at least pods of four.

To do away with the fluorescent lights, I placed tape over the light switch and put lamps from Goodwill all over the classroom. I wanted my students to feel like they were in a coffee shop rather than a classroom.

I covered the walls with colorful posters and artwork. I even bought an 8’X15’ wallpaper and covered an entire wall with vibrant art.

My classroom setting became the place I would want to learn in, and it would serve students in the same way.

The problem with abandoning best practices.

Have you ever tried to explain the consequences of the Industrial Revolution for fifteen minutes to a group of 14 year-olds?

I hadn’t either when I made the ‘no rows’ rule in my classroom. It turns out it’s very hard to lead direct instruction or deliver complex instructions when half of your students are sitting in groups facing the other direction.

Or have you ever tried to help a neurodivergent student focus when they are surrounded by posters and artwork covered in text and images?

Me neither, and my abundant artwork led to a neurological overload for a number of my students.

How about trying to teach kindergartners how to read in dim lighting where they can’t clearly see the words on a page? Antique nightstand lamps seemed like such a great idea.

Like in many other aspects of learning to be a teacher, I soon discovered that not all traditional practices need to be abandoned. Of course there are aspects of the industrial model of classroom design that need to be updated, which we will get to in a moment, but some are tried-and-true. They’ve lasted through the ages because they have achieved a certain degree of effectiveness throughout time.

For instance, when giving a lecture, which still belongs in the modern class, the best orientation is one that is focused on the lecturer. And often the best seating arrangement for this is for desks or tables to be aligned in rows. The audience benefits from having a direct view of the speaker, allowing them to observe body language and hear clearly. The speaker benefits from having a more attentive audience and getting to read their body language, adjusting their delivery accordingly.

When giving direct instruction, rows are not the enemy.

However, during class discussion, rows can be extremely limiting. Your discussion partners are limited to those on your left and right, unless you’re along the wall and then you only have one person to discuss with. The same goes for meaningful collaboration and group projects, and they’re also not ideal for introverts who need space away from others at times. Rowed seating or other traditional classroom arrangements are still useful when the learning experience calls for it, but only when the learning experience calls for it.

The case for flexible furniture.

Think about it like the setting of a story. It would not make much sense if The Lion King took place in New York City. That story requires the savannas of Africa and landscapes that allows that story to unfold. The same is true for the classroom. If a learning experience is meant to be hands-on and collaborative, the space must be designed to allow that to happen. Desks can be pushed together for groups to face each other. Perhaps a longer table can be designated for hands-on maker work. A horseshoe of chairs can be set up in a corner for the teacher to pull groups aside to differentiate or deliver mini-lessons.

But if there’s direct instruction, rows might be the best option.

This is why the advent of flexible, movable furniture in education can make such a difference. It allows the teacher to adjust the classroom furniture to meet the needs of the learning experience. They can create a setting to fit the story.

Tables and chairs with wheels allow you to be intentional with your space and adapt to the needs of your students.

The learning experience should meet the needs of the learner.

Ultimately it comes down to this: the classroom space should meet the needs of the learner. This principle applies beyond physical classroom space as well. Teachers must assess what their students need to thrive, and adjust pedagogy, curriculum, and space accordingly. This is why we can't just throw all of the traditional methods that have been used in education for decades, because many of them still work! However, by the same token we cannot only use traditional practices, because often times they don't work. 

It's about adaptability and meeting the needs of the learners, creating a setting for a story in which students and their teachers can thrive.

Dive deeper into this subject by listening to the podcast here. 

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