Looking back at my school days, I can only remember one classroom where we were not sitting in long rows facing the teacher in the front. It was Latin class in high school. There were eight of us in the class and the absence of rows was most likely due to the fact that that the class met in the library where there were tables instead of desks. But even with tables, it was as if we were in rows, for the nun sat only one student at each table, one behind the other. The rows spoke of order and discipline; they were as straight as the lines we kept as we moved about the building, say from classroom to lunchroom or to lavatory. The teacher could move up and down the rows at will, but rarely did. Her place was up front, calling the shots, playing sage on the stage. My recollection in general is that the only time a teacher deviated from alphabetical front-to-back seating was when a student needed to sit closer to the chalkboard in order to see it or closer to where the teacher usually stood, (in front), in order to hear her. And then there was the occasional movement of a particular student from here to there, usually someone naughty or not paying attention who needed to be more closely under the watchful eye of the teacher.
Sadly, in observing room arrangements on my current middle school campus, I see so much of the same construct, perhaps 85%, with a few exceptions. And sadder yet is the posture taken by most students when they are forced to sit in this manner. It’s almost as if they are trapped or cramped, and forced to focus in one direction and to all do the same thing. How did we get here? And is it really the best arrangement for students to learn and teachers to teach? Do teachers know the freedom they have to experiment with various room arrangements? Imagine the possibilities if teachers could seamlessly shift from one arrangement to the other to accommodate the learning activity and posture the students in such a way that they could focus on the necessary elements, whether it was the teacher presenting, a multimedia presentation playing, an experiment unfolding, a discussion ensuing. The activity dictates the arrangement, not the other way around. The straight and narrow rows dictate straight and narrow lessons. They limit the instruction such that it’s completely teacher-centered and teacher-delivered and students are merely receptacles. On the other hand, tables and circles call for face-to-face interaction and discussion, learning stations or centers call for independent work and discovery. I’m all for structure and consistency, but given the attention spans and the need for movement of most middle schoolers, it would behoove teachers to allow for more movement and variety in the layout of student desks.
Imagine my surprise when I happened upon a science classroom where there were no desks! The lab tables had been moved to the perimeter of the room and were used for center work. When the teacher was presenting information to the class, they gathered before him and had the choice to sit on rugs, beanbag chairs, or student chairs, or to stand. It reminded me of theater-in-the-round or the CNN discussion arena. There was a real sense of “we’re all in this together,” versus the confining sense of me in my desk in my row all alone. This teacher is on to something. He understands middle school kids. He knows they need to move. He knows they need choice. He knows he has to vary the activities to keep them interested so he has about three or four activities going on simultaneously around the room. It takes a lot of work to plan it all out and have all the necessary materials, but the payoff if great. Kids are engaged and learning and happy. Imagine the day when arrangements like this are the norm and the sacred rows are a thing of the past!