By Doug Ward
Here’s my challenge for the week: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom.
Go ahead. Have students help you. Some may look at you quizzically, but they will soon understand.
If the room has tables, push them together and create collaborative clusters or arrange them in a U shape. If it has individual seats, get rid of the rows. Make it easier for students to see one another and to talk to one another. Make it easy for you to sit among them. Break down the hierarchies. Break down the barriers.
Are you with me? If not, ask yourself why. Yes, I know that some classrooms – especially the large ones – have fixed seats. I can’t help you there. But for everyone else, changing the layout of a room to promote learning should be part of the routine.
I’m not suggesting that everyone teach in the same way. I am asking whether you are teaching in a way that gives students the best opportunity to learn. I’m also asking whether you are letting the room determine how you teach. If so, how much is room design getting in your way? And why aren’t you doing something about it?
Surprises from a classroom
I’ve always been quick to rearrange the furniture in classrooms, sometimes to the annoyance of colleagues. Last semester, though, I found out just how big a difference room design can make.
I taught two sections of a 300-level lass called Infomania. For one section, I was lucky enough to teach in The Commons, a fabulous space in Spooner Hall with high ceilings, lots of windows, hardwood floors, and tables and chairs on wheels. Emily Ryan, coordinator of The Commons, helped create clusters of tables. Students brought their laptops and tablets, and they had lots of room to spread out and create their own learning spaces.
The other section of the class was in the Dole Human Development Center. It was a traditional classroom with rows of individual desks. It was crowded, stuffy and oppressive. Most of the students came into the room to sit and endure, not to learn. I had the students move their desks together, but that didn’t help much. The small room allowed little maneuverability, and the individual seats created a sense of isolation.
So I tried something. I talked with Emily and arranged for the class to meet three times in Spooner Hall. The change in student behavior was almost instantaneous. Those who had sat passively became engaged. Collaboration thrived. Conversations flowed. Ideas spilled out.
The dramatic change the room brought about surprised me, but it seemed to surprise the students even more. We talked about how a room configuration can lead to passivity, and how students have been trained to come to class, find a seat as far back as possible, and wait for someone at the front of the room to start talking to them – or at them.
Rethinking teaching as well as room design
The room isn’t the only guilty party in this pervasive passivity. Pedagogy plays a huge role. For far too long, instruction has focused on a one-way transmission of information. Teachers speak. Students listen and take notes. Change classes. Repeat. And yet room construction is an accomplice in all this, one that sets the scene and often sets the tone of a class.
Once my students realized this last semester, they repeatedly asked to move from the crowded classroom in Dole. I wasn’t able to find a substitute room at midsemester, so I began meeting with groups of students in Watson, Anschutz and Spencer libraries, in the Union and at the Underground instead. We still met occasionally for full-class discussion in the assigned classroom, but no more than we had to. The students and I recognized that the classroom was impeding their learning. It was best to stay away.
So back to my challenge: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom this week. It may not transform your class, but it will change the atmosphere. If that doesn’t work, try meeting somewhere else. Break the routine and eliminate the built-in passivity of traditional rows. It can make an enormous difference in learning.
Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.