A Manifesto Against Straight Rows

© 2015 by John G. Hendron

We were walking along the hallway when the entire grade level seemed to be somewhere else. “It’s common planning time,” I was told, and all the teachers were in a meeting that had convened in one of the teacher’s rooms. “I think it is interesting to view the rooms without students and teachers inside,” I said, before asking, “What do you think?”

My colleague told me he did not “get” why there had been so much discussion of late around the design of classrooms. At the same time, I opened a classroom door in a room that looked clean and sterile, in part because the chrome legs of each desk gleamed with the light coming in through windows against a clean floor. The arrangement of desks, too, contributed to the feeling. “Just look at this room! The rows are perfect!” Indeed, it appeared that the desks had been arranged in such perfect order that yardsticks must have been involved in getting the rows precisely so straight, with equidistant space between each row and between each desk within a row. “But see, that doesn’t matter,” my colleague countered. “This is the room of a great teacher and those straight rows don’t mean a thing when it comes to the quality of teaching. I don’t think you should be concerned about it.” I smiled and decided to hold my tongue.

But not now.

Designing for Focus

The lecture hall found on a college campus might be the obvious place to start, but I would rather us consider first the design of a movie theater. Likely you have been to a cineplex and watched a feature film. Consider the design of this space. In most theaters, all the seats are facing forward, and in a few large ones, there may be a gentle curve from one side of the space to another, but still, the seats are arranged in such a way, fixed to the floor, to face us, while seated, squarely at the big screen. The theater I have visited also employs a vertical component to its design: the seats in the back are positioned higher than the ones in the front, designed to give everyone as clear and as unobstructed view as possible to a screen that will light up once the lights in the room go dim. Beyond the emphasis on a screen, there is a design to the sound system, in recent years employing “surround sound” so that we are placed, at least mentally, in the center of the action taking place on the screen. While some of us may enjoy holding a companion’s hand, there is usually enough space given within a seat to forget about where we are and with whom we traveled to the theater.

The design of a modern movie theater is likely one of the best examples I could cite where the design of the space and our position within has been carefully considered. The use of light, sound, acoustics, and even the convenient placement of cup holders at the front of each seat’s armrest all contribute towards focusing each individual’s attention within the space on the feature film. The same thinking about design has contributed too towards the concert hall and the lecture hall. These examples, however, typically do not go as far, never subjecting humans to complete darkness or a feeling of isolation. Compare these public spaces with that of a park (typically with a lot of open space for moving around, and small pockets of space for sitting in small social groupings) and a restaurant (groupings of chairs around a table or the use of booths to give semi-private cooperation). In a park, there is an abundance of space, with an option for private or semi-private activity. Within a restaurant, a dining room accommodates a large group of people within small space, using the position of furniture and acoustic devices to allow for small groups of people to talk and dine within a group that feels private. In each of these examples, the physical arrangement of walls, seating, and a supporting structure is fixed. A concert performance in a park might require additional physical fixtures to accommodate more seating, acoustical projection, and a stage on which musicians could perform. Likewise, in a restaurant, certain groupings of tables can accommodate larger parties, but full flexibility for every table to accommodate just two diners, or larger parties of ten is not possible. Flexibility for modifying a space comes at the costs of time and the cost of modification of furniture, if not other physical components of the space.

Behind each of these examples was a deliberate design for how the space might be used. Using a college lecture hall as a dining space would remove the ability for diners to easily socialize while eating. Using a restaurant as a lecture hall would require repositioning of the furniture and likely special sound equipment to make hearing a lecturer possible. School classrooms, by in large, are designed both through their size and augmentation with furniture and technology to support a one-to-many model of focus. Desks, while not fixed as in a lecture hall, typically are heavy enough to make movement challenging. The focus space, perhaps in the modern classroom becoming the dry-erase board or interactive white board, as a fixed spot within a room, alongside floor space for a teacher to use to address students. K–12 school classrooms, like the examples cited here including lecture halls, movie theaters, and even a city park, each come with a design that makes assumptions about how that space will be used. The ultimate users of these spaces must adapt if their intention for use of the space differs from the original design.

Designed for Flexibility

A recent trend in school design, not to mention the design of spaces for work, has placed emphasis on how spaces can become more flexible. Instead of constructing a building for use as headquarters of a business with a lot of small rooms to be used as offices, architects may choose to open a building up for different arrangements for working teams. Meeting rooms, complete with audiovisual technology, may not always function for one dedicated team, but instead, be available to different teams for group collaboration, a guest presentation, or for use a panel job interview. Within the classroom space, seating and work space may have moved beyond the standard student desk model towards work tables that move on wheels and can collapse, to student desk that accommodate the use of the room’s space for lecture at one point, small group work later, and large discussions all within the scope of one class period. In terms of the purchase of furniture and design of the school before construction, a focus on flexibility does not delegate one model for teaching through the design of a space. The same space could be used by one teacher who prefers to lecture or for showing a film to a group of students, to using the same room space for learning where students are not seated at all, but can move around talking to one another as part of the design for learning, or for another teacher, as a student-focused classroom where students can collaborate in teams of six while seated. Schools not originally designed this way can still accommodate flexibility in the arrangement of furniture, but too many times what is in a classroom space and how it is arranged when a teacher takes ownership of a space new to them has an impact on pedagogy. Changing a room’s positioning of furniture, decor, or finding new equipment or furniture has too high a cost for teachers to take advantage of significant change in the room’s design. That cost, in addition to the lack of invitation by school leaders to augment a room’s design, is often not considered in designs for improvement of student achievement.

We Should Focus on Learning, not Teaching

Education literature is chock full of ideas about improving teaching. This is natural, likely because teachers are hired with a responsibility for influencing student learning. Ask most students how a teacher gets them to learn, and most would likely say “by teaching us.” One of the most misguided efforts at expanding what’s possible in the average school classroom in the past decade has been the installation of so-called interactive white boards (IWBs). Almost every aspect of these new systems has been poorly designed to affect learning. Teachers are the ones who are tapped through professional development on how the boards work. Teachers are taught how to generate digital flipcharts or notebooks and how to present information to students using these digital files. Seen as a next generation of slideware, these notebooks may contain objects that can be dragged around the board, responding to logical constructions (if a word is matched correctly to an image, the software responds with a “correct answer” sound). We then position these devices at the head of the room, within the teacher’s designed space, much like the movie screen at the cineplex. Desks are arranged so that students can see these boards optimally, just as we did when we pointed each desk towards the chalkboard in the classrooms of the 1950s.

In some cases, teachers (and their school’s administration) have improved upon this model with interactive white boards by designing the space around it so that students themselves can interact with the physical board. I see this orientation most often in primary classrooms through the use of a carpet positioned at the foot of the board so that students can sit close to it, and then when called, stand up and come to the board to interact with the digital notebook.

The problem with the design of the IWB model for learning is that they have not disrupted our obsession with instructional models that focus on the activity of a teacher as lecturer. Sometimes called direct instruction—where a teacher is talking to students, pointing to visual models, and even playing audio files to embellish the message and enhance learning—learning is a passive activity experienced by students who are awake, listening, and watching an actor on the stage. Direct instruction is effective at covering a lot of content quickly, as the teacher is in direct control of the pace of instruction. Effective teachers augment this style of learning with formative assessment (to see if the new information is making sense to students), and through questioning strategies (deliberately asking for verbal feedback). Those comfortable with a behaviorist background towards learning might posit that students who appear to be actively listening, talking with, and watching a teacher lecturing appear to be “engaged” with learning. Technology such as the IWB can facilitate this process for the teacher. But I will argue that an engaged listener, engaged watcher, and even engaged “regurgitator” of information is not the same thing as an engaged learner. Because of our prior knowledge, interest in a topic, or an interest in performing well on a later learning assessment, some of us can sit within a chair, listen, watch, and even answer live questions and learn new information. John Seeley Brown has framed this type of learning as “human as knower,” or homo sapiens.

Brown goes further to suggest there are two other ways in which humans learn: by making, and by playing. He also suggests the most deep kinds of learning take place as an intersection of these three models and involve social interaction. If our focus is for deeper types of learning in today’s schools, then we really need to re-examine theories of learning and how they play out in the day-to-day activities both in- and outside our school classrooms. “Sitting and getting” is not likely the gold standard for learning. School leaders should therefore be cautious of focusing time and professional development around teaching when that definition is so narrowly focused on what a teacher says, where they stand, which gadgets they use, as part of a lesson. Our collective definition of teaching must change to clearly articulate that teachers are designers of learning experiences. A design for learning may be at odds with the design of the space provided for learning, especially when it involves group discussion, creation, and play.

Learning Demands Flexibility

Knowing today what we know about the individual needs of students that have been grouped together into one particular class, it might be next to impossible to design the one awesome lesson and likewise, the one awesome classroom space. A teacher’s responsibility when designing for learning is to know something about each learner’s needs: the ways students learn best, need for growth in content and in actionable skills, and what gifts a student brings to a small community of learners. This means that on any given day, given similar resources and similar learning spaces, one teacher in one room will lead students through learning activities that are different from a teacher across the hall responsible for covering the same content standards. Technologies may be employed in different ways. Room arrangements are tailored to specific types of social learning. And because of the diversity of student needs, some students may be subject to different activities throughout a class period, employing different arrangements of the room, or use of spaces within or outside a school considered non-traditional classroom spaces. These might include a library, the hallway, outdoor space, or visits to other potential learning spaces within the community. With the arrival of one-to-one computing in many schools today, these options could also open towards virtual opportunities for learning too.

Direct instruction has a place in the arsenal of today’s teacher. Likewise, other models too have a space in our schools. These include small group collaboration, blended learning using technology, hands-on active learning using physical or virtual materials, and learning individually or as part of a large group using specialized tools and equipment (athletic equipment in gym class, an instrument in band, or chemicals and lab equipment in a science lab). At the heart of this message is a call for flexibility. Today’s schools by in large are still influenced from a long-standing design tradition of moving a lot of students at one time through large hallways into individual small compartments to learn from one instructor in similarly-sized peer groups. The comparison has been made before between schools and prisons. While we often do not stop to think about why a prison has been designed to house inmates with a focus on safety and security (transparency of a cell using bars just makes sense), I am not certain that educators have considered the ideas behind the design of their classrooms, schools, or even school districts to facilitate learning. When these designs hold teachers back at becoming their own designers of learning based on student needs, we ought to be looking for more flexibility in exploring enhanced opportunities for learning.

Straight Rows of Desks

For me, the straight rows of desks in many classrooms send a coded message to me about the relationship of teacher to student, about a philosophy about learning, and the responsibility of a teacher. By design, we might see straight rows as a design for equal access to the instructor and their audio visual resources used for lecture. But even for that, students do not have equal access to a teacher who chooses learning via a “sage on the stage” model of instruction. Visuals are harder to see in the back. Students may be placed within the grid of desks to prohibit socialization. And when the primary mode of instruction is lecture, the power relationship between teacher and student is reinforced each time the class meets.

I would ask educators to consider what a student-centered learning experience can look like. For advocates of deeper learning, the student becomes a co-designer of learning. Student voice and choice influences the activities that are designed for learning. Students learn through a variety of modalities, with opportunities to work together towards common goals. Physical spaces that challenge these different modalities or filter a teacher’s role as instructor to the front of a room with the tools of their voice, a whiteboard, and PowerPoint likely are not designed to place the student at the center of the action. For the already excellent teacher who thrives in a room with rows of desks that compete for the design for arrangement in a cineplex, there’s a whole new world of possibilities waiting.