What Message Does Your Classroom Send?

Part of my job as a technology integrationist is to show and inspire teachers to change the way they teach. Just because teachers use technology doesn’t necessarily mean they have changed their teaching methods. Multiple teachers forwarded me a recent study titled, Computers in classrooms have ‘mixed’ impact on learning: OECD report, which has me alarmed that I’m not doing enough to stress that it’s not about the technology, it’s about the new ways we teach and learn – starting with the learning environment. If nothing else changes besides substituting a computer for pencils and papers – of course there won’t be better results.

Since my audience is teachers (especially secondary teachers), I thought I could design a post that uses images to inspire changes in their classroom setups.  And as Rory Sutherland said, “persuasion is better than compulsion,” so here it goes:

Remember back as a student walking into a high school classroom that was arranged in a circle? Did anyone else cringe, or was that just me?

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Perkins via Flickr

This desk arrangement, in comparison to the normal cemetery-row seating, immediately upped my panic level. I knew we’d be having a discussion that I’d be expected to join, or else risk everyone seeing me in my ‘out to lunch’ mode that was easy to get away with in the back row.

Photo courtesy of Jboelhower via Pixabay
Photo courtesy of Jboelhower via Pixabay

At the beginning of the school year, I read Erin Klein’s post 9 Creative Ways to Avoid the Cemetery Effect, and after seeing the cemetery photo beside a picture of desks in rows I cannot get the image out of my mind. I have to confess, that when I walk by classrooms arranged this way, I can’t help assume the kids are board to death. Tah, da, dum!

Photo courtesy of liebeslakritze via Flickr
Photo courtesy of liebeslakritze via Flickr

As Rory Sutherland explained in his TedTalk, “intangible value can be created by changing the perception,” and I think this can apply to classroom design as well. Teachers, consciously or unconsciously, use the setup of their classroom to help communicate their expectations (like the circular set up of desks in my example above); but we can also use the design of the classroom to create a space that challenges the traditional perception of school, as well as the traditional style of teaching.

See how creating flexible classrooms empower student choice, increase student engagement, and improve student participation at Albemarle County Public Schools in the video below.

As Erin Klein explains, “we must realize that our traditional spaces will only continue to reinforce traditional teaching and learning.” For our practices to nurture curiosity and inspire the pursuit of discovery, our class environments have to communicate and assist us in our goals to achieve student centered, inquiry based instruction.

To learn more about seating arrangements and the processes others have used to transform their classrooms, check out:

  • ClassroomCribs – Learn more about classroom design
  • Edutopia – 8 Tips and Tricks to Redesign Your Classroom
  • TwoWritingTeachers – Creating Classroom Environments – Making Space for Partnerships
  • MindShift – Ditch the Desks
  • Desks in Rows – Article about what we lose with the ‘desk in rows’ model

Even if they don’t remember a word of what I wrote, hopefully the negative images of the rows in a cemetery and rows in a classroom will stick with the teachers as it did me. Since rows, especially at the secondary level, is very common, it is critical that a fundamental shift in their thinking needs to occur in order for them to rethink their classroom design and instruction.

2 thoughts on “What Message Does Your Classroom Send?”

  1. Thanks for this blog! I totally agree that the physical space is often ignored despite all the research that shows the effect it can have. I work with a lot of students with ADHD and other difficulties and the physical layout really impacts their learning. I find, especially in elementary that teachers set the space at the beginning of the year and it doesn’t change. What a lost opportunity. When I look at our school, one problem I see is that, in trying to get away from the ‘cemetery’ look, the school has purchased large, communal tables that sit 6 students at each. I think this has limited them too much! The tables are so big that there is very little space for redesigning the layout. Purchasing is also often done by a business manager or someone who isn’t the class teacher. Blue sky thinking would be that each teacher could have a budget to buy what works for their space and let them take some ownership. Ah well, I can dream. One additional resource I would add for inspiration is the book Make Space (http://amzn.to/1FDbgKM).


    1. Hi Lizzie,
      I’m at a fairly new school, so we too have traditional furniture – and since it’s new, there’s no replacing it just yet. Luckily our tables only sit 2 (6! Geez louise!) and most classrooms are spacious, so I think it’s possible to find creative ways to make our classrooms inviting and engaging without spending a lot. Check out this recent article where the teacher’s goal is to make her classroom space like a Starbucks – a welcoming place that she and other adults go to work.


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