Recreating the physical structure of a classroom


A typical classroom might look something like this.  The problem with this arrangement that I see is that almost no one actually works under this arrangement.  Why not?  It’s distracting! this is similar to the layout in a lot of teacher staff rooms, and it is my experience that very little work happens in the staff room when it is full.  There are too many people around and too many things to see and do.

Try this an experiment for your staff.  Have everyone bring work for an hour and sit in an arrangement like this.  Have someone sit outside the room and peek in through a window and keep track of how much individual work people do, and how often it looks like people are off task.  I’m willing to bet that you will see the same thing happen under these circumstances as what happens in our classrooms.  The teachers are going to start to chat with each other.  It’s human nature.

So where do teachers go to get work done?  Well if we are lucky we go to our own office, or we wait until we are alone after school, but for the most part, we do our important work independently from each other and without distractions.  We might to discuss stuff in small groups occasionally, or chat one on one, but for the most part, we work alone.  Once in a while we’ll join up and have a full group discussion with the entire staff, but rare is the school that does this more than once or twice a week.

So I propose a different arrangement.  Here’s a possible variation that might work.  The big difference here is, students have their own workspace. They can work in their small groups with a few students working in the middle section, possibly under the guidance of the teacher.  They have much fewer distractions available to them.

As well this system preserves what I think is the best structure for when someone needs to lecture, all of the students are facing in the direction of the presenter.  Of course in an ideal classroom the students are often presenting to each other and there’s nothing that stops this from happening, it just makes sure that the conversation is generally between presenter and the members of the class.  For when you want to have classroom discussions with the whole group, you might book a different room with a better structure (I’m thinking a gigantic U shape would be good, or a large elliptical table).

This may not be the ideal classroom structure but personally, I think that it’s time to rethink what a classroom looks like.  There should be no sacred cows in our reform of education.


What we need in schools is not one learning space or another, but more options, and more flexibility on how to use them.



  • When I worked on the reservation I learned about the virtues of a circular formation. When people sit in a circle, everything is centered in the hub of that circle, and when people are talking in that circle, everyone can see the eyes of the person talking. As the window to the soul, it’s pretty cool to witness the intensity of connection in this configuration.

    When independent work is required, any disturbance goes right to the center and it’s not long before the group overpowers the individual with their disdain for the annoyance. Ground rules are pretty easy to establish in the circle. Good chi.

    Great topic.

    Sean @graingered

  • David Wees wrote:

    Yeah I agree the big circle works well for when you want to have discussions involving everyone, and there should be classrooms in the school with that kind of set up. When I want to give instructions to the students, I think it’s easier and faster to set up a more traditional approach, but I wouldn’t want to use it for more than 10 minutes at a time, since that is about how long people can pay attention.

  • I remember we had most of our lessons at school in a big circle setup and I agree, it’s fantastic. Can’t remember why I’ve stopped using one – as I used to set the class up that way in my earlier years of teaching. Might be because I got fed up with cleaners ‘putting it back into order’.

    Might have to revisit this idea next year when I teach a large middle school class again.

  • I have mine set up similar to that, I have for several years. Groups do not work but ‘rows’ are great as they can all easily face the front yet can easily turn their chairs to make collaborative groups. I have been ‘acquiring’ any tables from around the school over the years so most of my students are at tables that sit two people but I am sure to have a desk at the end of each row so that I can slightly separate students who need that space.

  • I do the big circle occasionally but it does not work great all the time so have drifted away. For space purposes i have done a ‘horseshoe’ type shape with smaller rows in the middle since they can’t all fit in the horse shoe.

  • The updated design is great!

    I’m wondering what type of material you could use to make this, or something like it, happen in a classroom. Make the dividers/walls out of plexiglass or plastic that are about 5-6 feet tall? Or make them out of a thick wooden base up to 2 ft high and continue with the plexiglass up to 5-6 feet high? Can you have/make moveable and foldable partitions that accomplish a similar task, and can be moved as needed? Can you make several straight and light walls that are about 4-5 feet wide and have students put them up where they feel comfortable?

    Just a few ideas, but I really like this design! (BTW I came across this link in an #edchat today 9.13.11)

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