When it comes to learning, many teachers concern themselves with things like teaching methods, parental support, and differential instruction. However, underpinning a teacher’s effectiveness is a classroom’s design. The way a class is laid out can have an impact on how well students learn.
Classroom layout is not just a matter of rearranging chairs, but rather of purposefully rearranging a classroom to achieve desired outcomes. How a teacher rearranges the classroom should depend on their personal philosophy, the objectives they hope to achieve, and some best practices that have been uncovered in the research. However, it’s important to being wit ha basic understanding of what elements influence classroom layout.
The Basics of Classroom Layout
Writing for Teacher Magazine, author Jo Earp notes that how a classroom is laid out has an impact on academic outcomes. Research seems to show that how a class is arranged accounts for 16% of the impact on a student’s learning. When arranging a classroom, teachers need to take into account a number of environmental factors, including lighting, temperature, and even air quality and the colors used in the classroom. For many teachers, accounting for every single one of these factors may be impractical. However, the lesson to be taken away is that the design of a classroom is important to maximizing academic outcomes among students.
Yet another study indicated that a classroom layout may have a 25% impact on learning, either positive or negative, depending on how the class is designed. With the appropriate classroom layout, concentration can be increased, behavior can be improved, and teachers can support learning outcomes more effectively. Much like previous studies, researchers noted several factors that might influence academic outcomes. Classroom layout may impact acoustics, so teachers leaning heavily on a lecture format may want to arrange desks such that all students can clearly hear the instructor.
One interesting element of classroom design is the concept of ownership. Ownership refers to designing a classroom such that students and teachers feel that they own the space around them. This can be accomplished by using furniture that can be reconfigured, even if only to a limited degree, thereby allowing students to rearrange their work environment. This can also be helpful if teachers often rearrange the classroom to switch between lecture and group work.
A factor that is often beyond the ability of teachers to control, but that school administrators may want to consider, is the nature of the décor they choose for a classroom. The level of comfort students experience while learning may make it easier for them to learn. Furniture that’s soft, has soothing colors, and includes comfortable textures can actually improve the mood of students. As a result, when purchasing furniture for the school, care should be taken regarding the kind of furniture that’s being used in the classroom.
Of course, teachers do have some control over the furnishings in the class. While they may not be able to buy thirty new chairs for students, they can hang different furnishings that include soothing colors to help improve the learning environment. This is just one example of how they can customize the environment with unique furnishings that enhance the room.
Philosophy Behind Classroom Layout
Jo Earp notes that how a classroom is laid out should reflect a teacher’s own educational philosophy. If they’re heavily group oriented, then classes should be laid out in such a way that they facilitate group learning. Desks should be arranged to allow students to easily interact with each other and cooperatively complete group tasks. Teachers who are very lecture focused should design classrooms that are arranged in a more traditional series of rows and columns, allowing students to get a clear view of the lecturer.
The choice in layouts reflect very different teaching philosophies. Small groups indicate that a teacher emphasizes classroom cooperation, while rows and columns are used by teachers who want to focus on creating a stable, quiet classroom environment. It should be noted that the choice of layout doesn’t have to remain static and teachers may choose to change the layout based on changing circumstances. At the beginning of the year, rows and columns may help create a stable, quiet environment, but teachers may later choose to adopt group clusters to shift the class toward a cooperative environment.
There is actually no one optimal way of arranging a classroom. Instead, the class should be laid out that matches an instructor’s teaching style and maximizes the learning outcomes of that instructor’s students. Students shouldn’t be allowed to pick their own seats without restriction. Instead, the learning activities being conducted that day should dictate the seating arrangement. When students get to pick their own seats, some will pick better than others and make it more likely that they have a better learning experience. For this reason, students should be allowed only a limited amount of choices with regard to seating. Teachers should design their layout such that no matter what a student chooses, their learning experience is optimized.
A study among teachers and how they laid out their classrooms revealed that they often considered a range of factors when designing their classrooms. Teachers often took into account the view of the blackboard, adjusted their arrangement according to how many students were in the class, and tried to arrange the class so that each student could pay maximum attention to their lessons. In practice, this proved the assertion that there is no one optimal classroom layout. Instead, teachers should arrange their classes according to their instructional philosophy and in such a way that accounts for the characteristics of their students.
Classroom Layouts that Encourage Participation
Certain classroom layouts are more likely to encourage participation. Researchers looked at students learning two very different topics: math, and the German language. Over eight weeks, two seating arrangements were used. The traditional rows and columns were used in some cases while in other cases a semicircle was used. Teachers always stood at the front of the classroom.
At the end of the study, the researchers found that students who were more centrally located and aligned with the teacher were more likely to ask questions. These findings suggested that students might feel more engaged when seated in a way that put them more directly in the view of a teacher. Interestingly, the semi-circle was more likely to produce engagement than the rows and columns layout. When teachers used a semi-circle layout, it was more likely that they would get a direct view of those in their classroom. Students got a better view of their teacher and had more opportunities to be addressed and participate.
There are multiple configurations that teachers can use to encourage participation. Small groups of four students can be arranged so that pairs of students are placed across from one another. This format is effective for group work. Larger variations of this configuration can include longer desks and groups of eight students working together, which is effective for larger projects.
Classroom participation in the form of debates can be encouraged using even larger classroom designs that still rely on active student engagement. The entire class can be seated in a round formation so that they can interact with one another while a teacher observes from the outside. On the other hand, a class can be shaped into a semicircle so that students can engage with one another but also have equal access to a lecturer. When it comes to classroom participation, there are multiple configurations that teachers may want to experiment with.
Obstacles to Education
Classroom layout may negatively impact more than only student participation. Students may at times be positioned ins such a way that they are unable to see charts or the blackboard that a teacher is using. When designing a classroom, teachers should consider every angle at which students will be seated.
In many cases, modern electronic devices and technology are forced into physical spaces that were designed up to decades ago. New technology is often arranged according to old pedagogical models, often in front facing rows and columns. However, the limitations placed upon how teachers can operate are not limited to technology. In many cases, the geometric form of the room may have a real impact on how teachers can seat their students. This can impact both how technology is used and how students are more generally arranged when teachers are trying to optimize the layout for certain classroom activities.
Class Layout and Electronics
How a classroom is laid out does impact how students engage with their electronic devices. Classrooms use a variety of electronic aids these days, from mobile devices to traditional desktop computers. However, layout can both negatively and positively impact the student experience. Lighting in ceiling lights and from windows can produce glare that negatively affects the student experience.
The way that teachers arrange technology in the classroom is, like other parts of classroom layout, related to their teaching philosophy. A study conducted into the layout of technology integrated classrooms revealed that teachers used vastly different approaches to using that technology. In one instance, a single computer was used per each group, so that students would be forced to use it collaboratively rather than have each student work independently. Other teachers preferred only a single computer per classroom so that students could rotate to it to get very specific tasks done.
Researchers did make some recommendations on the characteristics of the computers used. Although not strictly an aspect of classroom layout, the design of a classroom needs to take into account the types of computers chosen depending on how the class is designed. If a teacher is designing a room to emphasize group work, screens need to be selected that are large enough that all members of the group have an adequate view of the work being done. Teachers who want to emphasize a more traditional classroom layout may instead opt to use a smaller screen that’s obscured in a part of the room to better emphasize the traditional lecture format.
The Active Learning Classroom
One example of an optimized classroom layout is the active learning classroom, which uses two different layouts depending on what activities are being done that day. This type of layout relies on easy rearrangeable furniture to allow for a flexible classroom. The first classroom configuration includes students seated at groups of tables in a four-person, small group format. The second configuration changes the layout so that chairs are rearranged to face a blackboard or projector. The furniture used in these classrooms shift along on light rolling chairs that are attached to personal desks.
Researchers found there were multiple positive benefits to using this type of flexible classroom. The first benefit was that it created a lot of open space in which both students and instructors could walk around and interact with others. This freedom of movement promoted both intellectual and social interactions. Although students typically worked within their own small groups, they could easily join their desks with a second group if they were struggling. This promoted a learning community in which peer instruction was ongoing. This also promoted a sense of pride among students, who felt they were co-creators of knowledge.
Rather than merely being recipients of a teacher’s knowledge, students were able to actively work with others in the construction of knowledge. Consequently, students felt much more engaged than in other class formats. The ease with which students could reconfigure their learning spaces meant they could quickly join with others and either help or receive help as needed.
The active learning classroom was also helpful to teachers because it relied on tools that helped teachers understand just how well different groups were learning. One element of the small groups included a portable white board that extended over the desk of each group member. This allowed all members to work at different sections of the board. Each student could work independently on their section of the white board and then confer with one another. This helped students to better collaborate and discuss with one another how they arrived at different answers. Teachers could then review each group’s board to see if they had arrived at the correct answer and offer feedback on where they might have gone wrong. The whiteboards were also useful when students wanted to demonstrate to other members of their group how an answer was reached, turning some students into peer instructors for their group.
Beyond the academic environment, the active learning classroom was also helpful in that it created an environment in which students were more social and active. Teachers won’t always have the sort of furniture or tools needed for the ideal active learning classroom. However, they can take the principles of that classroom and apply it to their own.
Classroom layout can impact academic outcomes in a number of ways. The design of a class influences how comfortable students feel, how much they engage with their instructors, and how easily they can engage with one another. For that reason, teachers should consider classroom layout an important part of achieving their goals instead of a mere afterthought. How a classroom is designed can significantly impact academic outcomes, making classroom layout important to any teacher’s instructional approach.