As a student of cognitive anthropology back in the ‘80s, I should be highly aware of how physical space structures human interaction, but I’m still amazed at how this works in the classroom.
I continue to focus on my double-horseshoe, backs-to-the-centre arrangement, and the difference it makes is remarkable. It enables a clear switch between activities and thus tends to improve the quality of both individual activity and group discussion. Most importantly, it greatly improves the mobility of the teacher in the classroom.
One of the points to having the pupils sit with their backs to the centre of the room is that they need to turn towards the middle for teacher- or group-centered activity. A large number of pupils do not do so unless they are specifically instructed to do so, and then they don’t turn away again for individual work until specifically instructed to do so. It’s clear that the teacher is important as a leader and that re-arranging the furniture does not change this – indeed, the benefits of changing classroom lay-out come only when the teacher is willing to be a clear leader.
Many pupils try to modify or sabotage, as well. Re-arranging the furniture so that their screen is not visible is of course a key goal. Again, the teacher has to be willing to steer the class and to insist on having things their way. (I keep getting burned on that one…)
The picture above is from someone far more experienced than myself, but for me there are some mistakes. The desks along the walls need to be taken to the back wall.
If you leave the corner open, as in the diagram, as below:
Then what happens is this:
And, not surprisingly, the participation of the pupil sitting in this spot becomes markedly different. Of course, we are now back at the teacher as leader, since the teacher can simply order the kid to move. However, there is a pay-off in structuring things to avoid having to give orders too often. Too much conflict gets in the way of the real work of the classroom, learning.
One colleague I told about this seemed all gung-ho, but then when I walked by their classroom, they were all sitting in rows as if on a bus. I asked my colleague “What happened?” and was told “I need to get a grip on them first, establish the right working tone before I try anything new.” This person was worried that they would somehow lose control if they did anything weird. The irony is that from the back of this classroom, you get an excellent view of the laptop screens of the pupils. Facebook, solitaire, chat, games, etc. (The teacher stands at the front.)
A couple of other colleagues have tried the double horseshoe and have come back to me with glowing reports. They were particularly pleased with the clear shift of focus when moving from one activity to another and with the improvement of discussions when pupils are not hidden behind desks and screens and can see each other more easily.