The way the furniture in a classroom is set up can have a significant effect on both how students learn and how much they learn, studies suggest.
How a classroom space is designed shapes the kinds of learning that happen there, writes Nancy Van Note Chism in Learning Spaces. For example, “a room with rows of tablet arm chairs facing an instructor’s desk in front of chalkboards conveys the pedagogical approach: ‘I talk or demonstrate; you listen or observe,’” she writes. On the other hand, “a room of square tables with a chair on each side conveys the importance of teamwork and interaction to learning.”
Arranging desks or tables so that students are facing the teacher at the front of the room works well for direct instruction, because it focuses students’ attention on what the teacher has to say. Arranging desks or tables in a large circle or “U” shape makes whole group discussion easier, because every student can see every other student in the class. Arranging desks or tables in small groups, with three or four students facing each other, facilitates small group interaction and collaboration.
Because there will be times when teachers will want to use each of these strategies in their classrooms, flexibility is critical when designing learning spaces, Van Note Chism observes.“
A group of learners should be able to move from listening to one speaker…to working in groups…to working independently,” she writes. “While specialized places for each kind of activity…can accommodate each kind of work, the flow of activities is often immediate. It makes better sense to construct spaces capable of quick reconfiguration to support different kinds of activities [using] moveable tables and chairs.”
A 2013 study by the University of Salford in England confirmed that classroom design can have a 25% impact, either positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year—and flexibility (defined as how easily a classroom’s furniture could be rearranged for a variety of activities and teaching approaches) was one of six key environmental factors that showed the most effect.