What Your Classroom Setup May Be Saying To Students

I looked out at my room the other day – the same room I started to teach Japanese in when it was a new school in in 1997. The blackboard is now a whiteboard, the screen is there for my computer…and wow – is that the same old TV in the corner for video announcements? (Yes!) But even more interesting for me is what has really changed. There is a big difference in ‘how’ my students use the room – how they sit, what they do, and where the focus on learning is. It took me a minute to connect the change in my room setup and my changing educational practice.The journey mirrors the evolution of my teaching …


Single Rows

Focus: Teacher at the front of the room: Those first few years, with their long nights of prepping material and me trying to wrap my head around what I was ‘teaching’. Note the word ‘teaching’. With my students in rows, facing the front, it was clearly a ‘teacher as the driving force’ kind of space. And in those early years, as I worked to discover who I was as a teacher, and even what kind of things I wanted my students to explore it probably needed to be this way. The first few years can be chaotic, challenging and oh so much fun…and clearly, if you looked at my desk arrangement, I was the one ‘in charge’.

Pairs in a “U” Shape

Focus: Teacher at the front of the room/another student: Gradually my room saw a change – from single rows to pairs – and, daringly, not even in rows. This coincided with my degree of comfort in the what and how that I was teaching. Notice again though that the focus was on me and the front of the room. Yes, I thought it had to be as that is where the screen for the overhead – replaced by computer/LCD is located. My degree of comfort in ‘letting them go and interact’ was growing – and I injected lots of partner/interactive time into the class. But clearly the setup still said ” ‘Focus on the teacher – and then shift to practicing with your partner’ (but remember who is in charge! )

“Tables” (or, 4 desks facing one another)

Focus: Fellow Students/Teacher when needed. And this year – another change for me – and another ‘leap’ in my style of teaching. I had tried the group of 4 in the past – but hadn’t made the permanent shift. But the changes in my teaching, and a visit to #langchat colleague ( and her ‘table setup’) did it for me. If I was going to let my students, and a communicative/interactive focus be a priority, I needed to put my ‘desks where my teaching philosophy is’. So now they sit – pods of 4 desks – a partner to talk to beside them – and pair across the table for broader consultation/interaction. It’s a challenge at times – but remarkably easy to pull them all together for the ‘coaching’ moments at the screen/board. I don’t even think of it as the ‘front’ of the room any more – the focus is now on the students – and my teaching, okay my language coaching – is improving because of it.

I hope that my room now says to my students “the focus here is on you and using your language skills to communicate.” What does your setup say about what you value in your class?


  1. Carlos

    May 15, 2014 at 9:47 am

    I am presently working in a small district in Minnesota, US
    my classroom is around average, 25″x 25″. I have 42 desks for about 40 kids in 3 periods times day 1 and day 2, each period of 90 minutes. I teach a foreign language in high school. My classroom setup is minimum…

    • Carlos

      May 15, 2014 at 9:49 am

      And if I did not make it clear 40 x 3 x 2 is around 240 kids a week.

  2. Colleen Lee

    May 15, 2014 at 7:51 pm

    Thanks for your comment Carlos – I wish I didn’t have the desks because my room is an odd shape for the 30 to fit into but I do – I’d prefer long tables – they can handle more. My key was to be aware of the amount of ‘face me’ ‘face other students’ that I had them do as part of my push to a more communicative setup – and to challenge myself, and my teaching practice, to adapt.

  3. JCB

    May 16, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    In all my years of going to and teaching schools, I have NEVER been in a classroom that would physically allow for this arrangement.


    May 17, 2014 at 2:30 am

    That is why my classroom has octagonal lab stations to enhance students interaction. We remember 92% of what we teach each other one month later. The classroom is based upon the 6 C’s of a Education for the 21st Century.
    Think Critically, Work Collaboratively, Communicate Clearly, Embrace Culture, Develop Creativity & Utilize Connectivity
    The skills necessary to survive in a world where the only constant is things will change.

  5. Tom Foley

    May 17, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    All of these “new ideas” are great. Things do change and society needs to evolve. Consider this… our test score compared to other nations were far superior when teachers spent more time on lessons and less time on trivial items like which way a room is arranged. Bottom line… a good teacher will provide a much better education in any environment.

    • Colleen Lee

      May 17, 2014 at 10:45 pm

      Thanks for your comments Tom – Please note that the graphic does not match my actual classroom – it was inserted by Edudemic. My concern wasn’t test scores (I’m in Canada – we do well internationally) but actually having a communicative setup for students because, as I note, I teach a language and wanted to improve conditions for student to student interaction. You are correct – a good teacher is key – but I wanted to see if I could enhance my teaching with a supportive physical environment. The experiment has worked well in my case. It fits what I do and each teacher finds what works best for them.

      • Jeff Gerlach

        June 4, 2014 at 3:19 pm

        Hi Colleen,

        Thanks for this. I really appreciate you sharing your different room configurations and your reflections on what the learning focus became because of the physical environment.

        Like Tom, I too thought that the graphic at the top of the post was of your actual classroom. So thank you for clarifying that. I’m wondering if you have an actual map, blueprint, of your classroom design? I’m trying to have a conversation about this idea on my personal blog.

        I think you would be a great person to see/hear from. Keep up the great work!

        • Colleen Lee

          August 14, 2014 at 2:48 pm

          Hi Jeff,
          Thanks for the comments. I don’t have a picture of my room – but I can tell you that I have 8 groups of 4 desk/tables so student face each other. They are angled so that when I need them to see the screen or whiteboard on what is now the ‘side’ of the room – they all can. Students can move around easily and are at assigned tables (I change them up every 2 weeks). It seems to benefit ‘conversation’ which is key in my room! Have a great start to the year.