I spent a great deal of last year enamoured with the idea of modern learning environments. One of my placements was at a school which had a large awhina area (an indoor court-yard) shared by 4 classes as a break-out space. It was fantastic to have a space for the syndicate (group of 3-4 classes) to meet as well as a place for students to have a place work independently of the teacher.
Coming into a more traditional classroom space with 28 of the flip-top style desks seemed rather daunting at the start of the year. While I had the advantage of an old cloak bay, where I put a couple of round tables in, I was stuck with what to do in my main classroom.
In the end I went old school making a couple of rows pushed up right at the back of the room. That lasted all of two weeks as I hated the large void created by having kids squished against the back of the room.
Over time I tried different table configurations to improve the flow of the classroom but the desks forever seemed to be in the way.
As I was sitting the library one day, I noticed something about the class. There was something about the design of the library that changed the vibe of the class. We became more mellow and the students seemed a lot more relaxed, more importantly they weren’t all working at desks. So I posed a question not just to myself but also my students:
How can we make our classroom more like the library?
We held a world cafe to try and answer that very question before coming up with ideas for the planning the classroom. It was amazing to see the level of creativity the kids came up with when having a blank slate. The students wanted cushions and more soft furniture as well as little nooks and crannies to read in. They absolutely loved the idea of being able to draw on windows and walls so I got some liquid chalk and some blackboard decal to put up on walls.
But the biggest problem still remained.
They soaked up so much space and energy in the classroom and often were an impediment to learning rather than an aid. What’s more a lot of the desks seemed to be places to store junk and bits of paper in which is space that could be used for different purposes.
Which led me to wonder could I ditch the desks?
Some teachers like the idea of giving each child a home base in the classroom. It gives teachers a degree of control as to where students sit which can be used as a way to manage behaviour in particular of students who have a tendency towards off-task behaviour. I know spent a ridiculous amount of time between the first and second term trying to make tables to ensure that my groups had a mix of personalities to make classroom management easier.
And then there were the students. Flip-top desks not only function as a work space for the kids but also storage. However for some kids they were also a giant receptacle for junk. Nevertheless the desks give each student a space in the classroom and that’s important for kids. Yet when tasked to design an ideal classroom, desks didn’t feature prominently in the students’ plans.
So I decided to take a risk over the school holidays and ditched individual desks. I bought the round tables out of my breakout space into the main part of the classroom and I chucked a few of the flip-top ones into the breakout area. I spent the early part of the school holiday quietly stashing away the remainder of the desks in little nooks and crannies over the school.
In their place I added some cushions, a bean bag chair and turned a sturdy bookcase on its side to provide storage and a bench type area. Student gear was stored in buckets which immediately increased the amount of floor space available.
The kids were shocked when they came back. Where would we sit?
The answer was wherever you feel comfortable.
The result of clearing out the desks is that my class feels a lot more agile. I love how quickly the room can configured and reconfigured depending on the the needs of the learners. If we need a big space for the whole class to meet that’s easy. When the kids need to collaborate in groups there are places for that, if they need quiet places they can find those as well. For their part, there are some students that absolutely love the new set up while there are others that miss having their desk.
One of the interesting side effects of moving to a more agile learning space is that actually makes classroom management a lot easier. During a classroom observation my principal noted that there appeared to be less students in the classroom because the kids were spread out and engaged in the learning.
Yes it means that it is a lot harder to monitor kids for off-task behaviour however the flip side is that off-task behaviour tends to be a lot more localized as the kids aren’t sitting so close together so there is less chance for others become distracted.
While I would love to have access to the wonderful teaching spaces that I’ve seen in some of the newer schools but I’m learning to make the space work for me. The purpose of this post is not to convert everyone to start chucking out their desks but rather to realize that while purpose-built modern learning spaces are awesome, regular classrooms can become awesome learning spaces with a modicum of cash and a bit of creative thinking.