Selecting Your Style

An often-overlooked factor in how students learn is the arrangement of classroom furniture. In primary and secondary school classrooms, the choice of furniture arrangement is influenced by the age of the students, the pedagogical intentions of the teacher, the cultural traditions of the setting and the available space.

Within the public education system in America, schools are traditionally divided into three levels: elementary school (K-grade 4), middle school (grades 5-8) and high school (grades 9-12). In general, elementary school classrooms are arranged as informal activity clusters, more dramatically in the lower grades, and somewhat less so in the upper grades. In middle schools and high schools, where students move from classroom to classroom to study different subjects, the arrangement of furniture tends to be more rigid and is influenced by the number of students in the class and by the method of teaching.

Lecture Vs. Seminar

The two extremes in middle school and high school classrooms are the lecture arrangement and the seminar arrangement. These extremes are common to college classrooms as well. In the lecture mode, a teacher delivers information, and the students receive it. Obviously, a lecture for 120 students differs in the teaching and learning environment from a lecture for 25 students. In the smaller size class, the students are more likely to ask questions and discussions will be less formal. In the larger class, discussion is usually more limited.

The alternative arrangement is the seminar mode in which both the students and the teacher sit around a table, where everyone faces each other. The seminar arrangement encourages all students to participate in the discussion during each class. However, there is an upward limit to the size of a seminar table; usually 22 to 24 is the maximum number for successful interaction.

If the classroom is designed for only one purpose — lecture or seminar — then the furnishings can be quite rigid. Obviously, the seminar would require a seminar table. In fact, relatively sophisticated seminar tables are available. The Harkness table, for instance, is unique in providing a slideout arm for each student so that exams can be administered without a student peering at the paper of his or her neighbor.

On the lecture side, the most rigid situation would be fixed chairs with tablet arms, all facing the front of the classroom, where there is a writing surface (a blackboard and/or a whiteboard) and a projection screen. In this arrangement, all of the students look in the same direction — at the teacher.

Most middle school and high school classrooms measure about 600 to 800 square feet. They are usually rectangular in shape, with one wall devoted to windows. Another wall is the focal point, accommodating the writing surface and/or projection screen. Given such an arrangement of perhaps 24 feet by 32 feet, it is possible to provide furniture that allows for flexibility.

Other Choices
If we reject the seminar table or lecture-style seating because of inflexibility, the alternatives are:
  • Tablet arm desks, which are relatively lightweight and can be easily repositioned. This furniture can never be arranged as a seminar table, but can be arranged in rows, U shapes or circles. A practical advantage of this furniture is a somewhat more spacious feeling in the classroom because fewer pieces of furniture are required for the students.
  • Freestanding desks or tables with one or two separate chairs which can be arranged in a variety of ways. They can be configured as a closed rectangle, as an open U shape or as a closed rectangle with an open center. They can also be arranged in traditional rows.
So how do we choose? When looking at a typical classroom, we can choose seminar style, lecture style or we can opt for flexibility. Many schools choose all three. Remember that general-use classrooms are similarly shaped, but are used for teaching English, social studies, foreign languages and mathematics. Within each of these subjects, there are specific preferences among the faculty and administration that will affect the room arrangement. Perhaps in a school with 20 to 30 standard classrooms, 15 percent might be permanently arranged for seminar instruction, 15 percent might be permanently arranged for lecture mode and 70 percent might be flexible.

Special Classroom Issues
Special classrooms for music, art and science suggest different arrangements. Music classrooms are most often sized for ensemble playing or singing. In both cases, the student musicians are meant to see the instructor/conductor, a requirement that dictates the furniture arrangement. Choruses often are arranged with terraced seating, while orchestras, bands and other ensembles are arranged on flat floors with chairs and music stands.

Art rooms are usually larger than typical classrooms and require extensive storage and service space. The arrangement of tables, benches and easels is dictated by the medium: painting, drawing, ceramics, sculpture or graphics. Some disciplines are interchangeable, while others have specific requirements.

In middle school and high school, most students study science every day. Thus, each school devotes considerable space to science instruction. Science pedagogy and furniture arrangements are usually specific to a particular subject. Earth science and physics, for instance, require fewer utilities than biology or chemistry. Nevertheless, all of the sciences require laboratory space for experiments. This requirement gives rise to two areas of debate. First, should the recitation portion of the curriculum be taught in an area of the classroom that is separate from the laboratory work, or should the two modes of instruction occur in the same location? Second, to what extent should the arrangement of laboratory tables and recitation furniture encourage collaboration or competition?

Regarding the separation of recitation and laboratory activities, most earth science and physics classrooms use the same space for both. The tables are often moveable because they do not require direct access to water, gas and drainage. This allows for more flexible arrangements, attuned to the preferences of a particular instructor. The earth science and physics classrooms usually have a counter and storage facilities around the perimeter, with large moveable lab tables in the middle, and a focal point for instruction — a writing surface and/or projection screen on one wall.    

For disciplines such as chemistry and biology, where the laboratory tables require many services, the situation changes. Chemistry lab tables typically require water, gas, drainage and electricity, and the lab itself requires safety features, such as fume hoods and emergency showers. The students conduct their experiments standing at the lab table to assure mobility in order to avoid injury. The recitation portion of the instruction takes place in a different part of the classroom. A seminar table or separate desks can be used in the recitation area.

Here, too, the same debates regarding flexibility occur as those that arise when selecting furniture for standard classrooms. In tight situations, where insufficient room precludes separate laboratory and recitation zones, furniture manufacturers have created a flexible laboratory bench that rises to 36 inches for the lab portion and lowers to 29 inches for the recitation portion. With this type of furniture, one location can accommodate both laboratory and recitation functions.

Male Vs. Female Preferences
Pedagogical literature and legend related to science instruction suggest that, to some extent, males and females learn science differently. The legend goes as follows: scientifically inclined males thrive on competition — who gets the answer first? — whereas scientifically inclined females thrive on collaboration — let’s all get it right.

This can influence furniture arrangement. For example, laboratory tables can be sized for four students on each side, facing each other. Thus, these students might collaborate, compare data and arrive at a collective result. The classroom might contain three tables, with eight students each, and in addition contain a seminar table for the recitation portion of the science instruction.

Conversely, a laboratory might be arranged with a U-shaped lab counter around three sides of the room. Two lab partners, facing the wall, might work together, trying to complete the experiment before all the other pairs of lab partners. In this arrangement, the recitation portion might be taught to students sitting at tablet-arm desks arranged in traditional ways, facing the writing surface and the demonstration table. My personal experience indicates that when given the choice, teachers and students prefer more collaborative arrangements.

In Summary
To review the issue of furniture arrangement, for standard classrooms, the choices are seminar, lecture or flexibility — or possibly a mix of the three. Special classrooms for music and art are usually furnished based on the specific requirements of the artistic discipline. Instructional spaces for science are subject to greater debate with the specific scientific discipline influencing the outcome.

Clearly, attention to furniture and its arrangement in classrooms has an important influence on pedagogy. 

Peter Gisolfi, AIA, ASLA, LEED-AP
, is chairman of the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, and author of the book, Finding the Place of Architecture in the Landscape. He is senior partner of Peter Gisolfi Associates, a firm of architects and landscape architects in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., and New Haven, Conn. His built designs for public schools, independent schools and colleges can be seen throughout the country.