Chantal Bramwell trained as a geography teacher and now delivers citizenship for the home schooling organisation Notschool.net, but when she did her PGCE, she was encouraged to experiment with classroom layout, even at one point placing her own desk at the back.
"I even researched the use of plants as a calming feature in classrooms," she remembers. "For example, if there are plants in the room that children are responsible for looking after they are more likely to behave more calmly." Recently she taught a class where the room was large enough to use a U-shape arrangement. "This was ideal for views of the board," she says, adding that it also allows the teacher the ease of access to individuals and discussion between pupils while cutting down on unwanted chit chat.
The importance of classroom layout is being recognised by the Government through its Classrooms of the Future initiative, which aims to challenge current school building design. Part of its remit is to create "an innovative learning environment that is imaginative and stimulating".
Yet, according to Kairen Cullen, a chartered educational psychologist, there is not a huge amount of empirical research on this topic. In most cases, classroom layout is simply used as an expression of the teacher's individual philosophy and approach to teaching generally.
"So if the teacher is keen to see pupils interacting and learning together, engaging in experiential learning or using artscrafts media to the full - clearly the layout can facilitate this," she says.
On the other hand, she adds that it can also reflect a more controlling and authoritarian style in which the teacher is pivotal to every child, for example in a traditional lecture theatre style arrangement - with individual tables and rows - all facing the teacher, who is centre stage.
Instead, she adds that a more democratic teacher, who is keen to give their pupils experience in decision-making and responsibility, can also use the room layout as an area where pupils can express preferences and be responsible for managing this.
According to the British Council there are some things every teacher should think of when it comes to layout:
- Can I see pupils' faces. Can they see me?
- Can everyone see the board (if you're planning on using it)?
- Can the pupils see one another?
- Can I move around the room so that I can monitor effectively?
This approach will also help teachers remember names, according to Jo Budden from the British Council, adding that, although it can seem like an extra effort and a waste of time, teachers should find that spending the first two minutes of a class adjusting the furniture could help them to see every single face.
However, Ms Cullen adds that it is also down to each individual teacher to form their own way of arranging the classroom. "A very directive school management can sometimes impose certain layout requirements on teachers," she adds.
"This is a wasted opportunity as it means that individual teachers have less scope to exercise their own creativity and express their unique professional practice through responding to the needs and characteristics of each particular class."
According to Ms Bramwell, this is something she would always consider. In a primary setting, for example, teachers will have the opportunity to arrange the classroom so that it suits each and every individual. "This will allow you to place pupils hard of hearing or sight nearest the board, pupils with different abilities in different subjects can be grouped - and troublesome parings can be kept apart."
While no arrangement will be a cure-all for bad behaviour, Nicola Morgan, a teacher specialising in behaviour management in primary schools and author of Quick, Easy and Effective Behaviour Management Ideas for the Classroom, says: "Stand or sit with your back to a wall, in clear view of the whole class to identify appropriate and inappropriate behaviours immediately and respond appropriately.
"It is impossible to notice good behaviour if you are not continually watching for it, so continually scan the classroom, and sweep it with your eyes over and over."
She adds that teachers should never stand or sit with their back to the children. If you do reconsider your classroom layout, draw it out on paper and play around with it. "This way you will be able to look for potential clashes or access issues," adds Ms Bramwell.
Next week: Applying restraint
- Use the room so that it can be arranged to suit the individuals in that group.
- Group pupils by ability for different subjects.
- Consider ease of access to supplies. The easier movement is, the less disruption will be caused encouraging better behaviour.
- Stand or sit with your back to the children
- Rely on one classroom layout model.