The Zen of Classroom Configuration

Effective classroom arrangement is less about meditation, and more about collaboration, movement and flexibility. “Comfortably functional” is the goal for any classroom at any grade level. To achieve it, adaptable designs are key. Here, Lani Aquino, a contributing writer for Global Educator Institute (GEI), a source for trustworthy teacher-approved products, describes five classroom configurations teachers are talking about. They provide a range of possibiliies for functional and inviting learning spaces.

Thanks to its six-week classroom testing process that utilizes real teachers and students in five different schools, Global Educator Institute (GEI) helps teachers and administrators choose the best-designed, most effective classroom products available. Products that receive the GEI Seal of Endorsement have not only been evaluated by educators in real classrooms, they have also been vetted through a series of carefully created evaluative rubrics, and added to a growing list of searchable, teacher-endorsed learning products. For more information, visit, or call 844-434-7325.


1. Learning Zones

The creation of learning zones in the classroom is the epitome of form meets function. When zones have been created that are functionally diverse, students are more likely to find the proper niche for their learning style. Zones can be based on different seating options or learning stations and can be comprised of standing desks, soft seating (e.g., beanbags, cushions), ball or core chairs, technology carrels, or small-group tables. When students are presented with a variety of zones that best fit different activities and styles, they can find new excitement in the functionality of their learning spaces. A zone-centered classroom is perfect for flipped models, learning stations, and PBL.

2. The “U”

The U is a great way to start breaking from the traditional row concept while still creating a common focal point for the entire group. With a single row of desks along the back that is flanked by two perpendicular rows on each end, all eyes can still find their way front and center without any major contortions necessary. A double U or even a triple can be achieved depending on space, and the utilization of standing desks, if they are on hand, can add seating diversity. Having desks and/or tables positioned in this style also allows for an easy turn of the head for partner activities (think/pair/share), and/or inner U students can turn their chairs around to create larger groups.

3. Dynamic Duos

This room arrangement puts two desks together in either side-to-side or nose-to-nose couplings. For attached desk and chair furnishings, nose-to-nose works. The duos require socializing ground rules and/or a wisely-crafted seating assignment. Student pairings can fluctuate based on the subject being covered and/or differentiation. Desks or tables can be easily moved in or out of this design.

4. Learning Clusters

By adding one or more desks/tables to a duo, the seating configuration can be transformed into multiple learning clusters. For attached desk/chair combos, a three-sided cluster works best with a little empty space in the middle. Clusters are a great design for cooperative learning, station activities, and small groups. It is always a favorite that can be easily transformed into other layouts.

5. The Circle of Learning

The Circle of Learning is a great choice for discussion-rich classrooms. Circles lend themselves to Socratic seminars and an even playing field when it comes to a student’s ability to be seen and heard. A circle design is also an excellent base formation for creating the fishbowl effect with a small center group modeling a learning strategy for the rest of the class.

Don’t just sit there

With the seating arrangements understood, they will all prove ineffective if we neglect the need for students to also move. As adults, if any of us end up glued to a chair for any extended length of time, there’s likely to be a foot tapping, a doodle evolving, or a blind stare emanating. Any good presenter knows how to keep an audience engaged: You have to get them moving to break the monotony.

Shift that thought to students who do this seven or eight hours each day for an entire school year, and add to it that slight chance that a course or subject area may not fall under the category of “favorite” or “future profession” (I apologize to my high school physics teacher on this one). The viral articles from The Washington Post (see sidebar on page 23) about adults sitting in as students for the day gave us a glimpse of classroom life from the student perspective. Is it really so hard to believe that heterogeneous classes of sometimes 30-plus students aren’t able to remain sedentary, yet be mindfully engaged from bell to bell?

The answer to keeping disengaged behaviors at bay is to get students moving. Not only will adding movement to a classroom divert poor behavior, it can also boost fitness levels at a time when our current generation of youth spends more time looking at a screen than opening one to enter the backyard. Finding ways to insert opportunities for movement within a school day includes some simple rethinking of classroom design and layout.

One way to offer students some variety in their learning environment is to incorporate standing desks. Studies show that they increase engagement and fitness levels, according to MindShift, an education blog from KQED News in San Francisco (see sidebar page 22). While a complete overhaul of the seating in a classroom may not be in the budget, a high-top table and some stools for small learning groups could be a feasible option to start.

Yoga/balance balls would be another great option. Guidelines need to be put in place for scope of movement, but after the initial WOW reaction, engagement should increase. Again, this could be a seating option for a particular area or a whole class/student choice initiative.

Low budget or no budget doesn’t mean students don’t have options. Teachers just need to provide them. “Always seated” does not mean “always attentive.” Desks can be arranged so students have the option to stand without blocking another’s view, sit, or take to the floor during individual work time. No money needed – just a little muscle for rearranging. This ability to shift position without being reprimanded can make all the difference in student behavior.

When it comes to finding the best arrangement for classroom furniture, form and function drive the decisions. Designs will differ greatly depending on the grade level and subject taught, but learning spaces can certainly break from the traditional “row” template of yore. Today’s teachers can help students fluidly transform from one configuration to the next. It can be easily achieved with some strategic pieces of colored duct tape placed on the floor to mark where a desk or table leg should fall.

It’s time for all of us to take a look at learning spaces from some unique room arrangement angles. Taking the time to adjust the layout and develop/adapt activities that encourage movement won’t go to waste. A classroom that focuses on the whole child is one that supports a healthy mind/body balance. Adding fitness to the mix will increase student engagement and encourage healthy living.


Fleetwood Group’s Inspire Collection features lightweight, stylish and easy-to-move student tables. Most of the table shapes (a dozen or so, ranging from The ARC to The new Guppy I’ve discussed) are mix-and-match – they fit together, thanks to convex and concave radii. Teachers can configure and reconfigure them in creative ways to make fun, creative and stimulating educational environments. The tables come standard with glides, but can be ordered with two or four casters as needed. Fleetwood Group, Holland, Michigan, 800-257-6390.

The new Focus Sit/Stand Desk from the Marvel Group was designed by the company’s engineers, and with teachers and students from the Hyde Park Day School in Northfield, Illinois. The school specializes in educating bright kids with learning disabilities, and the Focus Desk – which students can adjust to different heights on their own, throughout the day, without using tools – helps them, well, focus. “The desk helps children to stay organized and to self-regulate when they need to adjust from sitting to standing, and vice versa,” explains Nancy Dellamore, product manager for The Marvel Group. Nancy recognized that a sit/stand desk could help her son concentrate better during the school day – he needs to move to release nervous energy. “A classroom filled with these desks allows movement to become a normal part of the day, without any disruption to the learning process.” The Focus Desk also incorporates items on teachers’ wish lists: a way to attach color-coded hanging files in the front to keep papers organized, rolling casters to make seating rearrangements easy, dedicated storage areas, and foldaway carrel walls for test taking and quiet study. From Marvel Group, 800-621-8846.

The ADA-compliant Hi-Lo Carrel from Smith Carrel has an added “focus” feature – it adjusts so users can stand if they want to during long study periods. From a desk height of 27 inches to a maximum standing height of 39 inches, the Hi-Lo Carrell moves in one-inch increments to accommodate the varying heights of students. “Having a carrel is the difference between searching for somewhere to study and always having a place to study,” said a blog post by a first-year law student. You see, her university provides a private study carrel in the library for each student. She notes that it gives her “peace of mind, one less thing to worry about. And it’s one more thing that allows you to really focus on the work you have to do.” From Smith Carrell, 877-410-6994.

WB Manufacturing has announced the availability of 2-inch round legs for its popular Elo Signature Furniture Series. The legs come in either curved or straight. To convert Elo student desks and Connect desks from standard height to StandUp height, choose the straight leg option that adjusts in 1-inch increments. From WB Manufacturing, 800-242-2303.

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