Ideas for using your classroom space effectively

Written by: Martin Matthews | Published:
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Hi Mr Matthews, As soon as I read the words Peter Brook I knew it was you who had written ...

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Teacher Martin Matthews offers some ideas and food for thought on how you might make better and different use of your classroom space to deliver teaching and learning activities

Take a look at your classroom. How much do you engage with the space? How much do you think about how you utilise your room?

The theatre director Peter Brook said: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” I would argue that teachers can take any empty space and call it a bare classroom.

The problem is how often do teachers consider the space they work within?

All too often classrooms are seen as static places in which to undertake teaching and learning. “What’s wrong with that?” some people may ask and in response I would have to say “nothing”.

I know that in the past I have set my desks out in a manner deemed “suitable” and to ensure that the usual suspects were sitting in “safe” places where I could keep them away from their friends. I will have put students in my seating plan with various acronyms next to their names as per the school guidelines.

One day I found myself at the front of the classroom staring into the abyss – the abyss being the students in the “elsewhere” of the room.

I wasn’t getting through to them; I saw in their faces my own face in staff meetings. I had sat through many INSET sessions, or staff meetings where someone stood at the front of the room, often with a PowerPoint, and talked at me: how much was I doing that to my students?

If I bring this back to the classroom and the “empty space”, how much do teachers set up classrooms in a way they would dislike themselves if they were the students?

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former Ofsted chief inspector, suggested once that he wanted more “maverick teachers” (whatever that means) – which I believe put pressure on colleagues to feel they had to complete “all-singing, all-dancing” lessons.

Being a maverick implies one has to do something wacky or weird every lesson. That’s not the case. But when it comes to staying in a comfort zone and playing it “safe” then perhaps he has a point and we need to be brave enough to challenge our teaching – for our students, but also for ourselves.

With my earlier quotation from Peter Brook, it may seem that I am implying teachers need to be actors. Well, yes and no. Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. If that’s true, then we are actors all of the time.

Teachers must be actors to some degree – we put on the teacher show. If you’re saying “no I don’t”, well then I beg to differ – for example I don’t go home in the evening, register my family at the start of dinner, set out the objectives for devouring a meal, check their eating progress, feedback to other stakeholders about how my children are eating...

So if we accept that we are social actors, we can make small changes to our practices; we can make small changes to the way we use our stage, or space in the classroom.

Filling the empty space

Where’s the front? You stand at the front of the classroom and the students sit in rows facing you. Perhaps the classroom has the desks in a horseshoe, or maybe even pushes the boat out and has a circle. But the “front” is still an obsession. Even in learning spaces such as drama studios there is usually a “front” somewhere. The front is often defined by some or all of the following:

  • The location of the teacher’s desk.
  • The location of the whiteboard.
  • The well-worn spot where many a teacher has paced, sat, banged their head against a wall.
  • The spot that many a teacher has suggested that students should “face” while paying attention to the important messages being delivered.

In contrast “the back” also has features:

  • The location of the usual suspects and their chums if you don’t put them elsewhere in a seating plan.
  • A cupboard that no-one has a key for and most likely contains coursework from 1997, a pile of VHS tapes and folders containing work from initiatives gone by.
  • A pile of text books on top of a pile of paper.
  • Some worn out glue sticks and pens.
  • A display that no-one ever really looks at – because all of the students are facing “the front”.

Moving the front

Really simply, try undertaking some of your lead teaching from a different part of the room – the back, the left or the right. If you have a projector projecting onto “the front” you can still gesture to it. Please note a lot of projectors will pivot.

Acquire some A3 (or bigger) paper and stick it to “the back” or another wall in the room. You now have a “whiteboard” elsewhere.

When using your makeshift whiteboard at “the back”, it is great to see the faces of students who were at “the back” now realise they are “at the front”.There’s no escape for students. You and the work are in the space with them.

It is not overtly “wacky”. You’re hardly a maverick, but it is a little bit different and most importantly, sustainable. Pertinently you have started to think about how the space is there to be used and the possibilities can be endless.

Display boards

  • Make sure displays have writing that can be read by all students in the classroom.
  • Try to keep displays up-to-date and relevant. Former students’ work is great for an open evening, but once students’ work has been celebrated (which is important) does it need to linger on walls for months to come?
  • Can displays become interactive? Is there space for students to use the wall within your lessons?
  • Can you make the walls part of your teaching board space (see point above about moving the front).

Boal and the spect-actor

The theatre practitioner Augusto Boal was known for his work using theatre as a tool to teach and support social change and development. One day, he was with his theatre company in a village and they were acting out an improvisation of an issue of one of the villagers – Boal had had an idea that he could go to places with his actors, ask people about their problems and then act out the scenario on stage before asking the audience for feedback on how issues might be resolved.

Villagers were offering ideas on how the issue on stage might be resolved and the actors made changes, but one woman at the back was unhappy. She told Boal how she wanted the scene to change. Boal’s actors made the changes. But she was still not happy and offered further suggestions that Boal and his actors again tried to act out.

By this time the woman (who Boal calls “formidable”) decided she’d had enough, pushed her way to the front shoved one of the actors out of the way and took her place to act out the scene as she saw fit. The “spect-actor” was born.

Boal realised that by involving his audience in the actual action of the performance they could take part and learn from it.

Boal’s idea of the “spect-actor” is a useful one to consider when we think about how much our students are involved in the action of the “play” within our stage/classroom. It reminds us of the importance of the dual responsibility for learning between teacher and pupil.

  • Have you tried giving small groups of students sections of the lesson to “teach” (starting with students undertaking research and giving them a couple of lessons to plan)?
  • Do you give students choice in their learning? Even if this is just the order of work to be completed, or a range of examination questions to try.
  • Do you give students a “homework menu” with a variety of tasks they could complete?

Time and space for discussion

As teachers we have been told about the importance of peer work, discussion time and so on. Time and behavioural concerns are two key issues that perhaps stop these activities. Could you try the following?

Every time you ask a question wherever you are in the space – the back, the front or anywhere else – give the students 15/30 seconds to discuss ideas with their partner or small group. You can then legitimately go to any student and ask them what they think and expect a response (without the need for hands up).

  • You are also in the space with students. You are listening to what they are saying/what they are discussing.
  • Less able students have had time to speak to other students.
  • More able students are able to become leaders.
  • Students who may have hoped to doze off, will have been woken up by the increase in volume.
  • If you are happy to let your students out of the chairs, would it be that bad for the “bigger questions” to let students spend a couple of minutes with or without their books out of their chairs discussing with two to four people ideas/reflections before returning to their desks? Could they feedback in notes on one of your newly created temporary/permanent whiteboards around the room?

Moving the desks?

The obvious thing you can do to reflect on your use of space is move your desks. This is clearly more time-consuming and often puts people off.

  • If you can move your desks, could you try teaching in an empty space for a lesson – there are a range of activities (often labelled incorrectly as drama) that can be used for many subjects.
  • If you don’t feel you want to rid yourself of desks, could you experiment with the layout of the space? When planning your lessons, would some lessons lend themselves to having mini-groupings of desks, and then some with the desks in the standard facing-the-front model?
  • Having variety can be interesting for you and for students. Just make sure it is not tokenistic.

One, two, three exercise

An exercise for group work, students sitting down, on their feet… whatever suits. This can be used for exploring lines from plays in English and drama – however, I have seen it used in maths and science lessons to learn sequences, or facts.

Students find a partner (or use the one they’re sitting with). Label themselves A and B. They count to three and repeat taking it in turns thus: A:1, B:2, A:3, B:1, A:2, B:3.

You then give them something to change 1 to. For example, if you are learning quotations from Macbeth, or want to demonstrate Lady Macbeth’s power, change 1 to “Art thou afeared?” but keep 2 and 3 the same.

Then after a run through like that, find something to change 2 to and run that sequence, before then changing 3 and running the whole sequence again:

A: “Art thou afeared?” B: “If we should fail?” A: “We fail?” B: “Art thou afeared?”, A: “If we should fail?”, B: “We fail?” Repeat.

Students don’t need scripts or notes for this exercise. They can experiment with any lines you give them, allowing them to realise that Shakespeare is not to be feared. This can work for lessons other than English. If you have a group of three, students go round the circle and count to 4.


We know there are initiatives out there. We know that we could use them. All too often, the pace of teaching and the expectations upon us stop us from trying new things. But as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
Or as Barry, an old, mustachioed colleague I once worked with, would say: “(expletive) this new ideas stuff – I’ve got too much to get through.”

  • Martin Matthews is an experienced secondary school teacher in Cheshire.

Hi Mr Matthews,

As soon as I read the words Peter Brook I knew it was you who had written this article! Your teaching techniques were always really engaging and fun, and I always came away from your lessons feeling like I'd learned something. As for your teaching methods you never gave us time to mess around and kept us engaged the whole lesson through, despite how hard that was with 12 girls. You're a really good teacher.

I don't know if you remember me but I was in your Drama and Theatre studies A level class a few years ago. I've just come across your article doing some research for when I do my year abroad teaching in Spain at Uni.

If you have any advice for this year, whether about teaching methods or lesson planning, or just general teaching tips it would be appreciated.

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