NQT Special Edition: Making the most of your classroom

Written by: Adam Riches & Roy Watson-Davis | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

How well do you use your classroom to support teaching and learning? From seating plans to learning displays, Adam Riches and Roy Watson-Davis offer some practical advice

We all sit and ponder our seating plans sometimes and think about how we could use them to solve specific problems or challenges.

There is a lot of debate about the most advantageous way to organise your classroom. Many factors will contribute to where objects are placed and there are a number of things in any classroom that can be changed to your advantage.

The desks

One of the most important factors of classroom set up is where the desks are placed. Each set up has distinct advantages and disadvantages and there is no system that is absolutely perfect. Below are some of the approaches that provide distinct advantages over the traditional row format (with illustrations below too).

Two by Two

  • Pros: Easy group work, free movement for teacher, good presence and visibility at the front of class.
  • Cons: Pupils can distract each other, limited visual access to displays, no space for tutorial time.

The Island

  • Pros: Excellent tutorial space, central point of contact, safe for pupils to question.
  • Cons: Not constant visual contact with teacher, more difficulty with group work, pupils need to move a lot.

Four by Four

  • Pros: Effective differentiation, group tasks take no rearranging, easy support and access.

The Horseshoe

  • Pros: Open forum for questioning and lecturing, everyone engages with each other, teacher can reach everyone.
  • Cons: Possible distractions, group work can be a difficulty.


Alternative seating plans: (clockwise from top left) Two by Two, Four by Four, The Island, and The Horseshoe


Experimentation

Taking into account the diversity of pupils you teach, experimenting with the layout of the room can be an effective way of managing behaviour and can help to boost learning.

If you teach a class that requires group or individual tutorial time, the Island layout allows the teacher to bring pupils to the centre of the room while the others in the class continue with work. Because they are facing away from the rest of the class, distraction is minimised. In addition, the teacher can oversee them while engaging in a tutorial with the selected members of the class – although possible, this kind of interaction is simply a pain in a normal row format.

In complete contrast, if you are teaching a discussion-based subject, a Horseshoe layout gives distinct advantages. The pupils are able to interact with every other member of the class, the teacher can circulate with ease and pupils have a good view of the whole room while working.

What about your desk?

The pupils’ desks are one thing, but what about the teacher’s desk? So many classrooms still follow the almost draconian layout of teacher in front of the board, pupils facing them. How is that logical? Why put a seven-foot wooden object in front of the central point of the class? As a teacher you barricade yourself behind this desk. Movement becomes more difficult and it creates a barrier between you and your class.

Doesn’t it make more sense to put your desk at the back? Pupils can approach you during a task if they are unsure of something without having to stand and feel as though they are on show to the rest. What’s more, it makes your room a more “all encompassing” learning environment.

Who said the front needs to be the front? It limits your display options, it is boring and it most certainly does not help with behaviour management. Don’t think it will work? Try it. Take your desk out of the room all together and see...

The pupils

Boy-girl-boy-girl? No. Well yes, but it is not quite as simple as that. And what’s more, it does not need to be as consistent as that (assuming your school doesn’t have a policy that demands it).

We have all observed the teacher who sits the naughtiest boy next to the nicest girl – don’t do it. Let’s take one of the classroom four set-up examples we have illustrated: Four by Four. The distribution of (a hypothetical but typical class) may go like this...

Think about the needs of the pupils when you think of seating them. For example, for those with fragile confidence or other social anxiety issues, place them as near to the door as possible and leave the door open. This will subtly manage their fight of flight feelings by allowing them, subconsciously, to have an “out” and not to feel trapped or boxed in.

For pupils with ADHD or similar then the standard teacher response is to isolate them, usually at the “front” of a class virtually facing a wall to keep them away from distractions. It rarely works (cue wriggling in seat etc). Why not sit them at the desk with the liveliest view? This is usually in the middle of the room when you cluster your tables in groups of four or six pupils. This helps address their need for distraction, and actually can help them focus better in the lesson.

Shy or quiet pupils? Seat them together and make sure you access them regularly. Really low-ability boy? Then sit him with three of the brightest girls, with his back to his mates or on the opposite side of the room. The girls will help the boy, and also he will have limited opportunities to get involved with his friends in the class.

It doesn’t work the other way around though, as the weakest girl with three high-ability boys fails – boys are usually competitive learners and don’t really help. Girls are generally social learners and can learn and interact with others far better.

The rule is, as always, know your class. Seating in groups also means teaching pupils how to work together; role cards can help, for example IT Specialist, Team Leader, Art and Pictures, Materials and Books, Teacher Link. Rotate the cards so that no pupil can dominate the group. The Teacher Link role is an ideal way to manage group work – only the pupil with that card can speak to the teacher.

The displays

Too many classrooms only have displays on boards made of ply, neatly decorated with sugar paper, a frilly border and the work of pupils from three years before. Bin it. It isn’t helping anyone. Displays need to be useful. They need to help the learning of the pupil – but how?

The first thing to do is move away from the board. Make your room a 360 degree experience. Make it memorable. Use your room to guide your kids through their exam; key words/vocabulary, phrases, concepts, graphs pictures, models of work with annotations – honestly the possibilities are endless.

Plan out your space and decide what you are going to have on each surface. Yes surface. Don’t stick to just the walls! Ceilings (with care!), windows and desks are all fair game for some kind of learning display. Will you ever stop little Jimmy gazing out of the window during period 4 on a Friday? No? Okay, write 10 key words on that window and at least try to give him something of relevance to look at!

Putting up some great display resources is one part of it. Then you need to use them. Bring the displays into the lesson. Make them part of the learning. The more you engage with displays, the more memorable they become. In the exam, pupils will remember their classroom if they are trained to.

And it does not only improve the learning experience of your pupils, a good display will improve your teaching experience. Displays that model work or a paragraph structure for example save reams of time and frustration. Just imagine not having to repeat concepts that have been covered (sometimes many, many times) before!

Of course displays come at a price – financially and time-wise. Spread the load between members of the department. There is nothing to say that resources can’t be consistent across English rooms or history rooms, in fact it is beneficial if they are!

Make your classroom memorable by putting random things on the walls or above the board. One colleague had a witch’s broomstick, one a selection of album covers, another antique tools hanging from the ceiling on wire. One of the authors had a number of three-foot high inflatable Daleks...

Reality

There is no classroom in the world where at least some change in layout would not improve the learning environment. The above is not an exhaustive list of ideas, but hopefully it gets you thinking about what might work for you and your own class.

  • Adam Riches is head of key stage 5 English language and the whole-school literacy coordinator at Northgate High School in Ipswich. Follow him @teachmrriches. Roy Watson-Davis is head of history and politics at a school in Suffolk. Follow him @roywatsondavis

NQT Special Edition: Free download

This article was published in SecEd as part of our November 2016 eight-page NQT Special Edition. The Special Edition, which was published with support from the NASUWT, offers best practice advice and guidance ranging from classroom practice and wellbeing to workload and your rights and entitlements as an NQT. You can download the entire NQT Special Edition as a free 8-page pdf via http://bit.ly/2fAp3q0


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