Desks or No Desks?

This past weekend, I read Is It Time to Get Rid of Desks in the Classroom? The article also highlighted, An Obituary for Student Desks. Both articles are great reads. The first article briefly described two elementary classrooms that did away with the traditional desk. One opted for various configurations of larger tables (as you might experience in a coffee shop) and the other used only couches (with plastic drawer space for student storage). Both rooms were highly personalized and inviting spaces.

How the Times Have Changed!

This next part will date me, but I remember learning from professors in my teacher preparation program that the more inviting the classroom (i.e. decorated bulletin boards and displaying student work), the more student engagement one could expect. I was a faithful practitioner of these ideas. Do I think these alone helped to improve my students’ learning experience? No. Do I think it helped students to feel more welcomed and part of the learning community? Absolutely.

I later spent many years working in a school that explicitly noted that we would never have rows of desks, but rather that they would be placed either in groups or a horseshoe shaped configuration. The science lab was designed not in the traditional row of lab benches, rather, in various octagonal pods. The idea was this physical change would foster fluid discussions and collaboration efforts. What a world of difference from those bulletin board days!

So I was thrilled reading this article because with all the discussion on effective integration in technology, another equally important step is to look at how we can transform our spaces to reflect the 21st century outcomes we are seeking.

What do our students think?

Excited about the idea, I shared the idea of throwing out the traditional desk to a few high school students. Clearly, this alone is not an accurate indication of all student experiences or preferences, but I asked them about their current classroom setup in high school. They often experienced individual desks in rows or paired in rows, with the exception of a few elective classes. They did highlight different experiences in elementary and middle school. Most of their experiences were desks placed in group formation, though they did notice as they progressed through the grades that they encountered this setup less frequently. They noted that the difference in desk configurations often seemed aligned to different styles of teaching. Asked if they would prefer an environment with no desks, they wondered if the setting would be too casual and did note that they would like the option to have other configurations of space for more independent endeavors or work with a partner.

Given a class tomorrow, my desks would be gone to be replaced with other alternative setups. These students highlighted something I had not immediately thought of. That is, other spaces for those working on more individualized tasks or perhaps for our learners who simply engage in learning in different ways. (Note: In Is It Time to Get Rid of Desks in the Classroom? Erin Klein does note the importance of student voice when redesigning classrooms, as well as considers this concept of varied space.)

So how important are the spaces in which we learn?

What other classroom items have your schools or classes deemed obsolete?

Please share how you have transformed your classroom spaces. What are your students saying about these changes?