First, let’s remove all the desks


Let’s say I were a provost or president, and had some hundred thousand dollars lying around that needed to be spent on an initiative to improve undergraduate education. (This isn’t an unlikely budgetary scenario.)

I’d spend all of it on furniture.

Starting with the smallest classrooms in the university and going up in size until I run out of money, I’d sell off all of the single-person desks as surplus, and replace them with smallish round tables that seat 4-6 students and chairs that go along. This wouldn’t diminish classroom capacity by much, if at all, as long as the chairs are well positioned. The fire marshal won’t be bothered by it, either.

If there were some money leftover I’d spend it on professional development. However, you can lead a faculty member to professional development but you can’t make them drink the kool-aid.

Most of us prefer teaching our lecture courses in a classroom full of desks pointing at us, rather than in a room with students seated at tables facing one another. Why is that? There are many reasons, I suspect, but at the root is the fact that we were taught this way in university, and it’s also the way we learned to teach. It’s familiar to us, and we might be disposed to thinking that it’s better.

There’s a lot of research to suggest that sitting around a table is much better for learning, especially when the course is designed to incorporate frequent student interactions. This is even true in a content-rich class like an introductory majors biology course.

Wouldn’t this move just be administration forcing on faculty top-down decisions without faculty input? Isn’t this too autocratic? You could see it that way, sure. Keep in mind that, right now, the status quo is being forced on faculty without their input too. I doubt faculty were consulted before all the current desks were purchased for all of the classrooms. (Don’t worry, I won’t become an administrator, so I won’t be one of those people who takes hare-brained ideas and scales them up without building consensus.)

Perhaps the way we teach is structured by the environment. Maybe, if we give faculty a room full of students positioned to interact with one another, then we’ll get lessons designed that take advantage of this interaction to improve learning. Maybe professors who are tired of lecturing will discover that they have more fun guiding learning rather than delivering content.

If you haven’t taught several semesters to a classroom full of tables, instead of students facing forward, then I recommend withholding judgment. Once your classes are designed for students to work together solving problems, instead of listening to the delivery of facts and ideas, then students may learn more from the course. I haven’t had this opportunity myself, either, but I am getting sick of having my students have to rearrange chairs at the start and finish of every time we meet.

I bet most professors wouldn’t like the change, at least at first. But, what happens in the classroom isn’t for us, it’s for our students. And there’s no real evidence out there indicating that this change would harm students, and at worst it would only slightly inconvenience faculty members who dislike the situation, but might empower others to make effective changes in how they teach. As new faculty come to campus, when they build their courses they’ll know about the tables and design their classes in mind.

Have you taught in a classroom like this? Do you teach lecture courses in a lab, that allows this kind of interaction, maybe? How mad would you be at your admins if your big lecture hall was converted to tables? Would you change your teaching, if you were paid a little stipend or given more time to work on your curriculum?

5 thoughts on “First, let’s remove all the desks

  1. This was my first year physics classes. We sat 4 to a table/bench, and it was a mix of lecture and experiment / interaction for 6 hours/week. The downside was the decision to keep the traditional MWF (1 hr) or TTh (1.5 hrs), and then a once-a-week 3-hour slot (as would normally be done for a course with separate lecture and lab components), which made that day rather long, espcially if you had a “lecture” slot earlier in the day (yay for 4.5 hours of physics on Tuesdays between 10am and 5pm!). But working at benches in small groups was great. Every other class I’ve had was in the standard desks-facing-front arrangement.

  2. I briefly worked at a boarding high school where I taught a research class, guiding students through performing and analyzing a research project on invasive lionfish, complete with field work. It was fantastic and really helped to encouraged the students to put together a hypothesis and determine how they wanted to analyze their data etc. by synthesizing what they had learned in other classes in the past and from the readings I gave them. There was a learning curve as the students not used to this style of teaching got comfortable generating and sharing ideas rather than just receiving them. By the end if the course I was mostly sitting back and letting the students discuss the project with only occasional questions or tips to steer a conversation that was going off course or to clarify a concept they didn’t quite understand yet.

  3. I haven’t had the opportunity to teach in a room full of tables either, but this is a really interesting idea. It would certainly make me incorporate more group activities into lecture, which I think would be a good thing.

  4. This is interesting. I wonder if we all got a bunch of faculty on our own campuses to ask for rooms like this (there are a few on my campus structured this way) if the demand would lead to any response? There is a wealth of literature on this and why it works, if that influences decisionmakers.

  5. Check out the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain…it’s a really interesting read about introverts and extroverts. She discusses the idea of group think and the psychology of students being grouped in a learning environment and how that can stifle the introvert.

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