Monday, March 24, 2014

Welcome Back, Kotter: Why High School Classrooms Need A Makeover

A typical high school classroom today. Having a flashback?

Raise your hand if you thought some of your classes in High School were boring. 

Now be quiet (as you stare at the back of the person's head in front of you), stay in your seat (in that uncomfortable desk) and wait until I call on you (now start daydreaming)

Sound familiar? Well, if you visited your old high school classroom, you would most likely see the same seating arrangement that was there when you were dozing off in class.

Why do we continue setting up high school classrooms like this picture above? We enable students to be consumers of content and technology instead of producers of knowledge using technology. We enable them to sit and get instead of being motivated to make and take what they are learning.

There are teachers out there taking the initiative to move their students around by engaging them in meaningful activities, and I applaud them.   Unfortunately, teachers do not always have the support and resources to design their classrooms the way they know their students will learn best. We know that teachers have little if no say about which classroom they teach in. Sure, they can rearrange their wooden or metal desks, maybe even put some pictures on the walls. But, often times, that is about it. It is not uncommon for high school teachers to have to share rooms, schlep their "classroom" around on a cart wherever there is space to teach their students for that period.  Honestly, the most charismatic and interesting teacher doesn't have a chance to completely engage all their students if their learners are sitting in uncomfortable desks, unable to move around because there is not enough space to go anywhere.

And what about 21st century mobile technology? Isn't the point to allow users to be mobile: digitally and physically? Students don't have to be tethered down with a device, yet their bodies are tethered to their desks and chairs.

Why do High School classrooms require students to sit in rows and be quiet over and over all day long?
Do you know of any job out there that requires you to sit in a row and be quiet for long periods of time each day?

What if? Let's inspire creativity and collaboration with a balance of individual work space and room to move.

My Two Cents (actually, 5 cents...)
  1. Get with the 21st century: Do you live in a home that looks like it did in 1937? Your office? Your car? Your furniture resemble 1930's decor? How about your kitchen? Your bathroom (never mind)? Do you still use a manual typewriter? We need to remodel, develop, create and change these high school classrooms. They look extremely similar to this one from 1937. Thank goodness fashion has changed!
  2. Balance of traditional and new teaching and learning methods: Teachers need support, and by that I mean progressive professional development, opportunities to go out and see places where the set up is there or at least images, sharing of ideas. Let them have time to talk about what arrangements they have tried and talk to other professional teachers about what has worked or not worked in their classrooms.  Then they can take their traditional methods (yes, lecture and whole group teaching still has its place) and mix in the new methods of delivering curriculum in a classroom which is set up to engage students.
  3. Developing hard skills:  The content needs to be taught, but it can be and should be taught in a multitude of ways to a wide variety of learners. Requiring students to sit in rows hour after hour because the furniture impedes active listening and movement is only going to make the skills gap wider. How are they going to retain any information when they aren't paying attention?
  4. Acknowledging the importance of soft skills: This is a huge issue right now with our youth. We keep hearing from employers that many of  high schools students are unemployable, mainly because of their soft skills. They struggle with manners, ethics, responsibility, social interaction, time management...the list goes on. What better way to practice the soft skills required to function as a successful citizen then in the high school classroom?  It doesn't have to be separated from the classroom activities, in fact, it shouldn't be. Acknowledge there needs to be interactive dialogue among the students. Timeliness and your best work is expected. How do HS teachers do this, especially with students who are not motivated? It's challenging, but having an open, movable environment can expose them to more experiences of teamwork, responsibility, independent activities, and following through with projects then "sitting and getting" the content all day.
  5. Include students in the designing and collaborative process: You want students to buy into what you are teaching? You want students to enjoy school? Show them the school is built for them. Let them give input on how the furniture should be placed for different activities. If possible, let them vote on furniture being purchased. If safety allows, have them rearrange the furniture themselves. Encourage student ownership of their work space. That's real world.
Our bodies were made to move and our minds were made to be used. 
Here's your hall pass to support active, not passive, learning.

Now you can have this song running through your head all day, too:

Be sure to check out this guy: 
Geoff Mulgan:


  1. Such a catchy title! I for one cringe at the thought of sitting in a desk all day long, and unfortunately remember too many classes I was in just like this. In response to your first question, Why do high school classrooms require students to sit in rows and be quiet over and over all day long, I feel that teachers who have their classrooms set up in rows day after day do this because they are stuck in a rut. Some instructors are fearful of change and that if they try something different they might lose control of the class. However, that is definitely not true of all teachers. For example, my mom is a librarian at a high school in Kansas. She told me about two English teachers who were in the library today with their classes for poetry readings. The students were separated into groups and were able to relax in comfortable seating areas while enjoying drinks from the coffee shop. The students were engaged and enjoyed sharing their poetry in a different atmosphere. Of course, this can’t happen everyday but taking steps to do something different in the classroom can lead to more meaningful learning. Regarding your second question, Do you know of any job out there that requires you to sit in a row and be quiet for long periods of time each day, thankfully, many jobs do not require employees to sit in a row and be quiet for long periods of time. However, there are quite a few office jobs that do have a lot of sit time but typically they are interacting with others. This type of job may appeal to certain personalities but those who do not like that type of working environment have a choice, unlike students do in the traditional classroom, to chose something different.
    -Amy Siefkes

  2. What an interesting discussion. It is fascinating how the majority of elementary school classrooms I have visited are arranged in a manner conducive to meaningful learning opportunities, like personal interaction and collaboration. Desks are often grouped in sets of four with learning and activity stations spaced throughout the room. Conversely, it seems more often than not, once students reach middle and high school, the seating arrangement changes drastically — from engaging groups to single-file rows. This is disappointing because we know regardless of the grade level or content area, classroom layout plays a significant role in learning outcomes. Obviously, all teachers have different motivations for how a classroom space is designed. What is important to remember is that the ability to communicate effectively one on one or with a group (in other words, to collaborate and problem solve), is an expectation for all future generations in the workforce. As a pre-service educator, I look forward to the opportunity to design a classroom space that will enhance my students' learning potential. I also look forward to including them in the process as a means of empowerment. The good news is there are tons of resources available to help educators brainstorm effective classroom seating arrangements. Here are a few for inspiration:

    -Lauren Hannawald

  3. How well I remember this show and its popularity at the time. I didn’t think much about how it mimicked the actual classroom at the time. I could however see many of my friends in the characters portrayed. I didn’t relate to them as much as I did a show that came out about a decade later called Head of the Class starring Howard Hessman. It was startlingly similar with the exception that the students were exceptional and not at risk. In both shows the students were categorized as troublemakers and outsiders. In both shows the classrooms were similarly set up. Way back when I was in junior high and high school, the idea of rearranging the desks was just coming into vogue. For some classes, particularly strong content classes like math, the face front model (I like to call it the Star Trek model, where everyone faces the big front screen) works well. The first class I ever taught a lesson in was a math class that was so tightly packed there wasn’t any chance of rearranging the furniture. For humanities classes like history, geography, English, foreign language, and the like, a classroom arrangement that encourages discussion is better. In fact, the Star Trek model fails as an effective ergonomic design because in discourages, rather than encourages, open discussion. When I was in primary school, we sometimes were grouped in pairs or as many as four students. Still, very little social discourse was encouraged. As I progressed to middle school and high school, the face front, Star Trek model became more of the norm. I thought this might have been in preparation for the auditorium style lecture seating I encountered in college where as many as 1,000 students all packed into an auditorium to listen to some professor drone on while they updated their Facebook status. The science classroom where I tutored at Central Middle School in Lawrence a few years ago was set up in what they termed Modules. The student sat in groups around what looked like large kiosks with all their lesson materials in front of them. The design tended to discourage collaboration I felt because although there were six students to a module, they were grouped in pairs separated by dividers. I don’t think a perfect design has been developed yet. Even in the new classroom 226 at Rockhurst that is designed to be easily manipulated, we all still sit in the Star Trek style, facing front towards a big screen. Just like we sit in our vehicles, on a train, on a bus, maybe even at home, we all face the same direction watching things happen in front of us. Maybe we’re all just so used to the idea of everyone facing the same direction we are just too unwilling to turn around.

  4. I agree that this method is extremely outdated and old fashioned. I do understand the logic behind it initially as possibly wanting teens to be independent thinkers thus having independent desks, however, education and learning is not an independent activity. Learning requires another individual teaching you about something you didn't previous know and vice versa. It is important to remember that although we like to think of high school kids as young adults that they are in fact children and should still be taught with that mindset. Not to get off topic, but I've also wondered why classrooms go from having desk with portable chairs, listening/reading area, walls filled with students work and bright colors (elementary) to barely anything on walls, dull colors and desk which are uncomfortable and cannot be adjust? Great post, definitely something to think about as a pre-service educator.

  5. Most people probably remember which seats in high school you could sit in and avoid eye contact with the teacher or just "space off." The standard classroom set up makes it easy for students to disengage, it surely doesn't promote collaboration. It is interesting that as much as everything else that is changing in the classroom, that this seating model is still so standard. Having students help to design and develop their environment would promote a bigger investment in what they are learning.

    The other part of this blog that I agree with is the issue of the "soft skills," that students are lacking. As a business owner, I've had many interns over the past few years, and found that beyond teaching them our specific area of work, I spent time dealing with manners and etiquette. The biggest issue (and top of my list) is the lack of looking at someone in the eye when you're speaking to them, or communicating in a meeting. Working in a group setting would help build confidence and strengthen these soft skills.
    I've read through the other comments, and I also agree with Kim Wilson in wondering why as students continue on in their educational career do their classrooms become less dynamic? Dull colors, etc.

    -Pamela L.

  6. I think the old-time design of the classroom served its purpose when it first started. After all, back in the day, classrooms were huge (some were as big as 100 students), and Education studies weren't even thought of back then. Thus, it comes as little surprise that much of how a school runs is similar to how an industry line ran during the industrial revolution: lines to transport from class to class, rows of desks (similar to assembly line rows), bells to signify class changes (shift changes in industry), a designated break period, etc. For many one-room schoolrooms, it made sense to incorporate such an "assembly line style" because it worked so well in industries.

    Flash forward 150 or so years and we are still using the same concepts. We still have the same school structure and demand our kids to orderly line up as if they were working on the assembly line at Ford Motors company. But, the funny thing is, while our classes still resemble that model, the modern workplace has changed. The best companies like Google and Apple and etc. offer more freedom and collaboration in the work environment and I think teachers need to foster the same kind of mindset as well. Much like business changes to the needs and strengths of their current workforce, schools need to do the same with the strengths and needs of their students.

    The problem is, I think we associate "discipline" too closely with minute things. We think that if we change up desks rows, or take away from lecture, we are not being effective teachers because that is "not how we were taught" or that is "different from what we've been used to." With teacher education and professional development easier than ever thanks to the internet and technology, teachers cannot cry "ignorance" when it comes to thinking outside the box. This isn't 1875 when teachers had no reference point to go to when coming up with a way to manage students. Thus, while it is important to have standards and strong expectations with students, teachers need to find ways to differentiate the classroom environment in order to maximize the strengths of their students as well as maximize their attention and understanding of subject materials.

    I think teachers should be encourage to take risks and try things differently in the classroom and try to reflect a classroom that is more in line with our environment now, then the environment of over a century ago. I don't believe a classroom is simply to "entertain" or get students attention, but I do think we need to find creative ways to motivate them in class, and I think surroundings and the structure of the classroom is a subtle start in fostering a productive and modern classroom for students AND teachers

  7. Also I don't know if this has been talked about on this blog or previous classes, but there was a documentary about this issue of over-sized classrooms in a San Francisco public middle school (I am a native Northern Californian, so this is what caught my attention).

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