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How Instructional Methods Reshape Your Classroom

Jordan Catapano

Imagine a completely empty classroom. What would you put inside of it to make it the “perfect” classroom?

Originally, classrooms came standard with desks, a blackboard, students, and a teacher. And truth be told, that is still a viable combination. But what if we could do more? Today there are more tools at our disposal, more options for what our classrooms contain, more ways for making a dynamic learning space shaped by instructional methods. As we forge into the next generation of education, it is imperative that our classroom designs appropriately reflect the type of skills and learning that we want to occur inside them.

So if you could design your 21st-century classroom to look like anything, what would you make it look like?

What a Classroom Setup Says

The way a room is set up speaks to those who are inside of it. A classroom setup tacitly indicates to students what kind of learning is expected to take place there. The way the desks are arranged, the way the walls are decorated, the way the teacher and students are oriented toward one another all subtly imply how one ought to behave within the room.

But as our instructional methods transition into the next generation model of teaching, it only makes sense that our classrooms will similarly transition into designs that encourage the type of learning we’re striving toward.

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So the first question naturally is: “What type of learning are we striving to facilitate?” Once we answer this question, then the appropriate design of our classroom will naturally follow. But you do want to make sure that you conscientiously consider how your classroom setup can help – or hinder – the kind of learning you want to occur. Many of the next-generation learning skills educational programs emphasize include creativity, problem-solving, collaboration and interpersonal communication, project-based and inquiry-based learning, tech literacy, and so on. Consider how your classroom setup relates to each of these.

Desks in Rows – Teacher in Front: This design is ideal for teacher-oriented instruction and individual note-taking, work, or testing. When students are all facing the teacher, or a chalkboard or projector screen, they will all be simultaneously exposed to the same information. The implication here, too, is that the teacher is speaking and students are silent or expected to raise hands.

Desks in a U – Teacher in Front: Like above, the teacher-in-front setup implies that more of the focus is on the teacher’s instruction. However, this U-design implies that student discussion and presentation will also be an important part of the mix.

Desks in a Circle: Here the desks – including the teacher’s – are around in one round circle. This setup more strongly implies the equanimity and discussion-oriented focus of the course. Like King Arthur’s Round Table, the circle setup encourages equal participation in discussion. Direct teacher instruction is still possible, though this may become more of the exception.

Pods or Tables – Teacher Not in Front: When students are placed in small groups with one another, the classroom implies a collaboration-heavy environment. The teacher’s desk might still be in front, but “in front” takes on a different meaning when students are facing all sorts of directions.

Other Arrangements and Tools: How you arrange your classroom and what you put into it will absolutely be unique dependent on your needs, your desires, and your school’s ability to equip your room with what you like. Consider how some of these other tools might also play a role in how your classroom is arranged.

  • Whiteboards
  • Smartboards
  • Projectors
  • Stations
  • Computer or tablet stations
  • Tables
  • Chairs
  • TV screens
  • Wheeled furniture
  • Paintings, art, murals, colors

New Setup, New Rules and Behaviors

What often intimidates teachers from making radical alterations to their classrooms is the degree of control they feel they have over the environment. And this is an excellent concern. The number one indicator of student success in a classroom is the teacher – not the classroom arrangement. So it is essential that first and foremost teachers have the room organized in a way they feel they can competently operate in.

But different setups and different tools do not automatically make changes to teacher methods or student learning. A change in room setup creates a corollary necessity for other changes, too.

For teachers, when we change the shape of the classroom, we want to make sure to change the shape to our methods as well. If, for example, we organize our classroom into a circle, it makes sense to adjust our classroom time to focus on more discussion and collaboration-oriented tasks.

The bigger shift may come for our students, though. They may have already become accustomed to a certain classroom setup and certain expectations concomitant with that setup. When we shift the room, we need to shift their expectations as well. The most important factor is setting expectations: Students must know how to appropriately conduct themselves in the classroom environment you’ve created so that its effect is maximized. It would be a pity if a more discussion-oriented arrangement elicited more uncontrolled and off-task conversation; or if time for students to work spirals into time to play. Teachers need to train their students to engage appropriately in their environment, both to limit the distractions and maximize the opportunities.

Where Do We Begin?

The only way to transition your classroom from what it is into the next generation learning environment you want it to be is to start with what you’ve got. And what you’ve got is unique to you and your school.

There are a few constraints that we all must labor within: Namely space and budget. The size of your classroom is unlikely to change, so work with the space that you have. Or perhaps petition for a different room that is more accommodating to your desires. And no matter how ideal your goals are for what tools to bring into your classroom, you’re constrained by how much your school can financially support you.

As you reconsider what you want for your classroom environment, don’t be afraid to ask. Do you share your room with other teachers? Ask for their input and cooperation. Do you want new furniture? Ask administration for support. Do you want a whiteboard? Ask maintenance if that could install one for you. Do you want a new projector orientation? Ask tech for their assistance.

At least feel comfortable experimenting with what you believe may work. You’ll never know what different classroom arrangements or different classroom tools will be like until you try them. So try. If something doesn’t work, change it. If it does work, maximize it. But start with what you have and build out from there.

It’s All Up to You

We have to remember that the bottom line is not the “what” that’s in a room. It’s the “who.” You are the teacher, and no matter what your learning space looks like, the students who enter it look to you for your leadership and expertise. So make all necessary modifications to your learning space, but don’t neglect to continually focus on modifying your teaching methods to maximize the outcome for your students.

What does the ideal classroom look like for you? What do you have – or what do you need – to make your learning space effective for students?

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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