We don’t need new technology, we need new furniture.


February 2, 2013 by Willy Cardoso

I made a little experiment some time ago when I realized my students sort of (unwittingly I guess) self-organized a certain seating arrangement, whereby every day they would seat in the same place; and that they would never rearrange the way tables and chairs were laid out in the classroom. So I started to pay attention to how that influenced the dynamics of the lessons. The arrangement was the (famous? infamous?) horseshoe one, which limited each student to interact mostly with two other students; S-left and S-right; as long as I didn’t ask them to move!

So one day I arrived a bit earlier and changed the whole thing. I did the mini-groups arrangement; four to six students in each cluster, like a homelike round dinner table (without the food). Guess what happened?Open Hardware Summit 2010, Hall of Science, Queens, NY, USA

When students arrived they were a bit unsettled. They had to stop for a moment to think where they would seat. The first student to arrive that day, oh poor boy, had to think of a very good strategy to make sure he would eventually be next to his pals.

Anyway, the lesson developed and at the end I asked them to evaluate the new arrangement, and it turned out they were much happier with it. Also, it displaced me from the absolute center-front of the classroom and made me move about and monitor their work better.

The following lesson was even better. Each group worked on something different, with each choosing (negotiating) a grammar point of their fancy (they loved grammar! arf..) which they would revise and practice; I think there was also a bit of voice recording that day, or not. Seriously, who created the idea of putting a large group of people following one person’s direction for ninety minutes and thought they would enjoy it? (oh I know, square dance people, or army drill people… aerobics?)

It’s incredible how something as simple as that can change the dynamics of a group. Sometimes, it’s less about the activity you do and more about how/where you’re located and what interaction patterns are possible.

It makes you think… that although virtual learning environments nowadays are all the rage and given lots of attention and money, there are still many things in our physical environment that pass unobserved, but which nonetheless will have a great impact on learning.

I suppose TEFL teachers who were trained to give ‘fun’ and “engaging” and ‘’’dynamic’’’ lessons would find moving students around a fairly obvious thing to do. (though I suspect when asked how more precisely the whole mingling thing optimizes learning outcomes [yucky-collocation], they wouldn’t know the answer)

But a recent study on classroom design, in the USA, shows that professors don’t really give a rat’s furry ‘S’ about classroom design and will just teach the same lecture whether students are on bean bags or on blocks of concrete.

This study is very interesting (I found it while reading this blog by Adam Simpson) and provides a useful list of things to consider. Not that you will rebuild your school, but at least to be aware of their influence.

uni of bath 2011

University of Bath – Autumn 2010

Noise and acoustics

Air distribution


Finish Material and Color:

Hey, without thinking, think what’s the most frequent color you’ve seen on the walls of all classrooms you’ve ever taught in? White!

The study reports ‘most well-liked classrooms according to students had walls painted with a color other than white’ — ta-dah!


The most important furniture element is the chair. Chair comfort is a determining factor in student engagement. Tell that to your principal.


Which brings us to a new item to include in the can-do statements of our learning-outcomes-oriented industry.


And the task is to promote this competence which in my humble opinion is often forgotten. The task is to foster learners’ ability to understand how properties of the environment influence their learning. And for us teachers, how they can sometimes limit the way we teach.

The thrust here is toward a process which: (a) makes people more aware of the settings around them; (b) inspires them to ask themselves what they are trying to do there; (c) stimulates them to assess the appropriateness of their settings for what they want to experience or accomplish; and (d) leads them to make appropriate changes (in either the setting or their own location, or by leaving it for a better one) to provide a better fit between themselves and the setting. (Steele 1973, p. 8)


Even when we are aware of our experiences, we tend to have difficulty relating them to spatial causes; we are blind to the impact of settings. We lack the ability to look at our physical surroundings and their influences on us, and the necessary training is provided by neither our educational institutions nor work organizations. If someone does not know how to change something, he is unlikely to consider changing it. Tables, partitions, chairs, etc., that might be placed in various locations rarely get moved, due to the user’s lack of knowledge about the possibilities. If the person feels unknowledgeable, he usually divorces himself from the change process and leaves it to the “experts” who are often even less knowledgeable about his needs. (Steele 1973, p. 118)

Reference: Steele, F. I. (1973). Physical settings and organization development. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.


10 thoughts on “We don’t need new technology, we need new furniture.

  1. Adam Simpson says:

    If I had free reign to do one thing to my classrooms, I’d elect to paint one of the walls a color other than white. Not all the walls, just one. I reckon this one simple act would add about 10% to the overall effectiveness of my classes. True story.

  2. If left to their own devices, my students would sit in the same place everyday for the entire 26 weeks. When I was a student, so would I. Many, who are upper teens, feel peer pressure to continue where they are regardless of whether they want to also. This is relieved when I force them to sit where I tell them to. Sometime this involves desk rearrangement into groups (though not always an option) and other times it’s simply moving students around.

    I’m blessed (or maybe it’s the students) that the university is old enough that there are rooms with great charm (old wooden rails and wainscotting from the 1800) or have rooms that are recently renovated (industrial exposed beams and concrete floors/pedastals w/ coloured glass walls), but I have been in others where white just sucked life out. I would venture to say though, that much of the educational industry here values coloured walls.

    Now, chairs and desks? They could be improved.

  3. eflnotes says:

    there was a pilot study in UK recently which found (using statistical modelling) that 6 design characteristics of the built environment contributed +25+ percent to pupil learning https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7FW2BYaBgeiR1VpZFc0TDBTY2M/edit

    your post recalls a discussion on twitter sometime ago when there was surprise at the use of a whiteboard/blackboard being included as a technological skill along with say using a computer in class 🙂

  4. You’ve just made me realize I don’t change the seating arrangement in my class enough, Willy… So guess what’s in the plan for the next lesson? Thanks for a very informative and thought-provoking post. Sometimes it takes so little….



  5. DaveDodgson says:

    Some ‘new furntiture’ in my classrooms this week prompted me to come back to this post and leave a comment. Returning from mid-year holidays this week, I was surprised to find that all my classrooms had been decked out with brand spanking new computers running on Windows 8 and complete with widescreen monitors!

    However, that’s all of very limited use when the internet still runs slowly or gets disconnected constantly, the projector doesn’t work and the creen is positioned right where the sunlight comes into the room… In short the new tech hasn’t solved any kind of problem we had at all.

    In the same way, new furntiture doesn’t matter so much – how you can use it does. The comfiest chair and desk set up in the world is useless if we don’t have the option to move around and make adjustments. 🙂

  6. And what to do when you have 12 students in LG9 and the only place for the teacher is on someone’s lap? Field trip! 🙂

    Seriously, though, good points made here. Talking about seating arrangements is something I like to make time for in the Cert course, despite there being so much other stuff squeezed in, as it always raises interesting discussion about its effects on groupwork, the role/position of the teacher, etc. — and yes, the effect on activity outcomes (I hesitate to say “learning outcomes” as that seems to be attributing a bit TOO much power to what is essentially moving a chair).

    In fact, you’ve inspired me. Come Monday, I think I’m gonna shake things up a bit. I can’t paint the walls or knock through some windows, but I can make sure bums are on different seats!

  7. Urban says:

    Hah! Al that Feng Shui had something to it after all? Not to go into the practice, but arrows or corners (as seen in the horseshoe) are choke points for energy. In this case the interactive element for the students.

    While online everything may be all the rage these days, we can’t quite enter the matrix… Yet. So real life must continue to be improved upon as well.

  8. Rebecca says:

    This topic is one that I have never rally thought about too much. I am a student now, studying to become a teacher. As a student, I have noticed that even without assigned seat students usually choose to sit in the same place and around the same people every class. Classrooms are usually set up in the horseshoe shape. I always appreciated it when teachers would arrange the groups and the set up of classrooms. It really does make a difference and chafes the dynamics of the class. This is something I will start to pay more attention to. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

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