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Analyzing Desk Arrangements

March 9, 2012

What follows is an analysis of how the desks have been arranged in my classroom over my first year of teaching, culminating in me being upset that it was only last week when I was watching a teacher in Phoenix that I saw a desk arrangement that might solve most of my problems. Here goes.

I knew at the very beginning of the year that I didn’t want rows – that  I wanted groups. Here’s how my classroom looked at the beginning of the year:

Pods of 4, each desk facing the front of the room.


  • Direct Instruction/Guided Practice works well
  • Everyone  can see the front of the room
  • Students can still turn to their partner/interact with their peers
  • It is clearer who you should talk to for things like elbow partners and shoulder partners (such as: think of one example of ____. Share this with your elbow partner. Now turn to your shoulder partner and say what your original partner said. Did anyone say the same thing both times?


  • Discussions with all 4 people are harder to facilitate – many students need to be told to turn around and engage the people behind them
  • Group Whiteboarding requires transition time to turn desks around
  • If the entire group has the same question, I end up answering it with each person rather than the whole group. For some groups, I can get away with ‘Ok – I just explained it to you, now you explain it to the group’, but usually there’s one person in the group who needs a teacher to give them a direct invitation to start a problem or explain it.

Halfway through my first semester, I changed the desk arrangements to this:

Pods of 4, each facing each other. When I did this, I also stopped projecting the bellwork up on the board and instead printed out a copy of it and put one copy in each pod, forcing the groups to interact if they wanted to complete the bellwork. In essence, I turned my bellwork into a group problem set – students naturally ended up working together to solve these problems. Some students really liked working together on the bellwork this way. It also made it easier for me to address a problem to an entire group instead of going around one person at a time.


  • Conversation and interaction happened naturally – I observed students working with each other to solve problems and helping each other out.
  • It was more natural for students to check their answers with each other and make sure everyone understood (this was sometimes difficult in the facing-front arrangement)
  • Group discussions and Group Whiteboarding is much easier to facilitate
  • Easier to address questions of the entire group rather than one at a time


  • Conversation and interaction happened naturally – even when it shouldn’t have. It was really difficult to do any type of guided notes or I do/ We do / You do while the desks were like this
  • Also as a consequence of the above line, my classroom management sometimes got out of hand – if there was any downtime, it turned into a conversation
  • Some students dominated the groups; some groups had no one to dominate so they were hard to self-start; some groups were dominated by people who didn’t want to do work, so the whole group didn’t do work. These are issues more with general group work than with the desks – they just came up more frequently because my desks were always like this.

Re-reading the pros after having typed the cons, even though the pros are very simple, they are very powerful. To have peer interaction and group accountability happen naturally is huge.

Anyway – these days I find myself switching back and forth between the arrangements: the facing-forward arrangement for guided notes/lecture/guided  practice & modeling, and the facing-each-other for group work/group whiteboards/independent practice. I need the first arrangement because it lets me do direct instruction and guided pracftice, while the second arrangement because it easily facilitates group work.

Two weeks ago I went and observed at Buckeye Union High School (by the way, their math department is awesome and they’ll be hiring next year) and I saw a teacher who had his desks arranged like this:

In other words – two facing front, two facing each other. How come it took me 3 years of classroom observations to finally see this desk arrangement?!? This would have been PERFECT for soooo many things I’ve done this year!  I’ve tried it out with two lessons that both started with some full-group introduction/clarification, then segued into a group-whiteboard activity. The transitions between full-group and small-group worked wonderfully, which is a problem I’ve been trying to solve in my classroom. I’m still testing it out, but so far I like the balance it strikes between times when students need to focus on the front of the room and times when students can benefit from working with and talking to each other.

Here’s the diagram version of the arrangement above:

So… if any teachers out there are contemplating the physical space of their classroom (which is something I do a lot of), maybe this has given you some food for thought.

Oh – I guess since I’m talking about desk arrangements – full disclosure: when I give tests, I move the desks into traditional rows.

Update: Since writing this, another teacher has posted an excellent reflection on why she changed from traditional rows to tables. If you’re considering putting your desks in groups, I highly recommend reading this post too: Three Reasons I Was Wrong About Tables

  1. Desks-something so basic, so simple, yet get so little attention.
    That last arrangement is the one I use when I want students in groups. It does seem to work well. The only problems I still have that linger are (1) the desk in the northwest corner of the four has an unfair entrance/exit situation, if the desk is for righties (like most), due to the opening being closed off, and (2) teaching the students the choreography of how to undo the groups and go into rows when needed, and back again, usually results in a disheveled mess that I seem to end up fixing.
    I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.

    • John – I’ve found myself planning lessons that are strictly group-focused or strictly lecture/guided practice focus (which is something I’m trying to change and is why I’m excited by that final desk arrangement). This is how I avoid the desk rearrangement mess – I just change the desks into however I want them before school starts, then make sure the activity I have for the day fits the desk arrangement. Actually, to be more accurate, I’ve already planned the focus for the day and I spend the morning arranging the desks to match that focus.

      But, like I said, once I change the desks, I feel like I’m committed to that focus. Which is why I like the last arrangement – I might be able to transition between the two modes more easily.

    • Joy permalink

      I use an arrangement like this in my English class. I have 2 sets of seating plans. One for the 4 desk grouping and one for rows. On exam days each student is responsible, at the beginning of class, for putting his/her desk in the appropriate space in the row. At the end of class each student returns his/her desk back to the group setting. Whenever possible I teach the students to be responsible for the space. This has worked well for me so far and the really great part is that at the end of semester all of my desks are ready to go for final exams without me having to do anything more than say “desks in rows please.”

  2. Neat idea, I’ll have to try it out.
    I’ve had a bunch of fun with desks in groups of three. All three desks next to each other for direct instruction, and then I ask them to go to “battle stations” which means the outer two desks move around to the front.

    The normal group of three is in the bottom left, and the rest of the class is “in battle station” mode. It takes a bit of work in the beginning of the year, but a couple of weeks into the year they are changing formation 2-3 times a block.

  3. Thank you! My desks are just like this, attached instead of w/ separate chairs. Nothing was working. I love this does groups of two and four easily bc that’s my most common groupings. I can’t wait to move my desks tomorrow!

  4. Holly Crawford permalink

    Thanks for helping me figure this out! For assessment days, I may try my son’s kinder teacher’s strategy-Each student has a tri-fold, laminated piece of cardstock that goes up on each desk to essentially construct individual “cubbies”

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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