‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’
The origins of this quote are contentious with some attributing it to Mark Twain, Tony Robbins and Henry Ford amongst others, but the message is clear. Our predictable actions have predictable outcomes whereas adaptability can help deliver fresh results.
British classrooms often follow the same logic as this quote. They look great but are generally so rigidly planned they limit teaching and learning experiences. Flexibility is key, and our European neighbours have been practising this for years.
Our eTwinning project on classroom layout has reached the end of phase 1 (see the summary here) and two key themes have emerged. The first is that student collaboration is a primary goal for planning our learning environments (I’ll examine this in a future blog). The second is that planned activities dictate classroom layout and this requires flexibility and adaptability.
Planned activities dictate classroom layout
In one example from the project, Federica Tagliafichi, an Italian teacher from the School “G.Rodari”, (IC Gandhi), in San Nicolò Piacenza, demonstrates how she has at least two main layouts (pictured below). The first is used ‘to teach Italian language and history’ whereas the second is ‘for working in art craft groups (to teach arts and eTwinning activities or others projects), tutoring and peer education, collaborative writing and reading’.
She explains that the basic layout is ‘very useful for those activities that require concentration and individual application’ but ‘with the other layout the communication exchange is developed, as well as tutoring and peer collaborative learning’.
Federica’s ideas are backed up by a number of studies. In one example (Betoret and Artiga, 2004), it was shown that classroom layouts directly influence learning tasks and teachers’ expectations of learning outcomes. The authors detail how horizontal and vertical rows are most suited to individual work such as writing or grammar but grouped layouts are preferred for language based tasks which involve speaking and listening. They then demonstrate how trainee teachers consistently design their classrooms according to their existing conceptions of teaching and learning and expectations of learning outcomes in their subjects. These biases could potentially lock their planning into established routines, limiting the range of learning outcomes. Therefore, we can assume that flexibility in classroom design would help diversify the type of activities we plan.
The ‘variation effect’ is another reason why classroom flexibility could be a fruitful strategy. Keeping seating arrangements static ties learning to environmental cues such as the sound of the clock ticking or a maths display. When these contextual cues are removed (e.g. by moving to an exam hall) recall of earlier learning is hindered and performance is reduced (David Didau provides an excellent account of this effect here). Therefore, flexibility in seating arrangements could make our pupils’ learning more robust and improve their academic performance.
What about the time lost?
I can hear myself thinking ‘what about the time lost to transitions?’ Our professional time is at a premium and wasting learning time is considered a heinous assault on our pupils’ life opportunities. This needn’t be a huge problem. In our eTwinning project, Ariana-Stanca Vacaretu, a Romanian teacher from Colegiul National Emil Racovita Cluj-Napoca, explains that she uses a maximum of two layouts each session and that ‘transition from one layout to another goes smoothly (1-2 minutes)’. Doug Lemov, the author of ‘Teach like a champion 2.0’, also extols the virtues of practising transitions like this right at the start the academic year in a technique called ‘Engineer Efficiency’. There are many that would baulk at the idea of using even more valuable learning time in practising classroom procedures. Consider this:
‘Let’s say that your students completed ten tight transitions per day. Next, imagine that you pruned these transitions down by a minute apiece and sustained that pace for two hundred school days. Practically speaking, this would enable you to add back an entire week’s worth of instructional time.’
So, being flexible in our classroom layout is an achievable reality. What makes it so enticing are the benefits of increasing the variety of learning tasks our pupils are exposed to. And if our pupils perform better on the tests at the same time? That’s fine by me too.
Being predictable is great sometimes, but probably not when you’re sat in the same room every day a year. Doing what we’ve always done will mean we get what we always got. Flexibility in classroom design could be one way to get different outcomes.
Betoret, FD and Artiga, AG, 2004. Trainee teachers’ conceptions of teaching and learning, classroom layout and exam design. Educational Studies; (30) 4.
Lemov, D, 2015. Teach like a champion 2.0.
Didau, D, 2015. The Variation Effect: How seating plans might be undermining learning. http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/the-variation-effect-how-seating-plan-might-be-undermining-learning/ Accessed 13.02.17.