It's created classrooms where students never have the opportunity to learn how to work with others, rooms that are messy and disorganised, students that are unfocused and disengaged, and classroom populations that just don’t 'gel'.
Classrooms where students get to choose the layout and seating arrangement of the room, pose all manner of logistical pedagogical and behavioural problems for teachers.
I’ve seen students lying on seat banks, with cushions under their head, trying to write with what they believe must be Seinfeld's astronaut pen! I’ve seen students squished into the teeniest spaces, completely unseen by any adult who might enter the room. I’ve seen students seated at desks, away from any other human, day after day after day, and classes where students baulk at having to work with anyone other than a best friend. I’ve watched as students jostle for space at bag areas, bumping others seated at desks. I’ve tripped over low seat banks squeezed between tables. Worse, I’ve noted teachers seated at the safety of their desks, or ‘space’, because there simply isn’t room for them among the students.
Flexible seating means that furniture can be easily moved to accommodate the work that needs to be done. Working in groups? Fabulous! Let move the desks to accommodate our need to scribe on the same poster. Need to work individually, but with support of others if needed? Great! Let’s move the desks back to groups of six. Need areas for groups to convene a little more informally? I’m sure the classroom has comfortable floor spaces.
Having students who get to choose where they sit for each and every lesson, as well as the configuration in which they seat themselves, is problematic for a number of reasons.
- Students may not be aware of the pedagogical practices or logistical concerns that inform our decisions about where furniture should go. We need ample floor space for whole group sessions. We need to provide easy movement around areas that we know can become congested (eg bag areas, resource shelves, organisational displays). We need space to freely navigate around desks in the room.
- Students need to learn to work with others. It’s a key collaborative skill. To do this, a knowing adult will place certain students at the same table, have students seated next to people with whom they’ve never worked, and ensure that some students have a rotation of caring and understanding peers with whom they can sit.
- Students shouldn't choose with whom they work every day of their school year. This creates classrooms that don’t gel, and they're hard work! We want students who can work together without complaint, students who will graciously sit on the floor next to any student in the class, students who know each other and their strengths and challenges, and students who learn about diversity. None of this can happen unless a knowing, thoughtful adult forces the situation, just a little bit.
Luckily, most of these issues can be solved very easily, while still maintaining the true intent of flexible seating arrangements. Here are some ideas to save your sanity:
- Ensure you have two-or-three clearly delineated areas or 'micro-environments': floor space, desk space and/or another alternative space.
- Make sure you have a clear path around desks, taking into account the space that chairs take up when someone is seated. You’ll need space near bag areas, and in front of interactive displays.
- Organise the default seating layout. The default seating layout is able to be changed according to need (eg working in groups for inquiry, science experiments, assessment etc), and is returned to the default at the conclusion of the activity. This is the key to flexible seating.
- Choose seating arrangements for the default arrangement, and let students know that their assigned seating will be changed every five weeks. As the classroom teacher, there'll be many reasons for your seating assignment. For example, you might ensure a clear view for students with vision impairments, cater for different abilities, or consider personalities and behaviour management.
- You might suggest that in Week 10, while the default placement of furniture is maintained (more-or-less), students may choose with whom they sit, as a special treat. I did this at the end of every term, and, without fail, students always noted how much noisier it was in the classroom, and how hard it was to concentrate in Week 10!
- Insist that all activities that require handwriting take place at desks.