As part of establishing a positive classroom climate and creating an environment where students are poised to learn, teachers are faced with the question of how to arrange their students’ desks. This decision is a big one as the setup of desks largely determines the way students interact with each other throughout the day, who most often interacts with each other (especially when it comes to setups like group pods), how easily the teacher will be able to circulate to each of the students, and so much more.
When teachers are deciding how to set up the desks in their classroom, they likely have some key goals in mind. Perhaps they’re looking to encourage more student collaboration — so they decide to group two, three, or four desks together in a pod. Perhaps they hope to minimize the chances of students getting distracted. Maybe they want to enable all students to easily see the front of the room, or be able to transition from block to block more easily.
We talked to some Teacher-Authors in the TpT community about some of their favorite types of desk setups and the benefits they’ve seen for them and their students. Keep reading to dig more specifically into the horseshoe formation, group pods, and even fun shapes and designs — and to take a closer look at flexible seating, too.
The Horseshoe Formation
For class discussions, inclusivity, easy viewing of the front of the room, and more.
In a horseshoe formation, the desks are set up in a semicircle so that all of the students face each other, and the teacher can also easily move throughout the room. This type of arrangement encourages discussion between students and the teacher, and can be particularly effective when the teacher is displaying content on a SmartBoard or projector in the front of the room.
With eight years of experience in the elementary classroom, Hannah of The Classroom Key is a big fan of this arrangement. She also likes to have a few separate desks at the front, turned to face forward, so that every student can engage with what is going on front and center in the classroom. “If every student’s desk is already aimed toward the front of the room, then I don’t have to spend as much time and energy getting my students’ attention,” she says. “Nobody has to turn their chairs around to see the front. Having a few desks pulled forward away from the group helps minimize distractions for students that need it.”
Kris of Pathway 2 Success tends toward the horseshoe, too — especially when holding group conversations. “It gives the entire group a sense of community, allows every voice to be heard, and even encourages learners to step outside their comfort zones, she says. “A semicircle arrangement also helps kids stay focused and engaged, which is particularly important for those with attention difficulties.” She adds, “As a special educator, creating an inclusive learning community is important to me. My goal in seating students in a semicircle has always been to strengthen relationships, facilitate meaningful conversations, and remind learners that every voice matters. The idea is that once learners feel more comfortable and connected with those around them, they will be more confident to share their ideas, too.”
For quick and easy turn and talk, and other small group collaboration.
Group pods most often include between three and five student desks. Of course, with collaboration can come side talking too — so in addition to establishing ground rules at the outset, organizing a hierarchy of leadership can also be beneficial, to help create a sense of unity and increased accountability among the group.
An educational consultant and coach, Chrissy Beltran Buzzing With Miss B is a big advocate of grouping desks together. “I know it can stress some teachers out, but there is so much value in having kids sit with a group,” she says. Chrissy’s reasons for setting up the desks like this are to enable students to be able to have discussions frequently during lessons without having to move or shift direction. “When students are in groups, it’s easy to tell them to ‘turn and talk’, ‘think-pair-share’, or ‘turn-and-teach,” she explains. “The level of engagement bumps WAY up when we give kids time to talk and process with members of a group.”
In Chrissy’s experience, students who are seated in groups of three tend to be more engaged than those in pairs or groups of four or more. Three students to a pod gives variety, she explains, so the conversations are a little more interesting than with just two. “But it ensures that there will be time and responsibility enough for each student to participate equitably.”
Fun Shapes and Designs
For building appreciation of each student as an important and valuable member of the larger class… or simply for a fun and celebratory switch-up.
When it comes to desk arrangements, variety is the name of the game for Caroline Koehler, a 6th grade inclusion teacher who works with students with autism, specific learning disabilities, and cognitive disabilities. Caroline loves organizing her students’ desks into smiley faces, basic shapes, and even letters for desk arrangements. “For Valentine’s Day, the desks can be arranged in the shape of a heart,” she explains. “This establishes a creative community who are able to see a larger picture and process that each individual is important to the final product.”
But it’s just not fun that Caroline is going for. She believes that these non-traditional desk set-ups enable students to be more encouraged to be creative, think more analytically, and have more fun at school! And it’s about building classroom community and inclusiveness, too. “Unusual desk design forces a group to be collaborative and appreciative of each student in class as they are all equal and valuable members of the design. The inclusive community helps those with behavioral challenges know that they belong.”
Flexible Seating Options, Too
For maximizing student comfort and adapting to their individual needs as learners.
With flexible seating, traditional seating charts are replaced with seating arrangements that allow the students to sit where they choose. Sometimes, if space or budget allows, there are a variety of seating options such as couches, bean bag chairs, carpets, and pods. And sometimes, “seating” isn’t even the best option for a student. Pathway 2 Success, a big proponent of flexible seating, acknowledges that different learners may need something different sometimes — and that’s okay. “If a student learns best standing at a table or sitting on one side of the room, we as educators should make it happen. Small accommodations and supports can go a long way in helping all learners be successful.”
As a vice principal, Cori Blubaugh – Mrs B’s Beehive loved to see the teachers at her school implementing flexible seating. “Adjustments always had to be made throughout the year, and things didn’t always work as first planned,” she explained. “Despite this, I appreciated the fact that my teachers were adapting and challenging themselves to improve the learning environment for their students.” She also stresses the importance of trial and error and talking to other teachers who have tried the flexible seating approach. “Find out their organizational secrets, and don’t be afraid to modify as the year goes on. It’s worth the effort to improve your students’ learning environment. I can guarantee that if you put in the work establishing routines at the beginning of the school year, you will be amazed at their level of independence as the year goes on.”
Of course, flexible seating isn’t for every teacher… or for every student.
“Every year, we have students in our class who find a great deal of comfort in knowing they have a desk with their name on it: a place where they can sit consistently day-to-day,” says Core Inspiration by Laura Santos. Laura has 10 years of elementary teaching experience in grades 2-4. “Yes, we should have these students practice flexibility, resilience, and environmental transitions through routine seat changes within our classroom. But these students also deserve to walk through the classroom door each day without having to work through the anxiety caused by many full-force flexible seating environments.”
On the flip side, she explains, there are students who find a great deal of comfort in knowing they learn in a classroom where they won’t be expected to stay seated at their desk for every learning activity. “Yes, we should have these students practice more traditional listening behaviors and skills for collaborating in group around a table,” she says. “But these students also deserve to walk through the classroom door each day knowing they will have the freedom to sit in places around the room where they can maximize their focus, spread out, and engage in movement while they work.”
Laura recommends providing a “home base” for each student and offering flexible seating options around the room that students can use at any time they’d like. She believes this approach can increase student focus, comfort, collaboration, and excitement for learning.
Try This, Try That
Ultimately, the power is in educators’ hands to arrange desks based on what works for them. And they should feel empowered to switch things up as often as they need. “Teacher’s shouldn’t be afraid to have a few desk arrangements that they switch between,” says The Classroom Key. “Sometimes group pods are the best for collaborative work. For testing, desks completely separate from each other are best. For a group discussion you might want a circle. It takes a little bit of training, but students can learn how to efficiently move their desks between a few set configurations.”
And before implementing any new seating arrangement, Chrissy Beltran Buzzing with Ms B suggests giving your students the heads up first and discussing the possible benefits and the expectations. “Throwing kids into a group setting can be really stressful, but if they understand why and how they’re expected to use that seating arrangement to their benefit, it can do wonders for engagement.”