Reimagining the Classroom Environment Alternative Seating & New Approaches to Classroom Design

Meet the Expert

Breanne Monahan Read bio

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Andrew Lisa Read bio

Although traditional chalkboards have largely been replaced with dry erase boards, most of today's classrooms are set up pretty much the same way they were 100 years ago. When prompted by the all-controlling bell, students hustle into a classroom and take their seats in desks lined up in rows facing a teacher who delivers the day's lesson from the front of the class. In fact, few American institutions bear such a striking resemblance to the model they followed a century ago. But all that might be changing. Some forward-thinking educators are now opting for what's commonly referred to as the "Starbucks classroom," which mimics the informal, comfortable feel of a coffee shop. What they're learning is that many students perform better, learn more readily and engage more eagerly when the desks-in-a-row model is set aside. Read on to learn about alternative classroom design, how it works and why it might benefit students and teachers alike.

Fast Facts on Student-Centered Classrooms

Exciting changes are taking place in some of America's classrooms. Some educators are putting into practice the ideas about alternative classrooms that industry experts and researchers have been studying for years. The results of some of those studies suggest that a simple adjustment to classroom layout can have a radical impact on both a child's performance and interest in school. For example:

A Harvard study of student-centered learning approaches in Latin America demonstrates the model's potential to increase engagement, retention, participation and enjoyment across a range of disciplines and settings.
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A report from Project Pals shows that a student-centered classroom approach can improve not just learning, but parent/student relationships by mitigating the common "homework battles" that often encroach on family time after school.
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Several recent studies show that the student-centered approach improves student-teacher relationships, boosts academic achievement and encourages more sophisticated analytical thinking.
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Weighing the Benefits:
Is an Alternative Classroom Right for You?

Like their students, most teachers were schooled in traditional classrooms with traditional layouts — namely, rows and rows of desks facing forward. For many, it's the only setup they've even known. The concept, therefore, is likely to feel foreign — even drastic. Here's a look at some of the potential benefits and drawbacks you can expect to encounter along your journey toward an alternative classroom.

The Potential Drawbacks and Benefits of an Alternative Classroom

Pros

  • A switch to student-centered learning in an alternative classroom shifts some control of the class from the teacher to the students, which can foster an increased sense of responsibility among students.
  • The simple act of letting students choose the seat they prefer instead of having a desk assigned to them can empower them and give them a sense of ownership.
  • The Starbucks classroom layout can reduce the frustration, resentment and sheer boredom often experienced by students when they're relegated to a single chair in a single space for an extended period of time.
  • Just as in coffee shops, alternative seating places kids not in long, even rows, but in small clusters designed to let them face and engage each other. This can improve socialization and inter-student communication.
  • The orderly, sterile and often quiet environment of the traditional classroom does little to prepare children for the distractions of adulthood — but evidence shows that a flowing, busy, alternative classroom just might.
  • Alternative seating encourages self-direction among students and, perhaps most importantly, frees teachers from spending so much time managing and controlling students who feel trapped in rigid seating patterns.

Cons

  • One of the main reasons the old-school classroom never went out of vogue is because it's cost efficient — the same can't always be said for Starbucks classrooms. According to the neaToday, making over a traditional classroom can be pricey — just like a cup of Starbucks coffee.
  • By suggesting an alternative classroom design, you'll be challenging ingrained ideas hardwired into educators and students alike over the course of generations. Teachers are likely to face skepticism from parents who are set in their ways, as well as resistance from administrators and fellow teachers.
  • There will be a learning curve for the teacher, who must get acclimated to the new framework just like the students.
  • Teachers will be required to surrender some power and control, which is likely to be counterintuitive for an educator — but necessary for an alternative classroom to work.
  • Kids are still kids, and without assigned seating, some friction over who sits where is inevitable, especially in the beginning.
  • Alternative classrooms can be noisier and appear to be more chaotic, and students who are naturally more solitary might have difficulty adjusting.

FAQ: Understanding Alternative Classroom Designs

Being a teacher is challenging enough. Attempting to oversee the transition to a brand-new design scheme might seem daunting for an already-overwhelmed educator. Getting answers to the most relevant questions, however, can make that transition much easier.

Plan, prepare, then plan some more. Alternative classrooms are not a free-for all. They must have structure and rules. Work out beforehand how and when children will move throughout the classroom. Write down your ideas and then form those ideas into written guidelines. It's also critical to prepare mentally. It's no longer "your" room. The room now belongs to both you and your students.

It puts the learning into the child's hands and creates a situation where they have the opportunity to learn from their own actions, decisions and choices, which I think mirror real life — adult life — more than having a place and a space chosen for you.”

Breanne Monahan

Alternative Seating Options for the Classroom

Not sure exactly what a classroom without desks and chairs would look like, don't worry, you are not alone. Here are some ideas that are in use in alternative classrooms right now.

  • Take legs off of tables to let kids work on a stable surface while spreading out on the floor.

  • Introduce small, light stools that they can easily move from one station to the next, if they choose.

  • Anchor the room with a central station that acts as a home base and a starting point for the day.

  • Repurpose exercise equipment like yoga mats, stability balls and interlocking foam mats that can be assembled on the floor and then easily put away.

  • Large pillows make great seats, as do couch cushions.

Getting Started:
How to Create an Alternative Classroom

Ready to get started with your own alternative classroom, but you're not sure how to start or how to pay for it? Educators from the Teaching Channel have offered a primer and a few tips to think about before you take the plunge.

  • Make your intentions known

    Talk to the principal, answer questions and enlist support. Talk to your family, friends, fellow teachers and students. Are any of them remodeling or looking to get rid of unused items? If so, you might find some amazing alternative classroom diamonds in the rough.

  • Cozy up to school custodians

    Custodians know where all the best stuff is hidden around the school. These are people you want on your side.

  • Crowdfund

    Launch a fundraising effort on a site like GoFundMe, where people sympathetic to your cause can make small donations that add up in a big way.

  • Find Inspiration on Pinterest

    Image-based social media platform Pinterest has an amazing collection of ideas, layouts, designs and experiments dedicated to the alternative classroom. You don't even need an account, just head on over and be inspired.

Other Funding Options

The alternative classroom movement is picking up steam, and donors who understand and appreciate the plight of innovative and brilliant, yet underfunded teachers are willing to open their wallets. Here are a few places to seek the means to make your alternative classroom a reality.

  • Kids in Need Foundation

    Kids in Need donates school supplies to underserved children.

  • Donors Choose

    Teachers across America post projects on Donors Choose, which donors may then choose, as the name implies, to fund if they like what the teacher is planning.

  • Adopt a Classroom

    Adopt a Classroom uses donations to help K-12 teachers offset some of the $600 they spend out-of-pocket on average every year for classroom supplies.

A Teacher’s Experience with an Alternative Classroom

Breanne Monahan is the co-owner and administrator of a Montessori school in Portland, Ore. called Peace Tree. Named after the Italian educator and physician who developed the alternative education model, Montessori encourages self-directed learning. The tips, tricks and techniques Monahan has developed through designing and working in alternative classrooms, however, are not exclusive to Montessori schools or teachers.

Long rows of desks don't appeal to Monahan, who instead prefers to encourage students to move around the room between themed stations.

"There aren't separate desks that students sit in," Monahan said. "There are individual tables and groups of tables scattered throughout the room."

Monahan explained that one of the hallmarks of Montessori education are shelves that line the classroom or divide it in creative ways.

"This is where materials are placed for the kids to access," she said. "They're community, child-sized shelves in two or three layers. Every kid can access every part of it."

The shelves, she explained, are categorized into different developmental themes or subjects.

"You might have a grouping of shelves for geography materials, one for math materials, language, science and maybe a reading corner," Monahan said. "The children can access any shelf they would like. There's no particular space that a child has to be. They're not assigned any particular space at all. They'll usually work at the table in closest proximity to the shelf where they got their materials. But if there's a table across the room where they want to work, they can work there — any space that's available."

A lot of the classroom action takes place on tables in Monahan's school — but plenty of work is also done at the ground level.

"Children often work on the floor, so we have work mats that children take out on their own to define their workspace," Monahan said. "There's a variety of sizes depending on the work that they're doing."

Not quite exercise or yoga mats, Monahan described the floor mats sort of like cloth placemats that you'd expect to find on a dinner table, only much bigger.

"It's just a nice, rug that they can choose from a basket. Take a rug, find you space and put it down there."

This kind of independence and free choice serves two purposes.

"First, this setup lets the children define their space," Monahan said. "But it also defines individual space for the other children who are taught to walk around them instead of over them, and how to respect the work space of others."

In the middle of it all is an anchor point — often just a specific rug dedicated to that space — where the entire class of children gather when prompted or scheduled, sometimes for an all-involved instruction session or just to regroup.

"These gathering can happen organically, or sometimes a gathering is scheduled, like before we go outside or before lunchtime," Monahan said.