How ditching the desks turned my classroom into a 21st century learning space

Image by author

I spent a great deal of last year enamoured with the idea of modern learning environments. One of my placements was at a school which had a large awhina area (an indoor court-yard) shared by 4 classes as a break-out space. It was fantastic to have a space for the syndicate (group of 3-4 classes) to meet as well as a place for students to have a place work independently of the teacher.

Coming into a more traditional classroom space with 28 of the flip-top style desks seemed rather daunting at the start of the year. While I had the advantage of an old cloak bay, where I put a couple of round tables in, I was stuck with what to do in my main classroom.

In the end I went old school making a couple of rows pushed up right at the back of the room. That lasted all of two weeks as I hated the large void created by having kids squished against the back of the room.

Over time I tried different table configurations to improve the flow of the classroom but the desks forever seemed to be in the way.

World-cafe style planning (Image by author)

As I was sitting the library one day, I noticed something about the class. There was something about the design of the library that changed the vibe of the class. We became more mellow and the students seemed a lot more relaxed, more importantly they weren’t all working at desks. So I posed a question not just to myself but also my students:

How can we make our classroom more like the library?

We held a world cafe to try and answer that very question before coming up with ideas for the planning the classroom. It was amazing to see the level of creativity the kids came up with when having a blank slate. The students wanted cushions and more soft furniture as well as little nooks and crannies to read in. They absolutely loved the idea of being able to draw on windows and walls so I got some liquid chalk and some blackboard decal to put up on walls.

But the biggest problem still remained.

The desks.

Desks in an empty classroom note buckets have already made an entrance (Image by author)

They soaked up so much space and energy in the classroom and often were an impediment to learning rather than an aid. What’s more a lot of the desks seemed to be places to store junk and bits of paper in which is space that could be used for different purposes.

Which led me to wonder could I ditch the desks?

Desks moved into the back area of the room.

Some teachers like the idea of giving each child a home base in the classroom. It gives teachers a degree of control as to where students sit which can be used as a way to manage behaviour in particular of students who have a tendency towards off-task behaviour. I know spent a ridiculous amount of time between the first and second term trying to make tables to ensure that my groups had a mix of personalities to make classroom management easier.

And then there were the students. Flip-top desks not only function as a work space for the kids but also storage. However for some kids they were also a giant receptacle for junk. Nevertheless the desks give each student a space in the classroom and that’s important for kids. Yet when tasked to design an ideal classroom, desks didn’t feature prominently in the students’ plans.

Pink chair is a hot item in the class and was a second-hand steal on trade me.
Cushion area (there’s a bookcase which I have converted into a bench underneath the jumble!)

So I decided to take a risk over the school holidays and ditched individual desks. I bought the round tables out of my breakout space into the main part of the classroom and I chucked a few of the flip-top ones into the breakout area. I spent the early part of the school holiday quietly stashing away the remainder of the desks in little nooks and crannies over the school.

In their place I added some cushions, a bean bag chair and turned a sturdy bookcase on its side to provide storage and a bench type area. Student gear was stored in buckets which immediately increased the amount of floor space available.

The kids were shocked when they came back. Where would we sit?

The answer was wherever you feel comfortable.

The result of clearing out the desks is that my class feels a lot more agile. I love how quickly the room can configured and reconfigured depending on the the needs of the learners. If we need a big space for the whole class to meet that’s easy. When the kids need to collaborate in groups there are places for that, if they need quiet places they can find those as well. For their part, there are some students that absolutely love the new set up while there are others that miss having their desk.

Liquid Chalk FTW!

One of the interesting side effects of moving to a more agile learning space is that actually makes classroom management a lot easier. During a classroom observation my principal noted that there appeared to be less students in the classroom because the kids were spread out and engaged in the learning.

Yes it means that it is a lot harder to monitor kids for off-task behaviour however the flip side is that off-task behaviour tends to be a lot more localized as the kids aren’t sitting so close together so there is less chance for others become distracted.

While I would love to have access to the wonderful teaching spaces that I’ve seen in some of the newer schools but I’m learning to make the space work for me. The purpose of this post is not to convert everyone to start chucking out their desks but rather to realize that while purpose-built modern learning spaces are awesome, regular classrooms can become awesome learning spaces with a modicum of cash and a bit of creative thinking.

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37 thoughts on “How ditching the desks turned my classroom into a 21st century learning space

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  1. You have been reading my mind, as I have been having the same conversations in my head a lot lately. How to convert my rather small and very outdated class space into something more functional? I am very close to going a simular way to you, in relieving my room of some desks, but first I must tackle the problem of where to put the kids ‘stuff’. You mentioned buckets…. are you using the good old 99c round kind? I am wondering which to use that can be stored easily around the room, hold books and pencil case. Small enough to store simply, and hopefully not fit all that excess trash children love filling desks with. I also wonder about sturdiness… whether I try to buy containers to last more than one year, or something cheap that kids can personalise and replace each year.
    Thank you for another thought provoking and motivating post.

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  2. Love my spaces in my class and the ditching of desks was great! I totally agree that I get constant comments about how BIG my room looks and ‘how do you seat them all?’ and ‘Where are all the desks?’ but my class LOVE the configuration. We move the tables and spaces all the time and the kids love controlling how the room is. It’s the most fluid yet functional thing I have ever experienced!

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  3. Awesome Stephanie!, I find desks a pain, and I love doing drama with the kids and pushing those desks against the wall…well done on your problem solving on the desk issue!,

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  4. Hi Stephanie
    This made for really interesting reading. I have a teacher at my school who operates in this fashion and the children certainly do seem relaxed, focused and more in charge of their own learning. The class are also Year 7 & 8. Great to see that you are not waiting for MLE’s to occur but are creating your own teaching reality.
    Nicky

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  5. What an inspiring read, Stephanie. Although not a classroom teacher at the moment, I am a teacher librarian attempting to make our library a more relaxed learning space rather like your classroom. I will persevere as I can see the results in your class. Thank you and I look forward to reading more.

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  6. Hi Steph,
    This is music to my ears. I do this with all the classes i teach, usually upper end primary. When i am faced with having to have desks i tell the kids they own the inside but not the top. They can sit wherever they choose but must show courtesy to anyone needing something from inside. Most of the learning books are in tote trays so I can easily pick them up adn take them home for a squiz through. IIt is only a personal reading book or stationery type things, BiS booklet that are in desks (yet they still fill up with debris).
    My husband made me a dozen boards out of thin wood (?), I know he got a dozen to a sheet. We call them publishing boards and it means they can work on a sturdy surface wherever they want to.
    It just makes sense to be able to go away and focus on your learning where it best suits you, not where someone makes you.
    It is so nice to realise I am not alone in thinking this is tthe a sensible approach. Thanks

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  7. I too have a traditional classroom that was bugging me. I made changes to mine in the middle of the year and the children have really taken to it. Management for me (which to be honest, with the class I have was never a major problem) has become less stressful and I occasionally still re-direct or encourage a student to make a seating change. I put all their books in communal buckets for each learning area and they personalised a shoebox for their space. Shoeboxes become quite tatty and are replaced frequently – I’ll be adding a suggestion of something more sturdy to my stationery list next year. Here is a blog entry that reflects the start of my journey, however, I do need to update as the original design was not all that user friendly. I was unable to ditch my desk across the school, so had to come up with crafty ways of pretending they weren’t there! http://www.alicelearningjourney.blogspot.co.nz/2012/07/journey-of-learning-spaces-begins.html.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

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  8. This I love! I think beyond creating an ‘agile learning space’ which speaks to different learning styles…you are also telling your learners that you trust them–in my mind trust goes hand in hand with attitude and motivation.

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  9. How I would love to do this in my high school classroom. Interestingly, I think if I did I would have a full scale mutiny on my hands from my more academic classes.

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    1. Bonus of having the same kids in the same classroom for the day – they get used to the environment. Also I suspect older kids are already very good at playing the game of school and wouldn’t appreciate a change in rules.

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      1. Well… I got called into the Deputy Principal’s office yesterday, and was told I had the go ahead to start planning and building up pedagogy around modern learning environments. I actually do get to do this in my high school class as a tiny pilot programme before we start actually building purpose built spaces! How cool is that?

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