The Power of Space in the Classroom

Most of us know very well the importance of space in the classroom–how the room is set up can really change the dynamics of a class. For example, in a discussion course, I try to set up the room in as much of a circle as possible (which, given the configuration of some rooms, is sometimes impossible). Once I had a seminar-style class in a room where we simply could not put the tables and chairs into a circle, and had to leave them in rows (because there wasn’t enough room to put them in a circle). That was the worst term I’ve ever had for discussion.

A colleague of mine in the Arts One Program was even more innovative in her use of space than I’ve ever thought of being myself.

I have had the chance to view the classes of some of my colleagues in Arts One over the past few years. I wish I had more such chances to see others teach, since I always learn from what others are doing in their classes.

Arts One has two, 75-80 minute seminar-style discussion classes per week, with a maximum of 20 students, so most of the rooms we have allow for circular (actually rectangular) seating. There are tables arranged in a circle, with a big space in the middle of them. That works pretty well, since everyone can see everyone else.

Still, the professor usually sits at one of the “heads” of the table, on one of the shorter ends (we don’t have to do this, of course, but I’ve often seen it done). Subtly, then, we are still making ourselves the focal point by making sure most students can see us well (often students avoid sitting right next to the prof, and sit on the longer sides of the table instead).

This sort of setup is good for having books, paper and computers (if they’re allowed) out on the desk while engaging in discussion, but the tables with the big space in the middle cuts us off from one another in a sense, providing a pretty big distance from one another.

A different use of space

The colleague I am talking about for this post did something quite different. Not content to just have students sit around big tables in a circle/rectangle, she asked the students to sit on top of the tables. That way, they sat really close to one another, with their legs dangling in the big open space in the middle of the tables. The instructor then walked around the outside of the tables while the students discussed amongst themselves. This was helped by the fact that each day, two or more students were in charge of giving a short presentation and leading discussion in the class.

I thought this worked quite well, for the most part; the focus was on the students themselves, and to see the instructor they had to turn around and look behind them. The space really encouraged them to pay more attention to each other than to the instructor. Occasionally the instructor would interject to clarify something or ask a question when discussion lagged, but mostly she stayed in the background, literally and figuratively.

A potential downfall

The only thing I noticed that could be and was occasionally problematic was that the instructor was at times too distant from the conversation. Standing in the background, it was easy to let the discussion go a bit too far in directions that could lead to mistaken textual readings.

The instructor and I discussed this after the class, and we talked about how hard it can be to find the right balance between staying apart from students to let them lead discussion on their own, and intervening. Once one starts to intervene, the danger is that the focus goes back to the prof, and it can be hard for the students to start taking over the discussion and getting the flow going again. But I do think some instructor-instituted clarification can be important at times, and worth the risk if one has set the tone for student-led discussion in the class already (a difficult thing to do, of course).

My own use of this strategy

I found this spatial strategy intriguing enough to try it myself the following term. During the first term I asked students to give presentations in small groups of 3-4 students, with several going at the same time. Then, during the second term, I asked them to give their presentations to the whole class and lead discussion by posing questions. To facilitate the students paying attention to the presenter, and picking up discussion themselves when it started to lag, I used the above strategy of space. With me being outside the circle, the feeling was more that the students themselves were in charge, talking to each other, rather than talking to me or looking to me to start things up when talk died down.

It worked pretty well–I found that there was more student-led discussion during presentations when we started having students sit on the tables close together, with me behind them, than when I was in the circle itself. I could still intervene when needed, but many of them had to turn their heads to see me, and the awkwardness of this meant they spoke mostly to the people they could see in front of and next to them–each other.

I used it during a year when I was having a bit of trouble encouraging the students to talk together, to each other, and leave me to the side as much as possible. The following year the students did this much more on their own, so I didn’t use the strategy again. But I have it ready for when it’s needed again.

Your use of space

Does anyone have any creative uses of space they could share with the rest of us, that work for particular purposes? Please let us know in the comments!