Sunday, September 30, 2012

Which Comes First: The Collaboration or the Desks?

An oval table meant peace was possible in Paris, 1973.
1973. The Paris Peace Accords. The most heated
debate? The biggest stumbling block to an official end to the Vietnam war? Furniture. Before they’d sit down at the table and talk, furniture had to be decided, and it was at a stalemate. North Vietnam wanted a circular table so everyone would be viewed as “equal” with no party at the head. The South Vietnamese wanted rectangular to show the two sides of the conflict. Eventually compromise was reached with a circular table and smaller individual squares around them, and eventually a peace agreement was signed.

Furniture matters.

I overheard a furniture conversation last Spring. Two administrators talking at a conference wondering would happen if they replaced all traditional desks in their district with tables. Would teachers stop lecturing and students start collaborating? Would revolutionary change happen in education?

First, it struck me as a mean-spirited discussion, somewhat smug, and definitely simplistic. As if furniture change could change what fundamentally happens in the classroom. As if all the educational issues on the federal, state, and local levels could simply be solved by chucking the desks and ordering tables.

But then, I realized that I may have inadvertently been a test group of this very theory, having had collaborative desks in my classroom for a year. How had my classroom practices changed with these non-traditional desks? What effect does furniture have on learning? Which comes first: the collaboration or the desks?

Two years ago, I was given the chance to move to a larger classroom and design a space conducive to technology integration and collaboration. Very high on my priority list was ditching the desks: they’re inflexible, they’re not conducive to collaboration, they’re not comfortable (teachers avoid sitting in them during meetings, why do we make students?) So, after much researching, I finally encountered the Boomerang Desk.

My classroom has never been the same:
  • Students expect collaboration: it’s now their default setting, instead of sitting in straight rows, waiting for my instruction.
  • I am clearly not the center of what happens in the room; each group is a center unto itself. Students are the learners, the thinkers, the doers. I am the facilitator, the nudger, the “guide on the side.”
  • Learning is comfortable: students are not crammed into a desk, but have a spacious desktop that can house both their laptop, books, and elbows, if they choose, and a chair that can be closer or farther from the desk, depending on their size and comfort.
  • I can access students more efficiently: when I’m talking to a “quad,” I’m can help a group of four instead of one student at a time.
  • Students help each other. I find myself constantly saying: “Ask your quad,” and they do.
This summer, 8 more classrooms worth of collaborative desks were purchased. I was curious if I’m still the sole lover of the Boomerang desks, so I asked around.

Most comments were similar to my own: “now everyone has their share of the 'pie,'” students are more willing to "share in their small groupings and get immediate feedback,”  "I’m glad to get rid of the old desks, an archaic and ineffective way of furnishing a room.”

A few, though, noted that it’s "tough to fit them all in” during tests when they need to be apart and facing forward. Another said she keeps them ungrouped because she wants all students facing her during class; another said there’s more there’s more chatter when students “should be working.”

And so, reviews are mixed, but my thoughts are these: furniture does matter. Furniture that allows for flexibility in a classroom and encouraged collaboration can support innovative instruction and help create collaborative, critical thinking graduates. Furniture is not the thing, but it’s one thing.

Perhaps there was some truth to what those administrators were pondering. Perhaps a change in furniture can move us forward, can nudge the reluctant into action.  Our classrooms must grow to allow students to move and share and work; our teaching methods must grow to manage student collaboration and provide hands-on activities for learning. Quiet classrooms = quiet brains. If we’re not comfortable with some degree of noise in our classroom, if we’re not comfortable with students not facing us at all times, maybe we need to reexamine what exactly the role of a teacher should be, regardless of what the desks in our rooms look like.

Those at the Paris Peace Accord were concerned who was in charge; they wanted equal standing (don’t our students?) They wanted their voices heard (don’t our students?) they wanted to achieve fairness and peace (don’t we?) and it all started with the right furniture.