Physical boundaries to paradigm shifts

You know when some nagging thought wakes you up in the middle of the night that it’s really gotten a hold on you.

The thought that had me in its grasp over the holiday break was how I really wish I didn’t have desks in my classroom.


Before I began my third year of teaching, I had the opportunity to get my room remodeled. Fresh paint on the walls, carpet on the floor, whiteboard in the front of the room, new desks for me and my students, plus a mounted pull-down screen and projector. (All because I asked if I could patch the cracks and paint my faded pink walls with random squares and rectangles of darker pink where the previous teachers had posters hanging year-round.) My room was supposed to be the model room for the subsequent remodeling that would happen throughout the building eventually.

I never gave a thought to what kinds of desks I would get – other than I wanted some with more writing surface than the ones that were in there before.

So I ended up with desks that look like this:

They are designed to be in rows.

They are designed for classes that involve lecture and possibly discussion. They are for writing, but not easily used for research (We like to spread out.) or for typing (Where’s the room for a notebook there, too?).

Or for group work.

So here’s the big problem: Over the years, I have become less enchanted with tests and far more interested in getting students to stretch their brains and their thinking with projects.

I have never been all that impressed with being able to get right answers on tests. It means you were paying attention, but it doesn’t always mean you understand it…or better yet, that you can apply what you’ve learned well enough to master that test.

After a conversation with my principal about wanting to explore opportunities for more project-based-learning in our classes, I mentioned at home to my husband how any paradigm shift requires more than just a change of thinking to make it happen. I don’t think I knew how much that thought would nag at me.

But it’s true.

In this case, it’s not the change in thinking and planning and teaching that is frustrating me – it’s the physical space.

Over the past few years I have tried every configuration I can think of for those desks in the picture above. The ones that are built to be in rows. Thanks to space limitations (I have a very small room to accommodate 30 student desks.), I cannot seem to find a configuration for groups bigger than two that does not leave at least one person stuck with no way out. (I know there are some cool ways to arrange them that students don’t get stuck, but you can only go as big as four in a group to do it and it takes up more room than I have space to allow for.)

We’ve made it work mostly because we’ve had to, but I won’t lie. It gets more and more frustrating every time I see a kid have to move two desks just to get out to get a piece of paper or to sharpen his pencil.

So all of these thoughts, building in my brain, set off the wake-up-you-have-thinks-to-think alarm in my head at 3 AM on a holiday weekend.

The resulting thought was: You need to get tables.

What a DUH moment. Incredibly anti-climactic.

If you go to any group study room in any university library, what will you find?


If you go to most any science lab (the place where project-based learning has always comfortably resided), what do you find there?



Because people can actually spread out and around the workspace and be able to talk.

And no one gets stuck.

This is no fault of anyone’s. Desks are designed to last for a good long time. They’re durable. They don’t get replaced often – and definitely not if they are still in good shape. I had no idea that I was going to be shifting my practice when we filled out the paperwork to order them. I had no idea that had I just gone ahead and ordered the good old fashioned desks with the separate chair, I could configure my classroom in any way I chose – in rows like the current desks prefer or in clumps to create table-type-spaces.

You live and you learn.

And for now, I will learn to live with my desks.


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