Class Act: Setting the Stage for Teachable Moments

Lead Features May / May 9, 2018

– by Terra Graves and Dan Jones –


ACT I: Scene 1


(Exterior of a school, students arriving on the first day of a new school year.  Excitement is in the air as parents wave goodbye and the students enter the building to meet their teachers.)


ACT I: Scene 2


(Interior of the school.  Sue walks into her first class of the day and sees desks in rows. The teacher is standing at the front of the room and there is a seating chart projected on the board. She quickly finds her assigned seat.)


SUE: (Quietly whispers to herself) Cool, I can hide in the back row. The teacher will be doing all of the talking, so I won’t have to think too much or participate. I doubt she will even ask us questions. This class is going to be great for catching up on my texting.




ACT I: Scene 3

(Interior of the school. Tom walks into his first class of the day and sees desks set up in groups of four. On the board is a note that reads, “Please select a seat wherever you would like and introduce yourself to your group.” He looks to the front of the room, but quickly realizes he can’t tell where the front is.)




TOM: (Walks over to an empty spot and sees some new faces.)  Hi, my name is Tom. What’s your name? (He motions to BARRY).

BARRY: Hi, my name is Barry.  Can you believe how this class is set up?  I LOVE the furniture. We can probably move it around wherever we want.  

TOM:  I know.  The way it is set up makes me think this teacher wants us to work together.  I LOVE the natural light and all of the whiteboard space, too! Is the entire top of that table a pad of paper?! This is going to be a fun class!

BARRY:  Did you see the other seats over there?  I actually hope we can sit there too since they look really comfortable — like my dad’s chair at home.  


The minute you walk into a classroom, you can get a sense of what happens in the space. Most of us have experienced school much like Sue in Scene 2.  Have you ever wondered what impact the learning space has on the learner? It’s more important than you think. Can changing the learning space still have a major impact on learning if the teacher’s pedagogy is still “in rows?”  

This article explores how pedagogy influences the design of the classroom environment and how it can set the stage for active learning, why it is important to have flexible spaces and furniture, and the role of technology in innovative learning spaces. We offer you a K-12 classroom teacher’s perspective from Dan Jones and a K-12 professional learning perspective from Terra Graves. For a higher education perspective, see Tom Mennella’s article, which includes an interview with Dr. Robert Talbert and his work with Steelcase, a furniture and workspace design company.

Steelcase offers these “Design Tips for New Classrooms,” including pedagogy, technology, and space.

  • Design to support fluid transitions among multiple teaching modes: lecture, team project, discussion, etc.
  • Design for peer-to-peer learning.
  • Allow freedom of movement for the instructor, enabling frequent interactions and ongoing assessment.
  • Support the implementation of professional development to increase adoption of new teaching strategies.
  • Set expectations for what an active learning environment looks like— learning is messy, things move.
  • Expose students to how these environments enable, support and allow them to take ownership of their learning.
  • Support individual learning.
  • Design for sharing, leveraging both vertical and horizontal surfaces for display; use projection and interactive surfaces.
  • Integrate, use and allow access to BYOD and instructional technology tools and devices.
  • Allow for displayed information to be persistent over time.
  • Ensure thoughtful planning occurs when selecting technology so the tools are used as intended to enhance outcomes.
  • Be intentional about what technologies should be used and how to support pedagogical strategies.
  • Incorporate tools that support synchronous and asynchronous learning and collaboration.
  • Support learning styles with both analog and digital means to co-create.
  • Design for visual and physical access, giving every student the best seat in the house and allowing the instructor and student access to each other.
  • Facilitate social learning by designing spaces where students can easily connect and collaborate.
  • Design to support quick reconfiguration among multiple modes: from lecture to project work, discussion, test taking and back again.
  • Include wall protection for table and chair movement.
  • Support a range of postures to enhance wellbeing.
  • Integrate the design to support and reflect the educational goals and mission of the institution.

Table retrieved from:

Pedagogy and Classroom Design

While some educators do not have the freedom to decorate, move furniture, or even “own” the space, most K-12 educators do. The teacher designs learning experiences as if they are the writer and director of a nine-month play. The students are not the audience; they are the players.

Learning is an ecology. Classroom design impacts classroom management, impacts curriculum needs, impacts lesson, and unit design impacts teacher personality, impacts technology needs, impacts literacy strategies and teaching strategies, and so on.”

K-12 (Dan):  Whether we teachers are moving to a new room or wanting to just try a new room arrangement, we spend a lot of time planning out where the desks are going to go and who is going to sit by whom. A lot of energy is spent ensuring we have created a space that supports the instruction, activities and independent learning opportunities. When I thought about the layout of my room, I had a few priorities regarding the function and purpose of the space. I knew my room was going to need to be set up to support Project Based Learning (PBL), but because I spend so much time in my room, I wanted to ensure that it was a comfortable space. Ensuring that the classroom had a makerspace with supplies for the various projects, while creating a homey and relaxed feeling, was less challenging than I anticipated. I was able to arrange students into tables that gave them greater workspaces as well as provided them with easier opportunities for collaboration. Due to the variety of activities that occur within the room, I determined that it would be necessary to divide the room into zones. Pinterest is an amazing resource for creating unconventional classroom settings.

Professional Learning (Terra): I have easily been in over 100 K-12 classrooms over the years, either mentoring/coaching or observing to collect data. It takes me about five seconds to identify what typically happens in a classroom based on how the room is arranged. If the “teacher only” area is more than just enough for a desk and maybe a file cabinet (for those still clinging to paper), I get a huge clue into the teacher’s opinion about her own importance. If desks are in rows and the teacher is stationed at the front of the room, I become ill because it is with almost a 99% assurance that this is a one-woman show. On the flip side (no pun intended), I have seen student desks arranged in groups of four to five, yet students are still working independently. That is a huge disconnect between pedagogy and room design. Sometimes room arrangement is due to the lack of space in a room; I get that. However, what I do know about K-12 teachers is that they are resourceful and can “make do” with what they have.

As a professional learning provider for K-12 teachers, I don’t have access (yet) to a consistent room for the classes I facilitate. However, I can usually rearrange the furniture temporarily in the room I use on the night of the class. Typically, we meet in a large open room or library with round tables. As a facilitator of flipped professional learning, I prefer to keep my talk time to a minimum in the group space so my teachers can maximize their face-to-face time doing something active with what they have learned in the individual space.  Even though I do not have much control over the design of the room, I strive to create a comfortable atmosphere. I play music, provide candy, and greet people as they arrive. I sit with them as we clarify any misconceptions from the online work and give them their “marching orders” for the class time. Teachers are encouraged to move their group to different areas of the space or even out in the hall if that is where they can be the most productive.   

Zones (Form follows function)

In the group space (classroom), zones can be identified to accommodate the tasks that students will be doing throughout the day or class period. It makes sense that for collaborative work there should be a few tables (round, preferably) where groups of two or more students can chat, work, and create together. Teachers often want to meet with either one or a few students at a time for either remediation or to provide private feedback. This space should be located away from active areas of the room to allow for privacy. Sometimes students need a quiet workspace. Create another area away from distractions for this type of work.

K-12 (Dan): My journey to creating an environment that would support active learning and PBL began on paper. I determined the size of my room and then I asked the question, “What do I want students to do in the room?” I knew that my students would be creating projects, collaborating with peers, meeting as a whole group for discussions, and giving presentations. I tried creating separate areas for each of these activities. I built a faux fireplace and placed a coffee table and chairs in front of it. I decorated the mantle the way I would in my own home, but over the years I have been able to integrate student projects as focal pieces on the mantle. This space would become our fireside chat (whole-group discussion) space. Due to a grant, I was able to purchase a 65” SMART TV and XBox One for a distance learning program. By having a TV instead of a SMARTboard, I was able to create more of a living room feel to a different area of the room. In front of the TV are two couches. These couches create a flexible seating environment, and they create a designated gaming area of the room. This space became perfect for student presentations. The students are able to cast their presentation slides to the TV wirelessly. I got rid of every student desk in my room and replaced them with large tables. The tables allow for greater workspace for students, and they encourage more collaboration among students.


K-12 (Dan): The current education system in the United States teaches students to sit still and not to speak unless they raise their hand. My first eight years of teaching were done in this very traditional method. I expected a quiet classroom as well as neat rows of desks. However, I have spent the last few years teaching students how to move about the room and how to collaborate with their peers. Students have to be taught how to do this efficiently, though. It is so countercultural to what they have been programmed to do in a classroom that it takes time to get students adjusted to their new environment and expectations. Due to the varying spaces within the room, students need to move throughout the room to accomplish the variety of tasks they have been charged with. Students need to talk, and they need to move. In Content Area Conversations  by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Carol Rothenberg, they write that students talking to each other facilitates learning. In order for students to having meaningful conversations within the classroom, though, they need to be exposed to content prior to coming to the classroom. Collaboration is a constant in the classroom. Regardless of the space (makerspace, tables, floors, or couches), the students are discussing content and providing real-time feedback as projects are being created.

Professional Learning (Terra):  I am limited by the types of furniture that exist in the various rooms we use for our classes. I do not have an issue with participants changing their seat (if there are other options) or standing if needed.  Adult learners typically feel free to do whatever they want to make themselves comfortable. Children usually don’t feel they are allowed to do this. As teachers change their pedagogy, this should change as well.

Technology’s Role in the Learning Environment

 It’s also important to look at the appropriate role of technology in the classroom. Technology can be a powerful tool, but it must be implemented with the intention of enhancing educator-facilitated learning, not replacing it. It must also be paired with real professional development for educators, not a “just add water” program of handing students a device and expecting positive results.”  

Technology is a TOOL for learning; it doesn’t replace the teacher. (If it does, the teacher should be replaced.) Before technology is brought onto the scene, the teacher MUST have a solid grasp of what to do with it. Professional learning is essential to this process. Pedagogy first. Technology second. As with the room design, furniture, and flexible spaces, the technologies (devices, software, etc) must be selected based on the teaching strategies and learning outcomes. They should support knowledge construction, be used to create products of learning, and connect students to the world.

K-12 (Dan): Some of the technology that my students use may seem unconventional, but the results are beyond my wildest expectations. I developed a distance learning program for my students. We were the first students in America to Skype with the National Archives, U.S. Capitol, and numerous other agencies. Since Skype is a Microsoft tool, I quickly realized that another Microsoft tool, XBox One, could also be used to enhance learning in my classroom. This tool has enabled my students to connect with professionals all over the world. For example, my students were studying Leonardo da Vinci and were able to engage with the museum curator for the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, Italy. Being able to talk directly to a leading expert in the content area provided them with information that cannot be found on the internet, and the students were able to ask meaningful questions that could impact their projects and essays. Having an Xbox One in the classroom has given my students another medium for creating projects. Because many of my students play Minecraft for fun, they are able to bring that passion and skill into the classroom to create worlds that reflect the content that is covered in the curriculum. My students will spend hours upon hours building Minecraft worlds about social studies content because the learning has engaged their interests.

We use Chromebooks as a tool for research, writing, and presentation creation. When Chromebooks are used as tools, I have seen the level of collaboration and efficiency of collaboration increase dramatically. The trick is that students need to be taught how to use the internet for learning. They are very comfortable using it for social media purposes, but the truth is, many students have no idea how to efficiently look up something online. The number of times I get the question, “Which website do I click on?” is astounding. For this reason, I teach students how to research essential questions, and I introduce them to different Google apps that I would like them to become comfortable using.

Professional Learning (Terra):  I have been teaching teachers for over 12 years. In the past two years, we have requested that people bring their own device to class. It is rare that someone doesn’t have one. What has also allowed this to happen was the district providing guest WiFi access so that people can use their own devices at district locations. Gone are the days of having to book a computer lab to make sure our participants can use a computer during the class. This is a HUGE shift from how things used to be and it’s awesome. When students have their own device, they are more comfortable using it for learning. They can bookmark sites, download/upload resources, and control their learning process. Because we use technology as a tool to access learning, collaborate, and create products of learning, even teachers who are afraid of technology see its benefits and are proud of the skills they develop during the course.  Many of our participants will go on to use the same tools with their own students. (That’s why we do what we do!)

Learning Spaces and Flipped Learning

So what does all of this mean for flipped learning? When students are all doing the same thing in the group space (a very flipped learning 1.0 practice), the space itself doesn’t really matter. As teachers get more comfortable with their flipped practice, they begin to see the potential for more active learning strategies (Project Based Learning, Peer Instruction, Flipped Mastery, Inquiry, Genius Hour, Gamification, etc.) in the group space. These strategies are the rigging, the behind-the-scenes star of the show supporting the learning design. Masterful Flipped Learning practitioners know how to mix and match these strategies for producing the most engaging learning experiences for their students. The stage is set.

Act II, Scene 1

(Exterior of school.  Sue, Tom, and Barry meet up after school to chat about their first day.)

SUE:  (Shouts) Hey Tom, over here!

TOM:  Hey Sue!  (Walks over to her.) This is Barry (motions to Barry); we have algebra together.

BARRY:  Nice to meet you, Sue.  (Shakes her hand.)

SUE:  Nice to meet you, Barry.  So, I heard that algebra teacher is really different from all of the other teachers.  What’s she like?

TOM:  Oh my gosh, I have never had a math class like that before. She gives each group a problem to solve without showing us how to do it. We have to come up with two different ways to solve it as a group. Then, she…   

BARRY:  (interrupting) She had us post our problems and solutions on her class Instagram for feedback. For homework tonight we have to look at everyone’s posts from all of her classes and give comments or ask questions.  

SUE: (surprised and a little envious) Wow!  That’s amazing. I got really excited for this one class I had today because the desks were arranged in groups. The only problem was, we weren’t allowed to talk to each other and we had to do our work independently. I would rather have sat in rows.

TOM:  (apologetically) That sucks.  Do you have homework tonight?

SUE:  Yep! I have like 30 math problems to do and I don’t really understand how to do them. My math teacher just lectured the entire time.


Active learning doesn’t just happen in a well-designed learning space. All of the pieces must be intentionally crafted. Traditional methods result in passive learning. Teachers must change their pedagogy first before making any changes to the classroom. Once this is solid, the learning space will begin to morph into a more active environment and the zones will naturally identify themselves. Listen to your students; give them a voice. What do they think the room should look like to best suit their needs? Get your hands on some technology and put it in their hands. It’s time to remove yourself from the spotlight and play a more supporting role. Keeping in mind what we’ve shared here and the additional resources below, we invite you to take a look at your learning space and your teaching methods. Does the setting match the script?


Resources and More to Explore

Editorial Leam
Editorial Team
This article was written by a collaboration of editors and columnists on the FLR editorial team or guest contributors.

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