Saturday, February 23, 2013

Classroom Discussion and the Organization of Physical Space

A few weeks ago, a member of my Tenure and Promotion Committee observed and evaluated my SCED 4200 class during a period when we used small-group discussion structures to talk about whole-class discussion structures. At the beginning of the lesson, I asked my students to do a quick write about excellent discussions they'd observed in the past, and I wrote their insights about the discussions on the whiteboard. The observer's critique was that the students were talking to me and were making eye contact with me, rather than with each other.

This observation made me think about how teachers use classroom space. If you, as the teacher, stand in front of the room, then you may direct students' attention toward yourself rather than toward each other. I was also directing students' attention toward the information on the whiteboard. 

My evaluator's comments reminded me of an article I read by Lim and colleagues. (If you just skim it to look at the images, the analysis of classroom space is pretty neat.)

The article mentions how authoritative teachers tend to spend most of their time in front of the class, with desks faced toward them, whereas less authoritative teachers tend to move around the classroom more, at times standing in the back or to the side of their students, making the 'flow' of the class seem less rigid and directed toward the teacher.

I actually really try to think about the use of space in most of my lessons. Personally, I am not opposed to standing in front of the classroom. I think it is unrealistic to say that, as a teacher, you will never use verbal speech to provide information to your students. (Or maybe I just have not evolved to that point in my teaching career...who knows?) At the same time, however, I think that variation is important. Sometimes I will be standing in front with desks facing toward me, sometimes I will be standing in back so students cannot easily look at me but have to look at each other. When we have lengthy discussions about substantive issues, I move the desks facing toward each other in a single large circle, but when the focus is on group work sometimes I have students' desk facing toward each other. In all, the take-home message is this: the organization of classroom space matters. The spatial position of the teacher matters. Through our spatial position and organization of physical objects, we communicate to our students where and how we want them to direct their attention. I think we as teachers can be more conscious about physical space as a form of 'preparation' for partner, whole-class, or small-group discussions.

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