Differentiating Classroom Space through Flexible Seating

By Courtney Paull

Just over a year ago, a colleague came back from a conference and was sharing some insights from the keynote speaker. She mentioned the keynote kept going back to the importance of student choice in the classroom.  It got me thinking about how our students have such little voice in the classroom right down to where they sit in class. I started thinking about my classroom and realized I was one of those teachers who assigned seats and told the kids which cubby to put their backpacks in. I wanted to find a way to allow students more freedom and choice in my classroom.  Before I started changing things I wanted to ask my students about how they felt about the current class set up. Did they like having assigned seats and cubbies? Did they find the classroom environment comfortable?

The first thing I asked the students was: “Explain the perfect set up for a classroom.”

Free seating on tables of four. Beanbags replacing chairs and tables being lowered to the ground. Or maybe a band of all tables joined together also with free seating.

There would be free seating and we would freely move around the whole class being able to adjust based on how you are feeling at the moment. There is also some music in the background that can help you get your mind off math and relax.

The results repeated the same general sentiment – the freedom to move about the classroom students’ needs changed. On the most basic level, this seemed obvious but when I thought about my classroom, I was requiring all students to sit in a seat that I deemed “the best spot” for them to learn.

After a quick Google search, I was sucked down the rabbit hole of Pinterest-perfect and Instagramable flexible seating classrooms. There was the classroom that looked like a coffee shop complete with faux wood paneling on the walls and big plush brown chairs. There was the classroom that looked like my college dorm room with pastel color rugs, fluffy butterfly chairs, and old crates turned into seats. We all want our classroom to look as beautiful and inviting as these pictures but where do you start?

A little over a year since making the change to flexible seating, my classroom is far from Instgramable but I could not be happier. I started with the addition of six bean bags gathered from the back of other teachers classrooms, two big comfy chairs that were no longer needed in the middle school office and six old stools from the art room. I took out two of the tables from the middle of the classroom to add extra floor space and I added old bookcases under the window to create a bar-style seating with the stools. Everything came from different parts of the school and I have not spent a penny to change the seating in my room. I also wanted to stop using the overhead lights in my room which give the feel of walking down a hospital corridor. I bought four lamps to place around the classroom to create a more relaxed and calmer feel. The Instagramable classroom can be quite expensive and time-consuming but if the goal is to allow students the ability to move around the room as the student sees fit, then flexible seating does not have to break the bank.

Flexible seating is the perfect addition to a blended learning classroom. When there is no longer a front of the classroom where the teacher lectures from, there is no need for students to face a certain direction. Students are working on all different activities at different times and the same space needed for one activity is not the same space needed for the next activity. Students move from tables to the floor and students move from individual to small group to larger group work. Students freely get up and ask each other questions and collaborate even more on an authentic level.

If an outsider were to walk into my room, it would look chaotic. There are six students squished together at a table meant for four students, there are students on bean bags in the middle of the room, there is a student sitting in the window working by themselves and there is a student sprawled out on the floor with their notes all around them. If the same person were to come back ten minutes later, it could be a totally different scene. The key is that students are selecting their seating option based on their needs and if they are unable to work in that space then it is up to the student to make the decision of where to try next. I start each lesson with the same phrase “Choose your seat wisely and if you feel it isn’t wise anymore, make a change.”

“Choose your seat wisely and if you feel it isn’t wise anymore, make a change.”

However, not every day or every class is perfect as I do teach seventh graders. At the beginning of the year, all students started out in chairs for the first week of classes. I showed the students all the seating options in the room and allowed them to explore each seat over the first month of school. I encouraged students to try a new seat each class and as I saw students struggling to focus in specific seats, I asked them one question “Is this a wise seat for you?” This opened a conversation for the student and me to discuss what specifically about this seat was not working. Was it all the friends around them creating a distraction? Was it the coziness of the padded chair causing the student to slowly drift off? Was it sitting in the window and being distracted by all the people passing by? These conversations allowed me and the student to dig deeper into what might be a better seat to try for the next activity.  

My classroom is a long way from the Pinterest pictures but it has the same end goal. We are all striving for more student agency and responsibility in the classroom. I have created a space where my students have the ability to learn about themselves as learners and make decisions based on their learning needs. If we are going to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all learners, then why are we not differentiating the space where students work to meet the needs of all learners as well?

Mrs. Paull