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Tables and My Education Philosophy

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There is an award plaque on my office wall featuring a common education icon—an old fashioned desk. You know the one—cast iron frame with a wooden bench seat and a hinged slant top. Style has changed, but the desk is still a classroom staple. If guests on a game show were asked to list the five most common things in a classroom I’m sure student desks (neatly aligned), a blackboard (even though most of them are whiteboards now) and a teacher’s desk (accessorized with an apple) would make the list.

My classroom isn’t like most classrooms. There are no desks--just tables. Lately I’ve been wondering if 25 years of teaching in a room with tables rather than desks has had a profound impact on my education philosophy.

Have you noticed that as most of us move through the education system we use desks more and tables less? Tables are commonplace in the learning centers of primary classrooms. Many teachers in the intermediate grades combine student desks into clusters. They are quasi-tables used for some activities, but they're still very much individual workspaces. By high school the desk and its chair have become a single unit--usually arranged in rows facing the front. By the time we go to college, the desk has often evolved into a theater seat with a fold up lapboard. Only in graduate level seminars do tables seem to make a reappearance.

A desk is physically and philosophically singular, defining personal working space. Desks also establish pecking order. The teacher’s desk is bigger than the student’s desk. The principal’s desk is bigger than the teacher’s desk. And the superintendent’s desk is the biggest of them all. (School secretaries and bookkeepers often get bigger desks than teachers and that should tell us all something about power, but that discussion is for another day.) Interacting from behind a desk establishes territory, authority, and control over the conversation. What lies on a desk in full public view is still understood to be private and off limits.

Tables are different. They demand at least acknowledgement of tablemates. Tables enhance inquiry and projects but can complicate teacher delivered information. Sitting around a table requires a certain level of social awareness as you work in your space while respecting the space of others. Tables imply equality. They encourage collaboration and teamwork. Even when someone is presiding at the head of the table the assumption is that input will be sought and opinions will be heard.

I think we need more tables in our schools. But tables can be risky. Tables can facilitate collaboration, but they can also encourage non-productivity. Classroom management is more complicated when students are facing each other rather than the teacher. And although tables allow for interaction, they also create the opportunity for closed conversations and intentional exclusion. Teaching around tables requires careful preparation, active communication, and constant monitoring.

While I think we need more table time in our classrooms, I also believe we could use more table time in our profession. Our schools would be more vibrant, effective and efficient if teachers could sit down at the table with colleagues, administrators, policymakers, researchers and future teachers more often. I know this because of what I have gained from four years of participating in the professional learning activities of the Teacher Leaders Network. What I have gleaned at our virtual TLN roundtable has made me a more effective teacher in my classroom, a more useful contributor to my own school community, and has prepared me to work with stakeholders who set education policy.

I hope you will pull up your chair and join me here at the table for some conversation.


12 Comments

DESKS? I suffered with desks for the first 5 years of my teaching. The year after that I hung out at the school a few days before school started and moved all of my "desks" into a new teacher's classroom and moved the flat rectangular desks into my room and arranged them in "tables". That was middle school and I did that for 5 more years and then I "retired" and taught preschool for a few years (definitely no desks). Then I moved to Public Montessori school - in Montessori even the teachers are not really supposed to have desks! My mantra is "organize your supplies to help you do your work wherever you are! Skip the desks unless you love them! Work on the floor or at a table or better - in the garden....

Susan, I'm there! When I started teaching middle school 4 years ago, I worked with my mentor at Bank Street, Madeleine Ray, to design classroom setup that would facilitate the kind of work I wanted to see in my classroom. I bought three sturdy wooden benches to form a U shape in the front of the room--the meeting area. This area faces the board and it is where class begins every day, and where the whole class discusses, and where I might teach a lesson or read loud. I also bought/collected about 6 square tables and rranged them behind the meeting area. These are for student work time, including group work and individual work. I generally do not address the whole class unless they are in the meeting area. I will, however, sit down at a table and work with small group. Without this specific setup, I am lost as a teacher. Desks in rows woud never work for me!

Susan, I'm there! When I started teaching middle school 4 years ago, I worked with my mentor at Bank Street, Madeleine Ray, to design classroom setup that would facilitate the kind of work I wanted to see in my classroom. I bought three sturdy wooden benches to form a U shape in the front of the room--the meeting area. This area faces the board and it is where class begins every day, and where the whole class discusses, and where I might teach a lesson or read loud. I also bought/collected about 6 square tables and rranged them behind the meeting area. These are for student work time, including group work and individual work. I generally do not address the whole class unless they are in the meeting area. I will, however, sit down at a table and work with small group. Without this specific setup, I am lost as a teacher. Desks in rows woud never work for me!

susan
this past summer i participated in staff development focused on "impact learning" from the presenter rich allen. being a proponent of cooperative learning, he taught me the need to rid ourselves of desks and bring on the tables. several teachers in our system have embraced his philosophy and have replaced the desks with tables. i visited these classrooms....how refreshing and exciting to witness a community of students engaged in learning. is this not the model for the business world?
jon

Susan, I love the way you think! I have tables in my classroom, arranged in pods of 6-10 students. I can't imagine teaching in a desk world. Thank you for validating my tables, and sitting at the larger educational table across from me (OK, at the head of the table!!).
Cossondra
P.S. why does your pic have the name Jessica under it?

test

I find that is hard to get past the desk when trying to get teachers to work together, as a department or as a staff.

What an awesome commentary! I agree whole heartedly! I am a school media specialist and teachers often ask why the kids like to hang out in the library? Well, they like the tables. They collaborate on their studies, they have in-depth conversations about school and life in general, and they feel "comfortable" in the setting. I believe that the desks are indeed imposing.

Classroom management seems to be the biggest problem with those teachers who try tables versus desks. They will need resources and support early in their efforts or they will revert back to the familiar! Thanks for voicing your opinions on this concept!

What a wonderful perspective! I work in a school where teachers share rooms and the subject of desk arrangement is a constant hot topic. My "room mate" wants neatly separated rows, while I prefer "pods" of desks. I suspect the difference is tied deeply to each teacher's level of comfort with behavior control. After 36 years of teaching, I have come to love the messy way in which students share learning among themselves; my "room mate" is a new teacher and somewhat worried about what others will say. I throw out ideas; she neatly passes on wisdom. My guess is that in a few years she will become frustrated and either bow to the inevitable or leave the profession. Kids are messy in kindergarten, but they love to learn. Why not build on that, instead of separating them into private spaces? I like having separate desks because of the flexibility they offer - Groups of 3? No problem. Groups of 10? Shift the desks and you have an instantly bigger table. Testing day? Line them up in neat little rows. But God forbid you leave them that way. Long live the concept, if not the reality, of the table!

As an instructional technology specialist working with 30 school districts that have recently been funded through the Classrooms for the Future initiative in Pennsylvania, one of the more intriguing developments to come from giving laptops to every student in a core curriculum classroom is that the need for tables emerged immediately, because teachers wanted students to collaborate. And, when you have a laptop on those small chair/desk things, there's barely room for the laptop and the likelihood of it landing of the floor is very high. Why do we keep students separated? Why don't we want them to think, work, and converse together? I believe if they had been seated at tables in primary school and continued to use them up through high school, you wouldn't have as many classroom management issue because the students would know they are respected and valued, and they would have a clear set of expectations for behavior at those tables.

In a business environment, how a manager or an administrator use their desk is very telling of their working style. When you are "invited" to a manager's office, there are typically 3-4 chairs in the room/area. Where those chairs are placed and where the manager sits during those meetings typically gives a strong hint as to the type of meeting and even an outcome you can expect. Their managerial "style" comes from those settings.

Finding a chair placed firmly in the front of the desk and the manager behind that desk means the manager will maintain total control. Finding a chair beside the desk and the manager still behind the desk typically means the manager is willing to listen more openly and willing to consider options. When there is a chair on the side, a chair in front and 2-3 chairs also in the room and randomly arranged tells you that this manager is very open and is willing to share but will maintain control. To avoid giving up control, most times I insisted on standing claiming a backache. Why? So that I could wrestle some control as the subordinate over the outcome. I used my height to an advantage to maintain control. I many times even casually re-arranged a seating arrangement and pulled a chair alongside the manager's desk to indicate I understood the game.

Now many years later as a career switcher middle school physical science teacher, I remember those power struggles and always try to convey warmth, concern and openness to my students by pulling a chair up to a student's desk or table, or squatting down on my knees to get my head at their level. I teach by walking about and engaging students or by the use of a stool where I many times invite the students to gather about as if you are story telling. You can always regain total control by your posture and physical movements. I use those same positioning techniques when I deal with other teachers or when an administrator comes by my classroom.

You can learn a lot by watching people's styles. Someday maybe I can share some insights in animal behaviors the same way. They tell about control through their "style", too.

Just my two cents.

Hi Susan,
I have always used tables grouped into pods of four to five students. There is no "front" of the room, as I constantly move around either during direct instruction or group work. It is always interesting to see who sits with whom. It helps me to get to know each of my students on a different level. Social interactions are part of the learning experience in middle school. I get very uncomfortable when I enter a classroom with rows of desks. I guess it brings me back to my school experiences from the 1960's and 1970's. Classroom management is not an issue. The students and I have a mutual respect for each other. Also, even though they choose where to sit, I mix them up during the school year so that everyone gets an opportunity to work with everyone else in the class at least once. Thank you for your well-written article. I have never tried to articulate the advantages of tables versus desks. You did so very eloquently!
Susan Potenza
St. Martin's Episcopal School
Atlanta, Georgia

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