Dare to Ditch Desks: Week 1

“Look at your learning space with 21st century eyes: Does it work for what we know about learning today, or just for what we know about learning in the past?”

Sir Ken Robinson: The Third Teacher (2010)

This year I decided to take a big risk… I removed half the desks from my classroom.

[This post originally written in August 2016]

I was first inspired by an incredible workshop on class design led by Paula Guinto, back in March at the Learning 2.0 Conference in Munich. I was also inspired by a book called the Third Teacher and my previous experience in Reggio Emilia-inspired classrooms which value the classroom as the third teacher.

I have 22 grade 5 students this year. I’m at a new school that values innovative thinking and risk-taking. And I have the full support of my grade level and administration, so perhaps it was the perfect opportunity to take this risk. But I also needed to use my own money to purchase materials and furniture.

While we’ve only just finished Week 2, changing my classroom set up has forced me to rethink how I foster and facilitate learning in my classroom. No longer do students have one place to keep their materials, we share all of them in the Makerspace at the back of the classroom. No longer can I organise rotational groups that have similar written tasks ~ I need to consider the large carpet space and couch seating (which aren’t always conducive to written tasks unless with a clipboard). I was lucky to have many other teachers to discuss my thinking with as I introduced students to this space.

From Heart to #Hashtag

The concept of picking a theme is not unfamiliar to most, but choosing one that can connect to every aspect of learning may be (it certainly was for me!) I’ve been inspired by beautiful classrooms with common themes such as ‘The Under the Sea Room’ or ‘The Butterfly Room’ or ‘The Jungle Room’ complete with matching pencils, curtains, cushions and  bulletin board displays. I’m sure these teachers have carefully planned introductory activities that connect to these themes and it definitely is exciting for students to walk in to a classroom that is visually stimulating and attractive.

The difference with thinking from ‘Heart to Hashtag’ is that we were asked to make a connection to a space that for ourselves is personally inspiring and relaxing. Rather than jumping to a theme, Paula asked us to reflect on our favourite ‘space’ and describe elements of it that inspired us to spend time there. I’ve always loved beautiful, green balconies and have tried to cultivate this atmosphere in the various homes we’ve lived in:

As soon as I had this image in my mind, I knew I had something to work with. An outdoor, green space always gives me inspiration to read, create, journal, and look inwards. I felt these principals aligned with my goals to bring mindfulness and compassion into the classroom. We used to ocassionally light candles, have a cup of tea, and read on the balcony during the warmer months. I wanted to bring elements of this into my chosen theme, but wasn’t sure how to turn it into something that could promote learning throughout the year.I wanted our learning space to nurture their creativity, cultivate compassion, curate empathy and scaffold community. I started to work with some key words that came to mind:







Eventually I settled on #cultivate, as it connected to many principles I wanted to embed in my learning environment:

#cultivate ~ Compassion, Growth Mindset, Community, Skills etc…

In my ten years of teaching, I’ve never once invested in my classroom. I’ll typically use the furniture provided, the paper provided (for display boards) and do what I can with the space. But it’s never been purposeful. Paula really made us think of the WHY in our class design. She said that anytime we wanted to add or remove something, we needed to think “WHY” and how it would enhance learning. This also tied back to my 2 years experience in Reggio-inspired classrooms, which have purposeful design to inspire learning:

“The environment is recognised for its potential to inspire children. An environment filled with natural light, order and beauty. Open spaces free from clutter, where every material is considered for its purpose, every corner is ever-evolving to encourage children to delve deeper and deeper into their interests. The space encourages collaboration, communication and exploration. The space respects children as capable by providing them with authentic materials & tools. The space is cared for by the children and the adults.”

(Kate, An Every Day Story)

As I enter my 10th year teaching overseas (11th year teaching), I decided to invest approximately $100 for every year I’ve taught. This gave me a big enough budget to work with, and I considered it an investment since the materials I chose would be quality and could reuse them in years to come. I decided to purchase fabric from IKEA and local fabric markets since they are reusable, rather than cheap display board paper. Keeping in mind the theme I chose, I opted for blues and greens for all fabric and cushion covers. The most expensive purchase were the 4x  Arholma Outdoor Seating (as I also paid $20 each have them assembled). I chose NOT to purchase the matching cushions (which were more expensive than the furniture itself) , and instead chose the inexpensive cushion covers & square cushion sets  to continue the theme of greens and florals (which ranged between $9-$15 each). The cloud fabric from IKEA was about $65 for 6 meters and they have many cheaper options at local fabric markets (in Singapore).

To enhance my theme of #cultivate, I also chose to purchase one money plant for each child ($1.90 x 22), and a few larger plants and hanging plant pots. Once I’d decided to gift each child a plant, I was inspired to launch a mini-inquiry into the theme #cultivate for my students in the first week.

I found quotes that connected to ‘growth’ and ‘cultivate’ and ‘learning’ and selected 8 so that I could form groups of 2-3 in the first week based on the quote that was attached to the child’s plant. Here is a google doc of the quotes I chose.

#Cultivating Classroom Community

During the first week  I tried to set the tone and expectations of a ‘shared space’. Students were surprised to walk into a classroom that had so few desks. Within the first 10 minutes of the first day, I had three students asking me if they would be given assigned seats and/or where their desk would be. Our first morning meeting we discussed the classroom space as a ‘shared learning environment’ and I explained that we would be building some agreements over the coming days as they had a chance to explore and use each space. I also read the book “Empty Pot” and we made connections back to our hashtag #cultivate and discussed the importance of a growth mindset.

Students also turned their plant’s quotation into a poster to display in the classroom.

We are only into the second week now and I’m already noticing changes in my teaching to suit the space. Each morning I try to put on calming instrumental music for when they enter, and at this moment, the moveable couches are the most popular place to sit! Students are beginning to adapt and use clipboards when they want a soft space to work, and the like to bring cushions to the floor too. While we’re only at the start of the year, I hope to involve the students in our classroom design later on.

4 thoughts on “Dare to Ditch Desks: Week 1

  1. Jocelyn,
    I remember walking through your classroom and thinking “Wow! I wish we had this when I was in Grade 5! I hope my own daughter gets to have this type of experience next year!” It is truly amazing how much can change with just a shift in furniture and design elements. Your classroom has gone from run-of-the-mill desks and chairs to a place that seems welcoming, warm, and conducive to active learning. It’s sad to think that we are in the 21st century and only just seriously considering classroom design as a way to make learning more accessible for our students. I’ve noticed that many teachers around the school are now slowly taking this approach (myself included). I can only hope that the physical changes made in the classroom setting will bring more positive growth mindsets to our classes via our students. Well done, Jocelyn!



  2. Hey Jocelyn… long time since the Eduro Coaching Course!

    How’s things?

    Anyways, I loved your post! Your thoughtfulness that went into classroom environment was extremely powerful! The third teacher part is really cool too! I have always felt that the environment is just as important.

    When I was reading I was reminded of an experiment I did one year with my class. I called it ‘Nothing to Something’ based on John Locke’s Carte Blanche theory of epistemology. I too wanted to instill a growth mindset and acknowledge what we were able to learn, discover, change, adapt to and grow as individuals and as a community. Borrowing more from the Carte Blanche theory, I didn’t decorate anything before the students arrived except for white butcher paper on all bulletin boards. The first activity we did on the first day was a non-verbal communication experiment where the first 30min students could only communicate by writing in notebooks, writing on the white boards or the white butcher paper bulletin boards. After this experiment, we were able to highlight the many ways that we will communicate throughout the year and the nuances of verbal, written, body language and online communication. In addition, we could illustrate how in 1 day we really did come from ‘Nothing to Something’. Throughout that entire year, we treated the walls as a timeline that we could decorate, hang, put up, showcase various things that we accomplished along the timeline of the room. In addition, we had a class mural which I describe in my post, Learning Rich Experiences. In this way, I felt that they could feel a sense of ownership over the classroom environment as well!

    Anyways…thanks for your post and reminding me the importance of classroom environment!

  3. Pingback: #Cultivating Effective Learning Spaces | Innovative Learning in the PYP

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