The 21st Century Classroom: 7 Ways to Arrange Collaborative Desks

Posted by Ryan Owens on May 15th 2017

Education looks very different today then it did 100, 50 and even 10 years ago. The days of quiet classrooms, full of students in tidy rows, sitting at attention while the teacher lectured at the blackboard have been replaced with more collaborative styles involving a multitude of teaching methods. If you walk into a classroom today, you’ll likely see desks and tables in all sorts of arrangements. Children might be gathered into small groups, sitting at various stations around the classroom, working on projects together. The teacher is no longer the main focal point of the room and instead works more as a mentor and guide.

Many teachers have experimented with various desk arrangements to enhance collaboration and you can find all kinds of diagrams for those online. Studies show that most children learn best in a collaborative environment, so educators are working hard to test out different scenarios and styles to find that “sweet spot” that delivers the highest quality of learning.

Of course, it’s important to remember that not all children learn in the same way and that group dynamics have a profound affect on the classroom flow. Each class has its own “personality” and you’ll need to take ideas and tweak them to fit each individual class every year. What works one year may be a total disaster the next year. The important thing is to have a number of tried and true tactics in your teaching tool belt that you can pull out and use when you need it.

As a teacher, you know it’s important to be flexible and to know how to roll with the punches. So what are these collaborative desk arrangements that you should try out? We’re glad you asked. Here are a few different plans to put into your collaborative learning ideas collection.

#1 Four-Square

This is probably one of the most basic collaborative desk arrangement ideas. You simply take four student desks and face them inward, forming a rectangle. Students can see each other, easily discuss class topics, and share the center space for collaborative projects.


#2 Four Plus One

A variation on the arrangement style above, simply add another desk onto one of the ends of the pod, totaling five desks per group. This is a great plan if you’re short on room and need to add in another student per group. You might also be able to add another desk to the other end, increasing the group to six. This could potentially be too large of a group, however, and lead to less collaborative ability and a louder classroom as students increase their volume to hear each other across the desks.


#3 Tables

Another group collaboration-promoting strategy is to do away with the desks and simply replace them with tables. This does eliminate the desk cubbies, which you’ll need to find a replacement for. However, the tables feel more cohesive and “shared” which pulls students together even more. Desks are often uneven due to their adjustable height, which makes the collaborative workspace a little impractical. A table solves this issue easily.


#4 Pairs

This arrangement works well when your typical desk layout is in standard rows. Simply have the desk in front turn around to face the desk behind. You can also just generally have desks arranged in this way if your students often participate in paired-off collaborative learning. This is a great strategy for two-student projects or classroom discussions, especially those that might lead to some kind of presentation.

Another variation on this is to place two desks side-by-side, then arranged in the typical row pattern or another variation. This allows all students to face the front of the classroom while still having a permanent partner for any collaborative learning that might take place.

#5 Horseshoe

You can fit more students into a group if you arrange desks into a horseshoe shape. This is an excellent configuration for discussion groups and seminar-style learning. It would especially work well for older students. Some tables are built in this horseshoe or U-shaped arrangement, which might be worth looking into purchasing if you are committed to the style of learning that this layout promotes.

#6 Group Circles or U-Shape 

Another possibility for larger groups is to arrange desks into circles of six or eight. This configuration is excellent for group discussions and projects that involve a larger number of students. It also cleans up the “pods” potentially leaving more room for moving about the classroom.

#7 Mix it Up

While every configuration has its merits (and a million variations), it’s most likely that you’ll have to combine a few different arrangements to make your classroom fit each student’s learning style. You could have four students that work really well together in one area as a four-square, then a larger horseshoe in one-half of the desk area for a number of students who need a teacher’s watchful eye to help them stay on task. Clusters of two could be arranged for the rest of the students in various sections, leaving space for everyone to move about the classroom with ease.

You could also arrange stations around the classroom in which students move from station to station, depending on the work they are doing at that moment. In this scenario, students might not have a permanent desk but instead move around freely to a “science area”, then an “English area”, and so on. This would, of course, have to fit your teaching style, as well.


There are a number of ways to teach and new ideas are hatched nearly every single day. Teachers have access to plenty of creative options when it comes to their style of instruction, and a whole host of research studies to comb through for the science behind it all. Arranging desks to support collaborative learning can be a fun and challenging experience that depends on a teacher’s preference and stylistic interests. These desk configuration ideas are a launching point for customization and creating your own special arrangements that work perfectly for your classroom. After all, the relationship between teacher and student is more of a dance, requiring everyone to become better communicators and collaborators.