When I entered my daughter's classroom at back-to-school night the other week, I almost wept with joy. The desks were arranged.... in rows facing the teacher. No wonder my daughter, for the first time ever, was retaining her teacher's words and reporting to me what she'd learned from her. Finally she had a teacher up in front, easy to see and hear. Why did she, along with various other highly distractible classmates, have to wait until 4th grade for this?
Teachers in many classrooms seat their students in pods of desks that face each other because they believe that students should be socialized to interact in school. This is a general (in fact overgeneralized) belief about the nature and philosophy of schooling. With the exception of the fact that some teachers realign desks for tests, this classroom layout often doesn't change even if critical parts of the class period involve, say, taking notes on what the teacher writes on the board. This often erodes outcomes. Though students should interact in school, the time when they are supposed to be constructing a record of key information in writing may not really be the time for that. And with desks in pods, some percentage of the students must now look over their shoulders to see the information they are accountable for and then swivel to write it down in front of them. Furthermore, students must ignore the student directly across from them to attend to the teacher behind their desk. If the teacher's goal is to be attended to for much of the lesson, she has created a strong disincentive for that. The classroom layout has made the primary lesson objective harder to accomplish in deference to philosophy.