Group Process: Room Set-Up

This is post #3 in my series “Group Process in Childbirth Education: Building and Supporting a Community of Learners.”

Chair Set-Up

The arrangement of chairs makes a big difference in group dynamics – in how well the students connect to you and to each other, and in how much attention they pay in class.

Here are options:

Semi-circle or U shape with instructor at front

  • Advantages: students can see each other and can see instructor well (helpful for demos of positions, audiovisual aids etc.) Sets up instructor as authority, but in a friendlier way than seminar seating. Instructor can move into the center of the room, walk toward people when they ask questions; this dynamic motion helps to engage students.
  • Disadvantages: Takes up a lot of space. Some students are uncomfortable looking at each other rather than looking straight ahead at white board. (Having tables in front of them reduces this discomfort, but makes the class much more formal than just chaUirs.)
  • Things to be aware of: Make sure all the chairs are angled to face more forward to the front of the room rather than facing into the center of the room… otherwise students spend lots of the class turned sideways in their chairs. Very uncomfortable!
  • Best compromise for a class with a mix of lecture, group discussion, small groups, etc.

Circle of chairscircle

  • Advantages: Everyone can see everyone. Equalizer. Best for group discussions. There’s plenty of floor space for practicing comfort techniques.
  • Disadvantages: Takes lots of space. Some people may be uncomfortable facing each other – feel like they’re on display with nowhere to hide. Circles don’t wok well with tables unless there’s one really big table everyone is seating around. Not good for videos or visual aids as some people won’t have a good view.
  • How I use this: I don’t use circles when I teach, simply because I write and draw on the board a lot and that works better with U shaped seating than with circles. I do use circles for class reunions because I want everyone there to be an equal participant, and acknowledge that everyone has valuable knowledge to share.

Seminar seating (rows of tables with chairs on one side, all facing the board) or theater seating (rows of chairs facing forward, no tables). seminar

  • Advantages: sets up a formal learning structure, focuses attention forward.  Good view of visuals for those in the front of the room. Best for lectures. Theater seating is the most compact seating – you can fit more people in the room with this option than any other, which may be important in a small space. theaterStudents with a professional or academic background may feel quite comfortable in this arrangement.
  • Disadvantages: may be too formal, and discourage interaction amongst students, and even interaction between students and teachers. Those in the back of the room may have a harder time seeing and hearing. This set-up also puts students in their academic brain. This is not where I want my childbirth class students because in labor you’re not in your academic brain. I want people moving, feeling, connecting, and exploring so they learn in a way they’re more likely to remember during labor. Also, this feels like a “class room”. If you have students who were “never good at school”, this will not feel comforting and welcoming to them.
  • How I use this: I try to avoid this arrangement, but sometimes when I’m running late to a class, I discover that this is how the facility staff set up the room, so I live with it, but make an extra effort to encourage group participation.

Banquet style seating (students gathered around tables, facing inward)banquet

  • Advantages: best for small group activities. Good for encouraging interaction and getting students to teach each other.
  • Disadvantages: For any lecture, half the people have to turn around in their chairs to see the front of the room. Could encourage people to only interact with the people at their table, and not with the full class.
  • How I use this: I occasionally use this set-up on week four or five of my series. After the group has already built a rapport, doing small group discussions can work well for values clarification and problem-solving exercises.

However the room is set up, make sure it’s clear and obvious to the students where they are supposed to sit. For example, if you have a room with far more chairs than you need for class, putting handouts on the chairs you want them to use helps make it clear. If you need all the chairs to be used, and don’t want couples to leave space between them and the next couple, make it obvious that there are “pairs” of chairs and put the handouts for a couple so they straddle over two chairs.

Decor, artwork and visual aids

If you’re teaching in a shared or borrowed space, you have to live with whatever décor comes with the room. Occasionally you may have something you need to cover up. For example, if you’re teaching a secular class in a church building, some of your students may be more comfortable if you can subtly cover up very religious images or words. If you’re in a medical clinic waiting room, you may want to set aside some of the educational materials and magazines that are normally there.

You can also decide whether to bring any of your own décor into the space – a table cloth maybe? Or flowers? I personally like to travel light, and I don’t like a lot of visual clutter, so I try to make the space as plain and neutrally welcoming as possible.

I have some slides I use in my childbirth educator training that illustrate a variety of classrooms, display of visual aids, and instructor appearance. Check them out, and then imagine that you are a “typical expectant parent” from the population you serve. What would you think about each of these settings? What would make you comfortable? Uncomfortable?

Pay attention to artwork and to visual aids. Medical illustrations of anatomy and pelvis models and such may be uncomfortable to some people, either because they don’t understand what they’re seeing (which makes them feel ignorant) or because they think bodily details are “icky.” I keep most of my medical AV’s out of sight at the beginning of the first class. “Earth mother” style artwork may also be a turn-off to some who already feared that birth class would be too “woo-woo” for them. Pictures of babies are almost always a winner, especially if they show diverse families.

Assess your current classroom

The next time you’re in your classroom, take a good critical look at it. Imagine you were a new student coming it, not knowing what a childbirth class would be, and wondering whether it was a good fit for them. What would they see? How would they interpret it? What could you do to make them more comfortable?

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