What do a successful teacher and a wealthy grocery-store owner have in common?

This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but the answer is simple. Both are familiar, even if they don’t know it, with “technical successes” and “technical failures.” Aiming to maximize his sales, our grocer puts staples such as milk, eggs, and bread at the back of the store, as his customers may pick up other items while looking for the staples. Placing the staples at the back of the store is a “technical success,” while placing them at the front constitutes a “technical failure.” In the classroom, a technical success arises when a teacher prepares her students to succeed, and a technical failure exists when she sets them up to fail.

Students need a learning environment that encourages success, but how can a teacher create such a place? In thinking about this question, I explored how the physical layout of my classroom, our academic schedule, and my behavior in class affected my students’ ability to succeed. I also investigated how teachers around me set their students up for success or failure.

Just as a store owner must lay out his store for maximum sales, a teacher must set up her classroom as an effective learning environment.

The structure may vary with the teacher’s style of teaching and her students’ needs.

A teacher who typically introduces a lesson and then instructs the students to work individually might arrange desks in a “U” shape. The teacher can present a topic with minimal distractions and easily monitor students while they work independently. Students with diverse academic abilities might warrant “clustered” or “grouped” seating instead.

Seating students in heterogeneous groups maximizes the learning environment: weaker students see how stronger students learn and approach problems, while stronger students gain a deeper understanding of the subject by teaching it to others, creating a “technical success.”

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