You might not expect it, but the desks make a big difference.
One of my favorite parts of the Math and Technology Workshop run by Maria Andersen in August was her session on what she called ELITE classrooms. And the best thing I learned in that session was how much the desks/tables mattered. Maria said:
In a classroom with desks in rows, you're pushed to lecture more, that's what the room tells you to do. People have taught the same class in this room and in a traditional room, and it makes the 2 classes completely different. They hated the traditional room.I'm doing well with having students push the standard desks into groups of 4, but I would be delighted to work in a room with tables like these.
Maria also recommends walls covered in whiteboards, a document camera, and a smartboard. I think the least high tech (desks and whiteboards) will make the most difference. Maria has just posted a summary of her recent presentation on all this.