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How do you seat your classes?

Periodically on Twitter a thread begins about seating pupils in rows or around grouped tables. Such threads often associate seating arrangements with a general view of education. In essence, rows indicate a traditionalist view (teacher as “sage on stage”) while groups reflect a progressive perspective (“guide from the side”). I wonder what seating arrangements you use and why.

I tried out various seating systems during my career: rows, horse shoes and grouped tables, occasionally a combination of central horse shoe and rows to the side and behind. For at least 10 years my tiny classroom meant rows were the only solution. For many “itinerant” teachers you have no choice - you turn up and work with whatever is already in place. By the end of my career I used forward facing rows then moved tables into a horseshoe for small groups of about 15 or fewer.

The arguments for different seating patterns have been well rehearsed: better teacher and board visibility with rows, greater encouragement of peer discussion with groups and facilitation of whole group discussion with horseshoes. Research on this area is very limited and not much help. When we wrote The Language Teacher Toolkit we came across just one study which gave an advantage to rows for individual quiet study (less opportunity for distraction).

In the end, for larger groups of around 30 pupils I was most comfortable with rows. Why? I wanted pupils to see me and the board clearly and I wanted to be able to easily scan the class, left to right, front to back. Rows helped me establish good control and relationships. I was not a frequent user of group work, but did make frequent use of pair work, particularly what Doug Lemov calls “turn and talk”, where, after modelling work from the front, pupils then practised in pairs. Rows, therefore, did not prevent me moving away from teaching from the front.

Of course seating in rows does not preclude group work or “moving around the class” activities such as surveys, running dictation or “find someone who...” tasks. My A-level groups sat in horse shoes unless the group was larger than usual. This enabled my to sit, do whole group discussion and pair work.

I don’t see a practical or pedagogical advantage to grouped seating. Pair work is more efficient than group work as there is a greater need to contribute. In groups pupils have to turn to see you when you are explaining, using visuals or leading interactions from the front. I would think inattention is more likely when using grouped tables.

Finally, I don’t accept that seating patterns need reflect your general view of education as either traditional or progressive, teacher or child-centred. You can just see this as a pragmatic issue. What helps students work most effectively?


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