Why one teacher no longer sits her students in rows

Traditional rows of desks have their place, but an alternative arrangement can get your class working together in harmony, finds Haili Hughes
17th January 2020, 12:04am
Why One Teacher Refuses To Sit Students In Rows

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Why one teacher no longer sits her students in rows

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/why-one-teacher-no-longer-sits-her-students-rows

Like many teachers in their first couple of years of teaching, in my classroom, “the row” was sacrosanct. I didn’t dare to deviate from students sitting in long lines for fear of losing control.

But recently, I have started to experiment with classroom layouts - and the results have been surprising.

This hasn’t come from a liberal sensibility that attests rows are somehow oppressive and draconian, a hangover from Victorian schooling. It’s just that I believe the layout of my classroom says a lot about my teaching style.

Rows are great for what Sommer (1977) calls “sit and listen” teaching, but a lot of my lessons are collaborative, with group and learner-led activities. Therefore, I broke away from my row obsession and changed to a semicircular layout. It turned out to be a very good decision.

One problem I always had with rows was participation rates. Although all students were facing the front, there always seemed to be some who avoided getting involved in class discussions, never answered questions or hid their misconceptions from me. Once they were sat in a semicircle, they had nobody - metaphorically and physically - to hide behind.

Plus, research backs me up on this. In Germany, academics explored whether different seating arrangements led to greater student participation. Results showed that participation was increased when the children were seated in a semicircle (Marx, Fuhrer and Hartig, 1999).

Would group tables have the same impact? When I was a student, I inevitably seemed to be craning my neck with my back to the board. For this reason, I discounted the idea of traditional quad-group tables and instead embraced the semicircle, in which everybody is on the front row with an unimpeded view of the teacher and the whiteboard.

So, I had a more inclusive classroom with better lines of sight for all and much more participation. I also spent less time banging my shins on tables. Practically, a semicircle is great for giving verbal feedback during the lesson as the teacher doesn’t have to tackle a Krypton Factor-style assault course of school bags to get to students’ work.

Some critics may argue that behaviour is worse when students are not in traditional rows: in one study, children stayed on task for about 70 per cent of the time when in other seating formations and 88 per cent of the time when seated in rows (Wheldall and Bradd, 2009).

Admittedly, students’ behaviour can be more challenging when they are first seated in a different layout. But after some coaching, my classroom now seems like a more open and productive space. I won’t be going back. I’m a definite semicircle convert.

Haili Hughes is an English teacher at Saddleworth School in Oldham, Greater Manchester. She tweets @HughesHaili

Find full references for this article at tes.com

This article originally appeared in the 17 January 2020 issue under the headline “Seat students in a semicircle to get ahead of the curve”

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