Moving tables and shifting attitudes

A few years ago, the headteacher of a well-known public school unveiled his exciting new project in a broadsheet newspaper.

His school had come up with an apparently novel way of teaching A-level lessons. The students would sit round one big table, as if in a company boardroom.

The reaction from certain teachers to this story was to giggle. They didn't think the idea was silly - they just knew that it was an approach other sixth-form teachers had used for years, if they were lucky and had a small enough class.

Over the decades, teachers have experimented with a range of classroom layouts - from tables of four, to the U-shape, to the more exotic F and E shapes (see the diagrams on pages 4-7).

Yet, traditionalists seem to believe that only the classic layout is sensible: pupils sitting behind individual desks in neat rows, eyes facing forwards, as they did in the 1800s. A pamphlet published by the right-of- centre Centre for Policy Studies last year praised a Saturday school which adopted this approach, and quoted a journalist saying nostalgically that when they had been at school "we would all sit at our own desks facing the teacher".

Given the current vogue for Latin and blazers, it feels as if it may only be a matter of time before an edict goes round demanding single desks, preferably wooden ones with ink-wells.

What our special report today shows, however, is that there is no single "right" classroom layout. The arrangement of tables and chairs should depend on what kind of teaching you're planning.

Obviously, some teachers - those teaching in a chemistry lab, say - face greater restrictions than others. Teachers may also be keen to avoid the noise and hassle of having pupils shifting furniture around, or confusing carefully crafted seating plans.

So there can be reasons to stick to one layout. But if it's because you are just using one teaching style, that may be more of a concern than the direction of the chairs.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw

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