The majority of teachers, you would think, favour a row. In second place, you’d expect a cluster. And further down the list you might definitely get a horseshoe, or even a circle.
But does a teacher’s preference for the layout of their class actually matter when it comes to learning?
Greg Ashman, a teacher at Ballarat Clarendon College in Victoria, Australia, certainly believes so and he has the evidence to back it up.
Writing in the new issue of TES, he explains: “The evidence strongly suggests that seating arrangements have a considerable impact on behaviour, and thus on learning.”
He cites the extensive research of Australian professor of education Kevin Wheldall. Over the course of several studies, Wheldall found a significant advantage for rows over groups when it came to students completing individual work. In a typical study, children stayed "on-task" – completing the work that they had been set – for about 70 per cent of the time when seated in groups and 88 per cent of the time when seated in rows. Wheldall also found that the children with the lowest on-task behaviour often showed the greatest gains when moved from groups to rows.
“However,” Ashman writes, “clearly the idea of grouped seating is better for collaborative work between students. Studies show that activities that require communication between students, such as generating lists of ideas, are best served by group arrangements.”
There are equally strong cases, in the right circumstances, for horseshoe or circle arrangements. So what is a teacher to do? Shift the desks every five minutes?
Not quite, says Ashman.
“Perhaps the choice of tables could be made with ease of rearrangement in mind,” he writes. “The best model may be one of flexibility. Different classrooms could have different arrangements and children could move rooms according to need.”
You may be doing this already. Or you may have found a better solution: tables on wheels, classrooms partitioned into different learning zones, or a theatre-like set-up where different “stages” can rotate?
However you do it, as Ashman says, keeping seating arrangements in mind is crucial.
“We already spend time over seating plans, maximising learning and minimising misbehaviour with pupil placement; it is worth arranging our rooms to meet the same aim.”
Read the full article in the 17 October edition of TES on your tablet or phone or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.