Seats in groups, columns or rows

There is no `right' seating plan, but it pays to think about one. Kerra Maddern reports

Kerra Maddern

New displays are up on the walls, you've spent ages coming up with the perfect seating plan and the whiteboard is working as it should. But how much thought do you give to the table layout in your classroom? If you rearrange it only once a year you wouldn't be alone, but this could be preventing children in your class from learning.

After the invention of the blackboard in the 18th century, supposedly by a Scottish teacher called James Pillans, it became more and more common to organise desks so every pupil could see the front. This reinforced the traditional style of education, with children sitting so they could be recipients of the teacher's knowledge.

Today, the use of technology, the curriculum and the exams children take have been transformed. More children sit in groups rather than rows, and the idea they should work together, rather than just passively listening to an adult, is well established.

There are now many table arrangements to choose from, including columns, rows, an E, F or U-shape, the horseshoe, a semi-circle or the popular solution of putting children in groups (see panels).

Yet few schools experiment with changing seating patterns and new styles of teaching have not led to a revolution in the classroom environment.

According to academics who have studied the classroom layout, this means many children find it impossible to work in the way their teachers want. Pupils are often given tasks they must complete individually, yet still sit in groups, distracted by their friends.

Research suggests the most effective way to organise a classroom is to be as flexible as possible with teachers regularly moving furniture to suit the activities.

Teachers can be doggedly loyal to one style of classroom arrangement, despite the fact they spend hours planning different kinds of lesson. But experts agree that shifting your desks would lead to pupils being able to learn more effectively.

Nottingham Trent University academic Karen Chantrey-Wood, who has conducted research into classroom layout, says this makes classrooms "fit for purpose".

"If you want children to work on their own, you have to lay out the classroom to support that. If you want them to work in groups you also have to set up the classroom so they can achieve that," she says.

"Most primary classrooms are laid out in a group format all the time. It makes it very difficult for the teacher to ask the child to complete activities which involve them working on their own.

"It makes them distracted, it makes it hard for them to concentrate. If you put them on separate desks it is much easier for them to work and the teacher can make eye contact to check they are OK.

"The group of children most likely to be distracted are those who have learning difficulties, so seating them in this way puts them at an even bigger disadvantage.

"You have to match the work you ask children to do with the layout. Why not be flexible? Teachers tell me moving desks takes too much time and would make too much noise, and could be dangerous.

"But good teachers I've seen make sure children know exactly what they are doing. In one school, I saw the teacher announce `we are going to work in columns today'. Her five-year-old pupils, who had only been in school for five weeks, had the classroom rearranged in almost under a minute. I was flabbergasted.

"Good teachers will get a system in place for changing desks. They might use phrases such as `we are doing quiet working now', which would mean arranging the tables in rows.

"You only need to move furniture at break or lunchtime, not all through the day. It's also a good start to the lesson as children know the type of activity they are going to do as soon as they see their desks."

Kate Fallon, general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, says teachers often tell her they cannot reorganise furniture because of the constraints of the average classroom.

"I understand that having 30 children in a room doesn't allow you much space. I also understand children like the security of knowing where they are going to sit. Teachers feel moving tables might undermine this."

Getting round the limitations

But some heads have found solutions to this problem. Teachers at Nailsea School near Bristol are able to use their classrooms flexibly, thanks to new furniture bought when the secondary was rebuilt in 2009. They now use smaller, individual desks rather than the traditional version, which accommodated two pupils.

"Because the desks can be moved by an individual pupil, the rearrangement of the learning space takes much less time and therefore allows this to happen more regularly without wasting learning time," headteacher David New says.

"Also, the individual desks allow for more flexible arrangements of the furniture to suit different grouping arrangements."

When Professor Steven Higgins, from Durham University's school of education, worked as a primary teacher, his headteacher opposed changes he tried to make to his classroom layout.

"In a few schools it becomes part of the culture, but this doesn't happen very often and many teachers who start experimenting don't continue," he says.

"I've found most primary teachers don't plan genuine group work. It's really individual work, so children are being distracted by sitting together.

"Changing the classroom layout is just not part of the culture of teaching here."

There is lots of evidence to help choose the right layout to complement a lesson.

"If a teacher wants the didactic of standing in front of children, and they want them to respond and listen, then a horseshoe shape is best because you can maintain eye contact and engage with them," says Kate Fallon. "Sometimes, with rows, children can become a long way away from you, tables can block your view of them.

"With written work, a teacher may find they have to abandon the horseshoe and go back to groups sitting around tables.

"You also clearly can't sit young children in rows all day long, because this restricts their learning opportunities. In a large classroom, it's a good idea to have an independent working space that children can take turns to use."

Professor Higgins says children "concentrate better in rows" and should sit like this if they have to work by themselves.

"If you want them to talk, sit them in a horseshoe or circular shape. Children can make eye contact with each other, which teaches them to wait their turn when speaking to others."

The choice of classroom layout is often related to teaching style, as is demonstrated by the varying methods used around the world.

Academic Robin Alexander studied 30 primary schools in five countries and found Indian teachers arranged children in rows, pupils in Russia worked in pairs and those in the US were arranged in "work centres".

This, and the experiences of teachers throughout the UK, shows there is no one right way to arrange a classroom. But the wrong way is not to think about it.


Be aware that when you are looking at rows of children sitting at desks, you tend to scan the class in a T-shape: down the middle and along the back row. The children who are least visible will be in the middle of the class and just to the side - they may be aware that your attention is naturally drawn away from them.

If you do plan to introduce changes, start small. Use different arrangements for one or two specific occasions, for example a class debate.

Don't feel classroom layout should become something to add to your list of things to plan. Just start with small variations that have specific aims.

Train children to move furniture for you. Start with small groups - for example, ask half the class to stay back at playtime and give them the responsibility. Or you could pick furniture monitors.

Make moving furniture a fun competition and a challenge. Give prizes for those who do it most quietly.

For older children, make it fun by timing them.

Moving furniture will be less stressful at the end of a lesson than at the beginning.

Use squared paper to model your classroom. Cut out shapes for desks and see where they could fit. Do this in preparation if you are adopting different arrangements during the day.

Ask pupils what they think about the layout. They may raise problems you can't appreciate.

Have a seating plan. Children who need the most attention should sit nearer the teacher.

Around a square table - best for "decision-making". Appoint a leader. This will create active, not passive, learning.


Interactive class set-up tool, Scholastic


OECD (2005). Research into Identifying Effective Learning Environments


Hastings, N, and Chantrey Wood, K (2002). Group Seating in Primary Schools: an indefensible strategy?

Alexander, RJ (2001). Culture and Pedagogy: international comparisons in primary education

Hastings, N, and Chantrey Wood, K (2002). Reorganizing Primary Classroom Learning


The U-shape

Exploded U-shape

The double U-shape

The F-shape

The E-shape

The L amp; T-shape


Individual desks - best for "delivering". This works in formal lessons where the teacher is presenting information.

Desks of two - best for "applying". This could be used when the teacher wants a one-to-one discussion.

Around small tables, preferably round - best for "creating". This allows them to share knowledge and talk easily.

Around one big table - best for "communicating". This works for a more casual lesson and allows pupils to actively learn.

Around a square table - best for "decision-making". Appoint a leader. This will create active, not passive, learning.

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Kerra Maddern

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