Seats in groups, columns or rows
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. The average teacher might feel this ticks the boxes when it comes to providing a welcoming and efficient classroom for their pupils. But, in fact, the learning environment is likely to be the most neglected part of their work.
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 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.
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 and yet are still sat in groups, so are distracted by their friends.
Research suggests that the most effective way to organise a classroom is to be as flexible as possible with teachers regularly moving furniture to suit the activities they run.
Teachers can be doggedly loyal to one style of classroom arrangement, despite the fact they spend hours planning and delivering different kinds of lesson. But experts agree shifting 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. Therefore, 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. When I spoke to the teacher, she said it was no different from the pupils getting out PE equipment.
"Good teachers will get a system in place for changing desks. They might use phrases - for example, '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.
"We find that 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."
Headteachers like Mr New are comfortable with trying a novel approach, but this isn't true of every school. When Professor Steven Higgins, from Durham University's school of education, worked as a primary teacher, he found 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 in England. Teachers take the best general solution rather than thinking about flexibility."
This has not always been the case. For a time in the 1960s and 1970s, experimental local authorities dabbled with making primary schools open plan and having activity areas rather than classrooms. Children used one area for messy activities, another for reading, another for quiet work.
Some schools still operate in this way.
At Geoffrey Field Junior School in Reading, walls and doors have been taken out of the classroom and teachers work in four large, open-plan spaces. They can put up moveable partitions for more privacy. This means teachers can learn from each other because they witness each other's lessons, and children are quieter because they don't want to disturb other classes, according to head Charlie Clare.
"As they discover more about the children, teachers decide if they should sit in small or large groups. But when we do sit them together we often use group tables in lots of U-shapes," says Mr Clare.
"I'm surprised schools aren't more flexible when it comes to classrooms; it doesn't take very long at all to move tables. But then we have the luxury of space and large classrooms and I know others are not so fortunate.
"We find the U-shape allows the teacher to see all the children - rows can be a bit austere."
Those who embark on a mission to change their classroom can be reassured that there is lots of evidence that will help them choose the right layout to complement their lesson.
"If a teacher wants the didactic of standing in front of children, and they want them to respond and listen to them, 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.
"But, 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."
Rows over rows
Former headteacher Andrew Hall is a fan of rows. "Pupils need to be facing the same way so everybody can see easily; this makes it harder for them to be distracted," explains Mr Hall, who now coaches and mentors teachers.
"It focuses the pupil on what they are being asked to do. Teachers can use non-verbal signals. Because they have good eye contact, teachers can also see if anyone is drifting off and can draw them in to the lesson - for example, by asking questions.
"With collaborative working, it's good for pupils to be sitting around a table, but I don't think all children know how to work naturally in a group.
"Rows are a good starting point. As children develop learning skills, teachers can move on to more collaborative seating arrangements."
Rows might be useful for keeping pupils quiet, but some teachers are vehemently opposed to using them.
David Didau, head of English at Priory Community School in Weston-super-Mare and an educational blogger, feels this leads to an "old-fashioned" style of teaching that doesn't help children learn.
"Children need to be active, to be talking and doing. Ofsted don't want to see teachers just standing at the front talking at them. They need to be walking around so every pupil can see them, not making them look at them," he says.
"At the start of my career, when I had less confidence about maintaining discipline, I did use rows, so I understand why teachers feel the need to make children sit like this. It's easier to control them.
"But pupils are not in school to be controlled, they are there to learn."
Mr Didau has tables set up which seat six children pushed as far towards the wall as possible, so there is space in the middle for presentations.
His views suggest the choice of classroom layout is often related to teaching style. This 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 England, shows there is no one right way to arrange a classroom. But the wrong way is not to think about this important part of education at all.
- 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.
TIPS FOR IMPROVING LAYOUT
- 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. So 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 or Sats practice sessions.
- 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. Ask children to be as quiet and careful as possible rather than do the task quickly.
- For older children, make it fun by timing them.
- Moving furniture will be less stressful at the end of a lesson rather than at the beginning.
- Consider where children go to collect equipment. Can they get to it easily without having to walk across the whole classroom?
- 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 throughout the day.
- Ask pupils what they think about the layout. They may raise problems you can't appreciate - for example, not being able to see you.
- Have a seating plan. Children who need the most attention should sit nearer the teacher.
- An interactive class set-up tool, Scholastic
- OECD (2005). Research into Identifying Effective Learning Environments
- The Design Council (2005). The Impact of School Environments: a literature review
- Hastings, N, and Chantrey Wood, K (2002). Group Seating in Primary Schools: an indefensible strategy? www.leeds.ac.ukeducoldocuments00002181.htm
- Alexander, RJ (2001). Culture and Pedagogy: international comparisons in primary education
- Hastings, N, and Chantrey Wood, K (2002). Reorganizing Primary Classroom Learning
- Seaborne and Lowe, R, (1977). The English School: its architecture and organization: Vol. 2