Secret is in the seating

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Moving desks may be key to boosting concentration spans, reports David Budge.

THERE is a paradox at the heart of primary education. Why do schools seat children in groups but expect them to spend most of their time working alone?

Group seating is ideal for collaborative work. But it can be a serious distraction if children are working on their own.

Research studies have consistently shown that it makes more sense to seat children in rows or pairs for individual work - which occupies junior-school pupils for two-thirds of the day. The extra time that a class sitting in rows spends "on task" can range from 16 per cent to 124 per cent. But it is seldom less than 30 per cent.

Research also shows that it is the most easily distracted children who benefit most if they are seated in a way that prevents them facing another child across a shared desk. Their time "on task" often increases by 80 per cent and they are able to concentrate as hard as their most studious classmates.

None of these findings is new; the research evidence dates back at least 20 years. But many teachers have chosen to turn a blind eye to the findings. Why?

Do teachers not believe the researchers? Are they ideologically opposed to seating children in rows - a practice that fell into disfavour following the publication of the liberalising Plowden report in 1967?

Nigel Hastings and Karen Chantrey Wood, of Nottingham Trent University, believe there may be three reasons:

many teachers think it is not feasible to move furniture around the classroom to suit different types of activities;

some are concerned about what other teachers, ispectors and parents will think if they depart from the normal seating arrangements;

teachers do not have enough practical examples of how they can use different lay-outs to support their teaching.

In an attempt to remedy the third problem Hastings and Chantrey Wood are observing infant and junior teachers who rearrange the layout of their classrooms to suit the lesson (see the case study opposite page).

"The teachers we have interviewed have inducted their classes well and it is the children who do all the removals work - quickly and efficiently. The longest change of layout took 95 seconds. And most of the teachers change the seating only during the school's natural break points, such as lunchtime," they say.

Some teachers had been asked about their unusual way of working but none had been criticised by a manager or inspector.

Hastings and Chantrey Wood say that many teachers believe flexibility is only possible in large classrooms. But their study suggests this is not true. "Some of the teachers we have observed do have plenty of space but most work in what would be regarded as quite normal classes and some in very tight accommodation. In each situation, an individual solution has to be developed."

The researchers hope that the study will persuade more teachers to consider varying their classroom layouts. "If we are successful, the outcome would be far fewer children struggling to work in contexts that do not support their learning," they say.

Nigel Hastings, Nottingham Trent University, faculty of education, Clifton Campus, Clifton Lane, Nottingham NG11. E-mail nigel.hastings@ntu.ac.uk


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