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Teachers are like golfers: even the best ones often start out with a handicap, at a disadvantage to the rest of the field. They experience this day in day out. They turn up to teach a lesson but aren’t aware that Ethan had an awful argument with his mom and dad that morning or the fact that Madison hardly slept and just isn’t in the mood to learn. That teacher is going to start on a -2.
It could be the same on setting. Unfortunately, a peer group fell out with each other in a big way at the weekend and now an otherwise delightful mix of children has turned into a chemical weapon. This would be a -3. And so on. Of course, all of these “handicaps” are out of a teacher’s control – but there are a number of pre-lesson levers that can be grasped. Whether that be considering the prior attainment of students to pitch the lesson right, consulting a teacher's assistant before the lesson or even getting a decent breakfast. From all the things a teacher can do before a lesson, one of the most crucial, especially when considering behaviour for learning, has to be to consider the classroom layout.
Ask a teacher which classroom layout is the best, and the reactions might surprise you. It’s a debate that seems to stir the passions. “You prefer to position the desks in rows,” means that you are a didactic, overtly traditional fossil. “You prefer to position the desks in pods” means you are a happy-clappy “children are the boss” progressive type.
Of course, most reactions fall somewhere in the middle, but it’s unlikely that you will find a teacher who sits on the fence. I ran a poll on Twitter last week and it was a victory for rows.
So, the question is, who is right? Which classroom layout is the best?
Learning in rows
A positive impact on student behaviour and concentration is the main argument for teaching with the students seated in rows of desks. Research conducted by Kevin Wheldall, an Australian educationalist, showed that children stayed on task for about 70 percent of the time when seated in groups and about 88 percent when seated in rows. Naturally, a student sat in a row has a maximum of two students they can easily communicate with. In a pod, it could be up to eight. As attention spans diminish, the opportunity to be distracted is an important one to consider for any teacher.
Another advantage of rows is at the beginning or end of a particular task. It's much easier to ask students to “face the front”. Regaining their attention is far simpler when they are already facing you. Furthermore, rows give an easy focal point for all students; the front of the class, particularly useful if you are intending to teach in an instructional style. Lastly, deciding on an effective seating plan for a difficult class tends to be more straightforward with rows. The possibilities for keeping particular students away from one another are much wider.
Pods and collaboration
If you are intending to promote collaboration, implement differentiation regularly and set a variety of tasks during lessons, then having students seated in pods works brilliantly. Without any effort, students can be asked to work on something as a group (in rows, this could involve moving tables and chairs and all kinds of debates about who will work with who). Opportunities to set different tasks for different tables, to innovate when it comes to peer-to-peer learning and the management of carousel or marketplace-style activities becomes much easier and can be done “off the cuff”.
Of course, the major downside is trying to manage behaviour. At any one time, you could have a number of students with their backs to you and you may find you spend 20 percent of the lesson asking them to face you both collectively and individually. This is simple if students are well trained and naturally compliant. But if they aren’t, if you are a new teacher for the group, then prepare for a potential battle. And it's a battle so easily avoided by taking the “safe” option of rows.
The inclusive horseshoe
My personal favorite is a variation on rows: the horseshoe. A number of rows in the centre of the room surrounded by an arc of desks around them. The horseshoe gives off the vibe of a “forum” or “seminar”, an inclusive teaching environment where everyone is brought towards a centre point. The biggest strength of the horseshoe is probably for class discussion and debate. Everyone can see everyone else clearly. In rows or pods, this becomes a little more difficult for students. It's certainly worth giving this a try if you are looking for something a little more conservative than pods but a little less rigid than rows.
But which do you prefer?
Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets at @RogersHistory