Educational Fad: Sitting In Rows

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Students sat in rows in classroom

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Do your students sit in rows?

There was a time when sitting in rows was the absolute moral norm and to do anything else made you either a loose cannon, a freak or someone with a death-wish. Then some brave souls experimented with ‘group work’ and sitting together became fashionable. Then things got a bit hairy and a bit ‘binary’ and you were either a ‘rows’ teacher or a ‘groupie’. Now, anything goes so do what you want!

Sitting in rows has been ‘the way’ in some schools for donkey’s years and they have never swayed; it’s almost clinical and the teacher might as well wear a white coat! Some have rejected plonking learners in regimented rows as a throwback to austere Victorian times and tinkered with seating plans galore. But in lots of places, sitting in rows has swung in and out of fashion depending on the vision and values of those ‘in charge’. What to do with the furniture in a classroom can cause a lot of grief.

A Row About Rows

I remember joining a school where every class had their tables arranged in groups. However, I decided I wanted to see the white’s of everyone’s eyes rather than the back of their heads so I did a bit of feng shui and had everyone facing me.

Wow! What a row. I walked into the staffroom that morning and was greeted with some interesting looks and heavy tuts. It was as if I’d set fire to the PE shed and declared the school as my own. The whole idea caused a right kerfuffle because teaching Key Stage 2 meant (at least in this school) that children learnt best together – rows was for secondary!

I defended my position in a staff meeting about three weeks later saying there was no sustainable rationale for group seating as a standard practice and even quoted some research, but this was in a time when research and best evidence practice was seen as exotic, ‘ivory-towered’ and out of touch. Talk about SQuARE peg and round hole, this was Status Quo Awareness and Resistance Education in action.

After half a term of not giving way, eventually I did and adopted horseshoe teaching instead which was my favourite. That went down a treat, but not half as controversial as my exploded double U-shape just before Christmas and my F-shape at Easter.

A Time And A Place

Group tables aren’t ‘bad’ – far from it. Sitting in rows works fine for me on occasions but there will be times when this is practically useless for certain activities where grouping really is better. Rows are hopeless for talk-based activities – unless it is just paired work. Try doing art in rows! Sometimes you just need nested tables!

The thing is, I have never really stuck to one way of working in class. Children like routine and predictability, but sitting in rows for a whole year is lop-sided and unhealthy; they experience learning in just one way and from one perspective. Rearranging your class once a year or not at all, isn’t good and could be preventing children from learning.

I suggest you try as many classroom layouts as you can to see how you feel most comfortable. As Maddern (2011) points out, “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” – for example, Harvey and Kenyon (2013) found that students tend to prefer more flexible seating arrangements.

What you do is your business and has to work for you and your pupils. You know them best. It is the duty of colleagues observing/coaching to intervene if they believe the techniques a teacher is using in their classroom – even the seating plan – is detrimental to the teaching and learning of the class.

What other Fads have you wasted your time on? Read 20 Years of Educational Fads to find out.

2 thoughts on “Educational Fad: Sitting In Rows

  1. Excellent!
    Merci de rappeler les “50 manières de s’installer” selon les activités.
    Le temps n’existe pas sans l’espace, l’enseignement non plus!!!

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