Do Your Pupils Sit On Cheap Seats?

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Cheap Seats Classroom


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Are pupils’ and their examination outcomes restricted by where they are seated in class?

76 per cent of teachers believe children are more disengaged when they cannot see the classroom screen properly.

When I became a teacher in 1993, I would teach graphics using a blackboard with 30 pupils in the classroom from Tottenham, North London. These lessons were involved isometric drawing and so forth, where the children would be required to follow teacher instruction and direction, laid out on the blackboard one or two stages at a time. It was a difficult thing to achieve.

Fast forward to 2000, teachers were using OHPs and whiteboards had started to emerge, eventually transitioning to interactive whiteboards in the mid-2000s. I remember our first one – at the time I was a young head of department at a brand new school, and duly put it in our biggest and shiniest classroom.

Unable to clearly see a screen?

From 2008 onwards we then started seeing a shift to using wall-mounted projectors – but through all those changes, not once did I seriously consider how the size and positioning of the screen might have implications for pupils’ learning. Research conducted by Epson with over 300 teachers across different settings has shown that 40% perceive a correlation between children being unable to clearly see a screen and lower test scores. Epson published that statistic and others in a report that uses the term ‘cheap seats’ to describe the phenomenon – which I find quite troubling. I’ve given lots of thought to where my pupils are seated, of course, but never to how the impact of the visuals I’m using will vary as a result.

I’ve been very active on social media over the last 10 years, partly because of how it’s helped me access educational research much more quickly, and become more immersed in fields like cognitive science. We’re still working out how our brains enable us to learn as adults and the ways in which we can struggle to retain information. How tough must that process be for a seven-year-old, when you can’t even comprehend or articulate what’s happening to you in class?

Impact on learning?

I need to check with my learners to see whether they know what I’ve asked them to do and can comprehend the information I’m teaching them. One of the easiest ways for a teacher with a class of 30 pupils to navigate this is to quiz – ‘How do you spell ‘volcano?’ Hands may be raised, answers could be written on mini whiteboards. But how should that question be conveyed via a screen? We might display the text of the question – ideally not at a minuscule size – alongside a nice, big picture of a volcano. If I also say the question out loud, I’ve given the pupils three ways of accessing the information. If 12 hands go up, I can then evaluate what to do next. If I fail to check what the kids can see and read quickly or effectively enough, that’s going to have a big impact on how they learn – and as the aforementioned research shows, their educational outcomes, behaviour, engagement and participation in class.

Time constraints

Does your classroom have cheap seats? Epson researchGood quality teaching should use dual coding – I’ll show a picture of a volcano on the screen, followed by a slide with the word ‘volcano’ written in a large font. Meanwhile, there may be a pupil in the corner who’s visually impaired, completing a worksheet on which the vowels of the word are missing so they can also learn how to spell it. Primarily, teachers have various ‘ins’, but will need to prepare, plan, rehearse and test them in the context of multiple subjects that will be taught to 30 kids at a time. Teachers and school leaders, therefore, have very little time to spend on assessing the learning impact of a particular item of edtech and how it should be used.

In my experience, I’ve not had the time to immerse myself in this sort of information. I think back to the projectors I’ve used over the years, and how the school would often purchase one device and install it in every classroom. A company might customise each projector’s location and distance, but these were secondary school classrooms. A maths teacher might be using theirs to write equations on a screen; as a D&T teacher, my screen would be in a larger classroom with machinery and workshop areas – yet there would be little differentiation in terms of the visuals seen by students.

That’s the reality in many schools because we’re not experts. We rely on companies like Epson and others to provide us with research and expertise. I’ve visited well over a hundred schools, and from what I’ve seen, primary schools largely operate with interactive whiteboards, while secondaries will use a mix of whiteboards, touchscreens, projectors, and interactive boards that vary in size and scale according to the department, room size and many other factors.

Context is key

Does your classroom have cheap seats? Epson researchThe headline features of one device or display won’t apply in every situation, so what I’d say to edtech companies is that their products have to be both affordable and offer a long-term solution. The former can be addressed through site licences and other ways of covering costs that are more affordable over time, rather than large, one-off purchases. The latter should entail more in the way of support than ‘There’s your product, here’s the support number, see you later.’ Someone should be able to attend the site where the equipment will be used in order to check, test and if necessary, update it.

Teachers also need training, but with the current high stakes accountability system through league tables and exam performance, schools won’t typically use their Inset days in a way that lets teachers learn more about using classroom screens and displays. Even if they do, it’ll usually be to show how a brand new product works, and the content will rarely be revisited.

We could start addressing the ‘cheap seats’ issue by giving schools access to online materials – perhaps a 10-minute training video that highlights recent edtech impact research, graphics that clearly show how the 4/6/8 rule applies to classrooms, short presentations – information that schools would value. Among the people I’ve worked with, I’ve rarely encountered considerations of where screens are positioned, whether the 4/6/8 rule has been observed or if we risk cognitive overload through the way we present photographs and decide on the size and colour of text.

For all we know, that seven-year-old child at the back can’t decode the information we’re providing. We all have different sensory needs, and the challenge teachers face in having to meet those needs can be highly complex. We’re still working out how the process of learning works, which directly applies to how we use our projectors, how our classrooms are arranged, where the kids are sitting and how our lessons are taught. What edtech companies can do is support teachers in using their tools in the most effective way possible.

Further Reading
  1. Students Disadvantaged by Cheap Seats
  2. Classroom tech not making the grade: ‘Cheap Seats’ impact student exam results
  3. Poor screen visibility impacts on school exam results

2 thoughts on “Do Your Pupils Sit On Cheap Seats?

  1. Despite all the opposition that I have faced over the years from colleagues who “know more than me”, I’ve absolutely insisted that my students are seated facing the front so that they can clearly see the board (s). I can tell in no time who is unable to see the work to whatever degree because they squint, copy off their neighbour, look like they’ve lost the will to live, divert from the task at hand almost immediately, their spellings are atrocious, certain words are missing. I tell those students very quietly that they can’t see the board properly and ask them where they’d feel more at ease. The relief on their faces is instant. Ps…no research require, just common sense and hum, slight impaired sight oneself!

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