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Classroom seating – what’s the best arrangement?

January 1, 2024, 15:25 GMT+1
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  • Emma Cate Stokes didn’t realise the advantages of seating her pupils in rows - until Covid forced her to do exactly that...
Classroom seating – what’s the best arrangement?

Covid wasn’t good for much in schools but, in my experience, it was great for improving the learning of my class. Now, this might seem like a strange statement. But let me explain…

As part of the Covid guidance issued in 2020 for the return of children to schools after the first lockdown, the Department for Education instructed us to set up classroom seating arrangements “with forward-facing desks” in order to lessen transmission of the virus. For some of us, it reignited an age-old debate – are rows or groups better for teaching and learning?

This was all new for me. Up until that point I had spent the entirety of my teaching career with grouped tables in the classroom. Before March 2020 it was rare to find a primary school classroom with rows. Most classes were set up with small grouped tables in fours, sixes and eights. However, in response to the new guidance, I dutifully set my classroom up with all desks facing the front of the room.

I thought it would be a disaster. How wrong I was.

Rows aid both the teacher and the pupils by promoting a purposeful and calm classroom environment. They help to settle children and allow them to ignore any external distractions. In Reception and KS1, we often seat children on the carpet in rows to facilitate learning, When we apply this to the arrangement of desks, we get similar improvements in learning behaviour.

All eyes on the teacher

Something that became quickly evident during the first couple of weeks was how much easier learning became when pupils were arranged in rows. All of the children in class could see me, all the time. There were no more body contortions to try and see the board. It sounds small but I would bet there are countless classrooms in the country where children can’t see the board/easel/teacher properly from where they sit. Put yourself in the vantage point of different pupils – can you see the teacher and the board?

I know all eyes are on me when I am modelling, instructing and explaining. This is necessary for the pupils to learn well.

Managing partner and group work

As educators we often feel rows are Victorian in nature and take the joy out of learning. During my teacher training I was taught that rows were bad - they were old-fashioned and strict. They stopped children from collaborating and must never, ever be used.

I have previously favoured group configurations, as do many heads and teachers. I believed this layout naturally lent itself to discussion and that there was a genuine argument to be made that this brought more collaborative learning to the classroom. Now I am not so sure.

However, rows need to be handled correctly, and well. If there is a need for partner work pupils can collaborate with the child next to them. However, if the teacher wants them to study in groups, two children can turn to face the children behind them. It can be done. If anything, having rows aids learning discussion, but it does rely on embedded routines.

To ensure that pupils are explicitly guided through the teacher’s expectations of partner and group work within the row setting, teachers could model with their TA (if they are lucky enough to have one) what they expect to see and how they want the class to behave.

More equitable learning

In many ways, rows can make the classroom experience more equitable. The front-facing configuration means that, unless directed otherwise, pupils will be looking at the teacher rather than each other. This can often mean that the quieter children in class are more inclined to raise their hands and contribute to the discussion.

Rows also make the lives of both teachers and TAs easier. A layout of rows with an aisle down the middle of the classroom allows all pupils to be easily accessible, which in turn means the adults in the classroom are able to support them. It also leads to fewer collisions with the corners of those deceptively sharp tables, and so fewer bruises when you get home from work!

In my experience, probably the only advantage to seating pupils in groups is the ability for pupils to be supported by a member of staff. But this, too, needs careful consideration. When an adult is with one group, it takes them away from the other children in the class. With quality first teaching and regular assessment, all pupils – including higher and lower attaining and SEND - can be supported without having to be sitting at ‘that’ table.

Easier assessment

Ultimately we have to put the learning of the pupils first and do what works best for them. Giving all of the pupils equal access to you and other adults who support them is important. Rows have made formative assessment much easier. You can walk up and down those aisles and spot misconceptions in a flash.

Of course, rows don’t work for every subject and I’m not advocating rows in a drama lesson. Tables can always be moved, and nothing should ever be set in stone.

The Covid rules in classrooms have long since been relaxed but I am still persevering with rows the majority of the time. Perhaps there is a reason we are still discussing rows over a hundred years after the Victorians introduced them. They are actually a really sensible way of teaching lots of young people at the same time. And, in my experience, for the majority of subjects, rows work best.

Row seating: 7 steps to success

Thinking of changing the seating arrangements in classrooms in your school? Here are some things to consider:

  • Make sure the teacher’s desk is located where every pupils can clearly see it, and the board
  • Leave an aisle in the middle of the room so you can easily walk up and down to access pupils quickly and address misconceptions, and to keep an eye on behaviour
  • Introduce routines for pupils to enter and exit the rows quickly and efficiently, and pass out papers and books. For example, those whose desks at the back might be asked to come in first, to avoid crowding
  • Have a clear seating plan so you know where all pupils are supposed to be at all times. This also makes it easy to spot straight away if anyone is absent
  • Have pupils turn around to the rows behind them if you want to have larger discussion groups or to do group work
  • Don’t be afraid to change table configurations if rows do not fit what you are teaching - for example, drama
  • Consider changing the seating arrangements termly or half-termly so pupils don’t become bored or irritated by constantly sitting next to the same child, and so that the same children aren’t always seated at the back or the front

Emma Cate Stokes is a former research‌ ‌lead,‌ ‌KS1 ‌lead‌ and early maths and reading lead at a primary school in East Sussex. She is now a freelance writer and education speaker. Find out more by visiting her wesite, Emma Cate Teaching