Class Seating Arrangement – not what you thought

Lately I came upon a couple of discussions on Twitter about classroom structure and its arrangement. Parts of these discussions coincided with steps I had just taken in my class regarding the seating arrangement, and as I saw the issue was becoming more and more complex, I decided to try and paint a somewhat more complete picture of the issue of seating arrangements in the classroom.

It starts off somewhat dryly, but gets better as we go along. So, hang in there.

According to the prescriptions of the Israeli Ministry of Education, classrooms constructed after 2008 must be atleast 53 sq. meters large, in order to contain a class of up to 40 students.

This is the equivalent of 1.32 sq. meter perstudent in the classroom. This includes, or course, the student’s desk,which is about 0.3 sq. meter in size. This leaves just one square meter for every student in the classroom.

What does this look like in my classroom?

The class is about 56 sq. meters in size, and in this home class (10th grade) I have only 32 students (as opposed to 38 in the previous class). This means that each student has 1.75 square meters (1.44 if you subtract the table). That is, without the teacher taking up any space…

Even in these luxurious conditions, the feeling in the class is crowded. This is especially prominent during breaks and whenever I attempt to go between the desks, talk to the students and check their work. I can only assume, that for the girls (especially) this is one of the factors creating a non-secure atmosphere in regards to contact with other students, even when no one has any intention whatsoever of harassing.

However, crowdedness is not the topic of this post. As the picture shows, and as anyone who has ever sat in a classroom knows, in order to seat thirty something students in a classroom, some of them will have to sit in the back. This means that some of the students are located seven meters from me when I am teaching (and more importantly, from the whiteboard). This can have one of two effects – either the students in the back are disengaged from the lesson and happy with it, as there is almost no chance that the teacher will ever get to them; or they would actually want to be part of the lesson (as is happily the case in my class), in which case they are highly unsatisfied with the seating arrangement, which becomes an issue that refuses to die, inflicting on both the atmosphere and the studying itself.

For all of these reasons, and also because I am personally a fan of changes and of experimentation in my teaching, I have played around quite a lot with seating arrangements in the classroom. In my former class (which, as mentioned, had 38 students in it) I tried a couple of different things:

None of these arrangements actually worked. I personally like the U-shape arrangement, because it allows for direct communication between the students, and turns everyone’s focus to the center. But in reality, mostly due to a lack of the right habits, it mostly created negative interactions between the students, and the necessity of seating the class in two U-s took away most of the advantages.

The arrangement in sequential rows without gaps between the desks was good in theory, at least for me as a teacher – almost complete control of what was going on in the class, relatively easy mobility from both sides of the rows and between them. But for the students this meant too wide a detour in order to reach their place, or the garbage can, or their friends, and quickly enough the tables moved away from one another.

This year I decided to work more moderately, and to try and take advantage of the fact that I had fewer students in my class:

Breaking the lines

It didn’t help. It was still too far away for the students in the back,and they had a really hard time with the diagonal arrangement. I wasn’t therewith them for the first period, and they were convinced that the classroom wasjust in a mess, and straightened the tables back.

So, what can I do? As usual when I don’t have an answer (and sometimes even when I do), I decided to drop the problem on my students’ heads. This way ,at least, they couldn’t complain, and I would have the privilege of draping the whole move with pretty words of democratic education, and teaching responsibility, while the whole time I am just looking for a way to close this issue up for good (no, not really).

So, I showed them a map of the class with the current arrangement [image 1], and gave every three students an empty map of the class [image 2] and a page with tables to cut out [image 3] (all to scale, of course).

I asked them to try and be unconventional and think about solutions that I, as a teacher, would be unable to think of.

The following are their suggestions:

Several things stand out at first glance: A – it is quite difficult to be creative in our class’s arrangement; B – the most important consideration for the students is being able to see the whiteboard properly, which is evident in the lack of an option for sitting in groups; C – the second most important consideration is the location of the desks in relation to the air conditioner located on the rear wall of the class (I’ll get back to this later on); D – students are many times much more conservative than their teacher (I already knew that, but somehow it succeeds in surprising me anew every time). An interesting exception to this, for those of you who looked hard at the pictures, is the bottom right proposal, which includes a platform to raise the rows furthest from the whiteboard.

The ballot form

The next step was, of course, to vote:

The students’ response was that voting could never work, since they would each vote for the proposal made by their own group. This means that the students’ basic assumption was that personal ego and competitiveness will prevent them from making matter-of-fact judgments about the different proposals.

If anyone wondered about the state of education towards democratic beliefs and values in Israeli high schools…

Results of the vote

The results, as you can see, showed a somewhat different picture.

And this is what it actually looks like:

The resulting arrangement

At this point I was in for a surprise.

 First of all, suddenly there was a feeling that the class was much larger (and to all interior decorators out there – yes, I know that the arrangement of a room has an impact on its feeling, but the effect here was very strong and immediate). Secondly – the corridor that allowed me to move easily around the room also created a very strong echo when I talked. And last but not least – it turned out that still, many students were feeling uncomfortable with their seating.

At this stage Efrat Furst (she writes very interestingly about research informed education – follow her! To her website) introduced me to Tom Sherrington‘s blogpost praising seating in rows. Tom’s blog has since become an important thought-provoking source for me, but reading this post left me with contradicting reactions, which may be related to two different identities that often clash within me – that of the professional teacher and that of the educator.

As a professional teacher, I can often identify with the claims raised in the post – when the students are sitting in rows, it is possible for me (at least in theory) to see everyone’s faces and make eye contact with them. More importantly, the students can (again, in theory) see me. Tom’s main argument there is that it’s human, meaning – sitting one in front of the other. As proof he brings pictures from 19th and 21st century schools, and of students at a lecture. So yes, standing in front of rows of students has its advantages, and in this context – it is clear that the center of gravity of the lesson lies in what the teacher has to say, or in the exchange between him (or more likely – her) and the students. So obviously, if students wish to understand the lesson and to learn, they are required to look straight at the teacher and listen to them. This way I can also see what the students are doing while I am talking, or when they are given an assignment to work on. I can walk between them, see individual work and correct it (assuming, of course, there was room left for passages between the students’ desks). But – and for me this is a very important but – this seating arrangement has several very problematic implications. If the center of gravity of the lesson lies in the discourse between the teacher and the students, then many of the students are liable to draw two conclusions:

  1. When the teacher is talking with one student, it is of no importance to all other students. The noisiest moments in my lessons are those when I am answering individual questions.
  2. When the center of gravity of the lesson is found in the gap between the whiteboard and the teacher’s desk, anything other students have to say regarding the lesson is of no importance either.

Well yes, I assume that there are didactic options for dealing with these two points. But in my view, any additional coping mechanism I need to add to my lesson consumes time and energy, which I am already short on. More importantly, even if I am able to cope with this problem in regards to lesson management, the underlying message of this situation is well-received: the teacher – the adult –the leader – is important; the rest of you are not. This is an authoritarian and anti-democratic message, which for me, as a civics teacher, creates quite a difficulty when trying to educate my students to hold democratic values and beliefs such as the equality of all, the importance of active citizenship, the need to curb the power of the government and others.

Another argument that is raised in the post is that sitting in groups (as an example. I experienced it, as mentioned, in a U-shaped seating) has negative implications on the lesson, which derive from the interactions between the students. Indeed, it is quite complicated when the students actually turn to one another and relate to each other. It definitely makes it harder for the teacher to be at the center of attention, and there is no doubt that for students sitting with their backs to the teacher, it is often very hard to be part of the lesson. However, the ability to work effectively in groups is not a natural given. Especially so in the super-competitive and individualist world we all live in. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that none of my students suggested groups as a seating option. This is while the ability to communicate and to work with one another is one of the most important skills that we, as teachers, need to impart on our students (sadly, working as solo adults in classes of 30 to 40 children, we are often not very skilled at this ourselves). Therefore, the mere fact that a certain seating arrangement creates negative interactions is not a reason for giving up sitting and working in groups, but rather a reason to develop teaching and learning methods that are more suitable to collaborative group work. And I know that there are those who are working at developing such methods.

Bottom line is, I don’t have an ultimate solution. At the moment, in order to cope with the inconvenience many students feel with their seat in class, I resort to changing seats every several weeks. But this also comes at a price. I knowcfirst hand that a permanent seat in class has much value for many students, especially for those who have a hard time feeling secure and safe in their classroom.

Despite all this, I do have three conclusions to draw from this saga:

The question, as happens in oh-so-many discussions on education, goes back to the roots – what is the job of the teacher facing the class? Is it to transmit the material? To teach skills? To educate? This dilemma is evident in the simple fact that we are teachers working in the education system. And obviously, the answer is that my job is both this and that and the other. But what are the priorities? Which goal does society want me to place in front of the other goals, when I face my students? The larger the gap between the requirements of modern society and the frozen structure of schools grows, so this question will become more acute and will increasingly demand an unequivocal answer.

Apparently, there can be no one ideal seating arrangement. Just like there is no ideal lesson plan or any one ideal set of traits for a teacher. In this sense, the (partial) solution for classes is furniture that is modular – an abilityto change the arrangement of the class easily and quickly, so that the class may be adapted to various and changing needs – didactical, pedagogical and educational.

This might be a good time to return to an earlier remark I made regarding the airconditioner in class. The unit is located in the back of the class, somewhat left of center. One of the reasons many students voted for the seating arrangement that was chosen was they thought this way, no student will have to sit directly under it. This was also one of the reasons many students are disappointed with the chosen arrangement, as the airconditioner isn’t actually where the gap  between the tables is. I believe this is a good example of the need to work harder at satisfying students basic physical needs, if we want them to become better learners. i believe Maslow has proven his point enough for us to listen. In any case, in order to try and alleviate the problem with the airconditioner, my students and I tried to make good use of the Hanukka vacation, and met in class today to draw on the walls and disperse the cool air from the airconditioner a little better around class.

Lastly – sanctifying the existing order because it has worked for two-hundred years is not a solution. Ironically, Sherrington’s post is named ‘TheTimeless Wisdom of Sitting in Rows’. A bit funny, taking into account the fact that schools as we know them have only been in existence for a couple of hundred years.

  • This is an updated and slightly revised version of the post I wrote in my Hebrew blog about a month ago. The original post can be found here

1 thought on “Class Seating Arrangement – not what you thought

  1. Pingback: סידור שולחנות בכיתה – לא מה שחשבתם | perlsteindvir

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