Seating Arrangements in the ClassroomIt’s the first day of school, and students are filtering into the classroom. Some head straight through the rows to the back of the classroom, furthest from the teacher’s ears and eyes. A group of friends settle in the middle. A final few are forced to sit in the front for lack of open seats. Every student knows where they want to sit, and their reasoning rarely considers their education. It is up to the teacher to arrange seating so as to maximize students’ attention, productivity and participation.
It almost goes without saying that seating should be rearranged on a regular basis. This keeps boredom at bay, simply through the change of environment, and can be customized for the given task, exercise, or general purpose. Depending on the size of the class, the task at hand, and what types of desks or tables are available, the optimal arrangement will differ. The dullest classes I have been in retained the same arrangement every day. Most often, it has been the classic row setup, involving straight rows of seats all facing the front of the classroom. Another popular setup is the circle, or horseshoe, arrangement, in which students sit in a ring or “U”.
In my experience, the circle and horseshoe arrangements are most conducive to learning, and have provided the most efficient transition between activities. When teaching a language, the objective is to keep students in contact with each other and with the teacher. If the classroom is supplied with individual desks, they can easily be arranged into a ring for general lecture and discussion. With the teacher as part of the group, students feel more inclined to participate. They see the teacher as a peer, an instigator of discussions, rather than an intimidating authority figure. In addition, the ring shape is inherently suitable for other activities, such as story-continuation, “telephone” or similar memory games, debates and movie-viewing. This shape even makes passing out and collecting worksheets easier: just put the pile at one end and let the students do the rest.
In the circle, it is easy to separate students into pairs or small groups. However the grouping is decided, the students can move the desks together, face to face. Such intimacy between students provides the conditions for high talk-time; the students can speak in a small, safe environment, and the teacher has been reduced to an observer. After the activity, desks can easily be pulled back into a circle; the circle or horseshoe is easier to reconstruct than setting desks back into orderly rows. In this respect, the circle is more casual than rows.
The downside of the circle is that it becomes unstable with large classes. The room might be too small to contain a large circle, and, even if it can, students on opposite sides of the group have lost intimacy. Instead of facing each other as individuals, they are facing a large gulf of empty space. I remember a spanish
class in which 40 students sat in a vast circle in a vast room. Although the teacher was an entertaining and enthusiastic part of the group, his questions and prompts were consistently met with silence. This was due to the sense of vulnerability students faced. Any student considering a response was on trial before two thirds of the class. No student would feel comfortable in this scenario, much less a student attempting to learn a new language.
Learning Swedish while studying abroad, I encountered an interesting seating arrangement. There were three rows of tables, one behind the other, like shallow, concentric horseshoes, with two students per table. The teacher managed to accommodate about 25 students in a small room. There was enough space between rows for the teacher to reach any student, and the final row was still close enough to hear and see everything the teacher did. This language teacher recognized the merits of a horseshoe design and modified it to fit her surroundings.
As new theories on education work their way into practice, classrooms and teaching styles will change. Once, not too long ago, a class of orderly rows was the unquestioned arrangement of the Western world. It seems that circles and small groups have now taken hold in classrooms. While it is certain that what today is called progressive will one day become obsolete, our job as teachers is to nourish the students sitting right in front of us the best way we know how.