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Seating arrangements are very important to the classroom for interaction, atmosphere, and behavior. It is easy to take seating for granted, or only see the partial benefits it provides, but proper seating can be a useful tool to accomplish class objectives. There are three styles that are commonly used in the classroom: traditional rows, U-shaped, and cluster (groups/pairs). Each has their own pros and cons, and each should be weighed carefully to meet the objectives of the lesson and the style of the educator.
Keep in mind, there are other factors involved the educator may not have control over. For example, if the classroom is small, then the options for seating may be limited. Or the “desks” available in the classroom may not be the traditional desk, but a large table to accommodate multiple students.
Traditional rows are very well known because almost every teacher grew up sitting in this style of seating. Similar to a military type of approach where students were lined up rank and file, it still continues today in countless schools across the world.
This style is to direct focus on the teacher and isolate students so they can focus on what is being taught. The focus is not on having students interact, but if interaction does occur and it’s not approved by the educator, it can easily be noticed and thwarted. However, when student to student interaction is warranted, the choices are to have one student turn around to another in the same line- which is not comfortable for the student turning around; or have the students turn their desk facing the row next to them.
The interaction with traditional rows is usually between the educator and student in the form of the student listening and raising his hand to answer the educator’s question.
The atmosphere this creates is a military controlled environment. Students consciously or subconsciously understand that interaction is not encouraged as they can only view the students on their sides and the back of the student in front. Students are isolated in an undefined area which makes the atmosphere in the classroom controlled in the sense that everyone’s attention is directed to the front. It is quite restrictive and the students have little opportunity to participate or take control of their learning.
This type of seating arrangement does nothing to encourage proper behavior. Students easily become disengaged and most will find ways to entertain themselves. In this style, students in the mid to back rows can easily blend into the background by hiding behind the person in front. This allows the student to doodle, write notes, or even attempt conversations when they think it is safe.
A way to keep students with behavioral problems in line is to place them in front, but if there are a large number of students with behavioral problems, then putting them all together in a general area can quickly cause problems. If there are a couple students who cause most of the trouble and a few who cause occasional trouble, then it might be best to place the worst offenders in front of the class where the educator’s presence can curtail some of the problems. The other students who sometimes cause problems can be spread across the class and buffered by students who don’t cause problems.
Traditional Rows Pros
- It encourages focus on the educator and content
- Good for teacher centered classes
- Easy to implement with large classes
- Students with behavioral problems can be placed in front to control behavior
Traditional Rows Cons
- Creates an atmosphere where the educator is the most important feature and students are secondary participants
- Students can easily become disengaged during the lesson
- Discourages interpersonal communication
- Not easy to observe students in the mid to back rows
- Not productive for classes built around conversation and interaction
- Not easy for the educator to move amongst the students
The U-Shape method of seating came into being and necessary when instruction moved from teacher centered to student centered classrooms. Although the date is not absolutely known, it has its roots in cooperative learning and is recognized as a seating upgrade to traditional rows in classes seeking to involve students more in the learning process.
Space and class size are major concerns for this style of seating. If the class size is over twenty, then the room needs to be fairly large to accommodate the U-shape. Also, more students create a larger U-shape that starts defeating the purpose as students move farther away from the board and educator. For larger classes, instead of one big ‘U,’ educators can create multiple smaller “U’s’ of five or six students.
Again, U-shape depends on the type of class, classroom size, and number of students. It may take some old fashion ingenuity to make it work.
Interaction is greatly facilitated in this seating arrangement. All students are now in direct eye contact of the educator and fellow students, thus allowing for a more natural construct in which to communicate as an entire unit. Students are naturally engage as they feel part of a larger group instead of just a single speck within a large frame.
Also, the educator can occupy the center of the group to do experiments or demonstrations so students can easily see and be engaged by the lesson.
Another benefit to this arrangement, the teacher can use a talking instrument, such as a stick, and pass it around the group and have the student holding the item talk. This gives everyone an opportunity to speak and really encourages the others to listen as they are looking eye to eye with the speaker. Psychologically, it is easier for a listener to tune out if they can’t see the person that is speaking; this arrangement encourages listening as the listener may not want to be perceived as rude.
Whereas the tradition row was isolating, this arrangement is more welcoming to become part of a greater whole. Connecting with the educator and other students is greatly increased, which in turn, can greatly facilitate interaction and discussion amongst the students. In a way, it promotes togetherness and really helps students engage in the roles of speaker and listener. The student is able to move into the role of participant and take control of his learning and participation.
This arrangement can also provide a positive environment and reassurance for expressing ideas. It is natural to shake one’s head in agreement when hearing something that one shares the same view; therefore, when a student opens up to express himself, this natural agreement can become encouragement for the student to share more of his thoughts. In this way, the set up becomes an enabler to students who may otherwise stay quiet.
For the educator who has to deal with behavioral problems, this can be a great arrangement to control students. Now, students don’t only have to be concerned with the educator seeing them, but now the whole class can see them. Having to be a responsible member of the group can be enough to curtail most problems students usually cause. Also, students are in sense pressured to be engaged for the same reason.
On the other hand, this normally works well with older students who have a sense of responsibility. Putting a class of five year olds in the U-shaped arrangement and expecting it to help with behavioral problems is destined to fail as it will cause more problems. Students at that age don’t have a sense of responsibility or understand peer pressure to conform to the group.
One strategy the educator can utilize to increase student participation and discussion is sitting down. If the educator stands up, then the educator can be seen as dominant and the focus of the students will be to listen. By sitting down, the educator and students reside at an equal level which can be seen by the students as having an equivalent role in providing information . This is purely a psychological construct that can make a huge difference in participation and discussion.
U-Shaped Seating Pros
- Encourages discussion and interaction
- Easy to observe students and provide one on one help if needed
- Creates a connection with the educator and other students
- Creates a small community in which to learn
- Assists in engaging students to learn
- Can be an enabler to students to participate
- Helps control some students with behavioral problems
U-Shaped Seating Cons
- Shy students may feel anxiety being part of one large group
- Some students don’t want to talk with many eyes upon them from all directions
- Cannot be used with all ages to control behavior
- If the class is not a talkative group, the silence of many can discourage the speaking of a few. No seating arrangement can force a class to talk that doesn’t want to talk.
- Classroom size and number of students can thwart the usefulness of this arrangement
Cluster seating is when the educator places the students either in groups or pairs. Along with U-shaped seating, this became a preferred arrangement of students that promoted cooperative learning. This concept is very simple as the students usually work as a group to do some work or assignment with the belief that the contribution of many allows a more complete product, since each can contribute something the others don’t know.
This seating arrangement can be implemented in small and large classes. A classroom set up in traditional rows can quickly be changed to cluster seating. The versatility of this arrangement is magnified as educators can have students work in pairs, and in the matter of seconds, have students form larger groups.
In addition to this, each group can be assigned a higher level student who can help instruct lower level students during activities or projects. Since the educator can’t be with every group, an assistant teacher in each group can be more beneficial for the class as a whole. Therefore, the educator just has to oversee the groups. Of course, this is not explained to the class, but kept secret as not to have students feel inferior to other students.
Interaction with cluster seating is a little different than with U-shaped seating. In U-shaped seating the students participate as part of a large community, with cluster seating, students listen to instruction as in traditional row seating, but operate within a small community. This can be beneficial to shy students or students who wish not to talk in a larger group. Also, the smaller group allows students an opportunity to formulate beliefs, receive feedback in a relatively safe confine of a few, and practice voicing their thoughts before opening up to the whole class. In this way, interaction can first be within a smaller safe area before moving to the larger arena.
In small groups, the interaction can be more authentic as it is far more personal with a few students than expressing an idea in front of many and having the constraints of group dynamics. This safety encourages more interaction from shy students who may never be active in a larger group setting.
Another great feature of cluster seating a class is the teacher mobility amongst the students to observe or assess work. The maneuverability is great for larger classes.
The atmosphere in a cluster class is like that of countries inside a continent. Students feel a part of a larger group, but are mainly responsible to the main group they occupy. The atmosphere in the classroom provides safety for students via the groups they are within. This allows students to be free to make more mistakes, venture to unknown concepts, and even receive help from others more knowledgeable without the feeling of shame. It’s an atmosphere that can create opportunities for safe learning.
Behavior can be an issue with cluster seating. Whereas, U-shaped seating allows the eyes of many to control the behavior of one, the isolated small group of a larger class doesn’t afford the same benefits. Students with behavioral problems may feel immune from the small group expectations and believe they can hide their actions from the larger group easily. So the social pressure is not there. On the other hand, responsible students may take control and force the student with behavioral issues to conform.
A strategy for controlling students with behavioral problems is to sit them in the center of the room. Depending on the size of the class room and the number of groups, it is best to place those students near the middle where the educator’s attention is mostly focused. Do not place the students on the left or right in the front, as this is the most overlooked place by teachers. Have the students feel they are in the visual field of the educator at all times.
For younger students, boys are normally more active and cause more problems than girls. Having the students sit beside the opposite gender will usually control most problems, but it’s never a sure fire way to control students. If there are two educators in the class, one can be at the board while the other is walking amongst the students. The educator’s presence is enough to stop most behavioral issues.
Another strategy, regardless of age, is to assign a group leader and make them responsible for the group. Most of the time, assigning power to one student forces the student with behavioral problems to recognize them as an authority and listen.
Cluster Seating Pros
- The small group creates a safe area for students to interact
- Allows for feedback from other students before expressing ideas to the larger group
- Creates a more personal experience for interaction
- Shared knowledge on group work increases individual knowledge
- Student behavior can be monitored much easier
- Can have assistant teachers in the form of students to boost group performance
- Can easily access or monitor student work
Cluster Seating Cons
- Some students may only copy work and are not engaged in learning
- Students rely on the strongest student to interact with the class
- Placing students in groups doesn’t mean they will work as a group
- Educator may not be able to fully assess each student’s ability
- Students can easily avert attention away from listening to the instructor or other students
Which seating arrangement an educator should use is largely based on many factors. Some are not in the educators control such as classroom size, classroom furniture or number of students. However, aspects that are within the educator’s control are objectives and the type of class the educators wants to create.
Traditional Row Seating: This seating arrangement is best for educators who want the more traditional teacher centered approach. Where the students are not asked to participate, but to listen and learn. It’s also a good method for the educator who adopts the mantra they only care about the students who want to learn, and those who don’t, sit in the back and be quiet. It’s also the best way to administer tests to curtail cheating.
U-Shaped Seating: This is best used for educators who want to create a large community in the classroom and have interaction and discussions on a large scale. Another benefit is it really encourages students to listen as they are present to everyone in the group. Also, the educator who wants to connect with students should consider this seating. This is better with older students who have a sense of social obligation.
Cluster Seating: Cluster seating is for the educators who want to create small safe areas within the larger structure of a classroom to encourage all to speak. It benefits cooperative learning on the group level and the class level. Many activities from exercises, presentations, discussions, games, etc… can be conducted in class with ease. Another function is the educator can secretly arrange groups to have higher level students help instruct lower level students.
Choose seating arrangements wisely, as it can help the class reach its objectives and take the students to new levels. Seating can help the management of students and activities, freeing the teacher for assessment and providing more responsibility for self learning. Also, there is no rule against using all three in one class. The educator can easily change in and out of seating arrangements as needed. The real power is knowing which seating arrangements will facilitate student learning and when to use it.