Classroom Seating: A Clue to Teacher Beliefs about Learning (Angela Watson)

Angela Watson is an experienced elementary school teacher, coach, and blogger (see here). She offers pros and cons of various ways to arrange a classroom leaving it up to readers which configuration of desks best reflects their beliefs in teaching and learning and the realities of managing a crowd of students.

How to furnish and arrange existing furniture in a classroom is a peek into the heart and mind of a teacher’s ideology of how students learn best and watching them at the same time.

Watson offers teachers various options to consider. Moreover, she recommends changing seating arrangements over the course of the school year as classroom norms evolve, content and skills shift, and relationships with students mature.

Although she speaks to mostly elementary school teachers, I have seen thousands of middle and high school classrooms where seating arrangements vary including options that Watson evaluates.

There are several basic desk arrangements that I like to rotate between:

  • Stadium Seating (or Angled Rows with Desks Touching)
  • Modified U (or Horseshoe)
  • Groups (or Teams)
  • Combination (desks in various positions)
I’ve never had all my students’ desks separated, as that takes up too much space and isn’t conducive to the teaching methods I use, so I can’t give advice on that arrangement. I’ve tried pretty much everything else you can think of, though! Check out the classroom arrangement ideas blog post for tips on fitting everything into your classroom and making room for all the key areas (teacher desk, computers, rugs, centers, etc.)

Stadium seating (angled rows with desks touching)

Pros: Enables the teacher to see what every child is doing, gives all students a clear view of the front of the room, can take up less floor space than other arrangements, makes it easy for students to work in pairs or move their desks into groups for cooperative work

Cons: Does not work well with a large number of desks because students will be too far away, less effective in terms of management when more than two rows are used, less suitable for classrooms that use cooperative learning methods for the majority of the day

desks-in-rows1.jpg

Yes, I do think that placing your students’ desks in rows is a perfectly acceptable classroom arrangement!  I like having desks in angled rows (also called stadium seating) because all the kids are facing me. This helps me see if they’re on-task and makes it easier for them to concentrate.

Because the students’ desks are touching one another (and not completely separated), the angled rows mean that students can work with partners without having to move their desks because they are sitting right alongside one another. When it’s time for group work, they can easily shift the desks to work together in fours, or sit at tables in the back of the room or on the floor.

third_grade-room_1.png

The advantage of angled over straight-facing rows is that the angle makes it easier for students to see and leaves space in the front of the room for a rug, open area, overhead projector cart, podium, table, and so on. The photo above shows the angled style in a different classroom, this time with a projector cart in the middle instead of a rug and the desks pulled much closer to the front of the room. This room is larger than the one above, and I rarely had students move their desks for group work: they did partner work with the person next to or behind/in front of them, and then for group work, they moved to sit at the tables and rug areas you see placed around the classroom. They absolutely loved this because it gave them the opportunity to get out of their desks and sit some place different!

Pros: Allows you to fit many desks into a small space, students talk less during teacher-direct and independent activities when they are further apart from their friends, make partner work simple

Cons: Spreads children out considerably so that it can be hard to address them all, makes group work harder because the desks can’t easily be moved around
modified-u-shape-desk-arrangement1-1.jpg
As shown above, I began one particular school year with 22 desks in a modified horseshoe shape, leaving a small break in the middle and sides of the desk arrangement to use as walk-through spaces. This created a large center space that I could stand in to see each student’s work….

Groups/Teams

Pros: Can save floor space even with many desks, supports cooperative work.

Cons: Promotes off-task behavior, distracting for many students.

third_grade_classroom_arrangement_5.png

This was an arrangement I wasn’t able to use when I had close to 30 kids in my class, because when children were facing one another at their desks, it was just too much work to keep them from talking during teacher-directed instruction and independent work times. However, I have found that there are some smaller classes of children who can handle sitting in groups, and it also worked well when I taught in schools that promoted a lot of collaborative learning. This arrangement shows 3 groups of 5, with 2 kids who could not handle the groups sitting by themselves off to the side. I loved having the groups angled like this because all the kids could see the board and I could stand in one spot and see everyone’s face and work area….

third_grade_classroom_1.png

During my last year in the classroom, I got rid of the desks and switched to tables! I had been wanting to do this for years, and when I stepped foot in the room in August and saw how the custodians had stacked all those desks in a corner, I realized how much more room I would have. I had all the desks removed and replaced with tables (oh, yes, the custodians looooved that idea), and I was THRILLED with the results. You can read more in my blog post Tables vs.Desks. I do keep desks for children who have a hard time working in close proximity to others. The desks are situated near the tables: if a child has issues, he simply moves the desk back a few feet and gets himself together, then rejoins the team later….

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Classroom Seating: A Clue to Teacher Beliefs about Learning (Angela Watson)

  1. thanks for this wonderful post and blog. it is amazing to see (here) teachers who try things, who examine their practical choices and writing about it to share ane discuss publicly. this video:
    https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=seating%20arrangement%20teacher
    (although its simplifying the idea) deals with the thought that choices in the classroom, and infrastructure for sure, has grounds in the teacher’s identity. in his/er way of what’s education, what’s learning and what’s her/is their job is.
    and maybe the last thing is that in all the arrangement and marvellous ideas she is trying, the direction of the seating is toward one wall. why? i mean, is there some thing on that wall that symbolises something, or maybe an artifact (screen) that gives The North of the class…

  2. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Very interesting post!

  3. Laura H. Chapman

    This is not relevant to subjects organized as a laboratory or workshop or studio. lab component. How about showing some excellent elementary school art rooms, music instruction facilities, dedicated maker spaces, science labs?

    • larrycuban

      Nice point, Laura. Another post about classroom furniture at some point will include the broadening of room arrangements matched to subjects taught. Thank you.

  4. Norma Rodriguez

    I really enjoyed this article. I have been thinking a lot about how we learn, the different ways we learn and who is at the center of that learning. Are our student curious about learning? What prompts that curiosity? Are they fully invested on their learning or are they just going through the motions of being “schooled” When we take the time to create true learning environments, our students unleashed their untapped creativity and desire to create and invest in their own learning. When I walk into classrooms I ask, who is at the center? Who is at the stage of learning? When I was a teacher I would re-arrange my classroom ever month, it was fun and the students really looked forward to it as they had the opportunity to work with every single one of their classmates by the end of the year.

  5. I always sit my kids in groups. I don’t have much trouble with off-task behavior, in part because I sit my kids based on ability and the kids most likely to be off-task are up front. Nothing is perfect, of course.

    Not all the groups are in quads of four, as that ends up with kids having their backs to me. Three or four groups are actually in L-shape and will be moved into quads when I really want whole-group discussion. But that, for me, is pretty rare. Mostly I like groups so the kids can work together if they want, because it’s more efficient for me to do small group instruction or answer a question for four kids instead of one, and because …I dunno. It just works better. I wrote about it here: https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2015/03/14/group-work-vs-working-in-groups/

  6. Pingback: OTR Links 02/06/2017 | doug --- off the record

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