Seating Charts and the Grammar of Schooling

In EdSurge, Kevin Behan, a product manager at GoGuardian (a for-profit software company creating programs for classroom management and other educational tasks)  wrote an opinion piece (August 17, 2019) about the importance of seating charts. He (or EdSurge) titled the op-ed: “Create a Culture, Not a Classtoom: Why Seating Charts Matter.”

After all it is the beginning of another school year and one of the early tasks every teacher in the age-graded school is to determine where students will sit. Those decisions have to do with a mix of questions circulating in a teacher’s head: Where do I seat kids who I think need close supervision? Should I separate close friends? Or should I let students choose where to sit in the spirit of giving students agency?

The fact remains that it is the teacher who decides. Just as the teacher determined the arrangement of furniture in the room from rows of desks to horseshoe half-circles with tables facing one another across an empty space in the center–I could go on since there are many variations of these desk patterns but I won’t.  Arranging furniture and seating students are important early decisions in establishing the teacher’s authority and ground rules for appropriate student behavior.

Thus, the classroom seating chart is one of the plethora of rules that govern the grammar of schooling embedded within the age-graded school. This larger framework of  seeing teaching in public schools as part of a complex system of norms for both teachers and students does not appear in this op-ed.

Using the seating chart to fashion a classroom culture is surely useful advice. Yet not seeing how the age-graded school as an organization imposes boundaries and rules within which both teachers and students work misses the teacher’s limited autonomy–after all, no teacher is allowed to pick the students she has in her fourth grade classroom–that teachers do have. Teachers have constrained discretion in deciding how desks are arranged and where students sit, what content and skills go into lessons, and when to compliment or sanction students. That limited autonomy occurs within the age-graded school. Overall, however, this historic school organization remains an agent of the state.

 Students, for example, are compelled to attend school between the ages of five or six until they are 16 or 17 in nearly all states. Compulsory attendance means that schools have legal responsibility for their health and safety while in school. Students have to be supervised and teachers have to know who is in school or absent. One of the functions of the seating chart is to take daily attendance. And that attendance converts into dollars since state funding of schools is dependent upon how many students come to school each day.

Thus the mundane seating chart that millions of students and teachers are familiar with is part of the interconnected and complex governance, organization, and grammar of schooling that touches both teachers and students over the course of the school day and year.


Kevin Behan, August 17, 2019 wrote the following.

The start of a school year means a new seating chart for each classroom—full of students that the teacher likely hasn’t met. Without knowing the students, how does a teacher know where to assign their seats?

This question comes up each summer as teachers strive to create the best learning environment possible. From my experience in the classroom, I’ve found that seating chart choices can be critical to how students engage with one another and the teacher.

Today, the influx of digital tools and new instructional models means that the traditional classroom settings of “quiet students, talking teacher” may no longer apply. Already, some teachers are letting go of tradition and allowing flexible seating in classrooms to give students freedom to choose where they want to sit. For others, placing students into assigned groups for cooperative learning can produce the optimal learning environment.

As each teacher develops their own style of seating students, their process involves weighing several factors to create their ideal classroom arrangement. But how does a teacher know what’s best for their classroom and which student dependencies should factor into these decisions?

Prep and Plan

The seating chart is an underrated tool that can help turn a good learning environment into a great one.

The lead times for seating chart planning range from the moment the teacher receives the class roll to the first day of class. Some teachers wait until getting to know the students before assigning seats, with open seating in earlier weeks and a solid chart after seeing how students interact, focus, and learn. This reactive approach can work better for teachers who enjoy flexibility and adaptability.

Others take a proactive approach, often by asking previous teachers of those students for their feedback. While this warrants extra legwork at the beginning, polling fellow teachers about their previous students can sometimes help identify when seat placements are beneficial to how an individual student engages in class.

Consider Preferences

Options for seating arrangement type vary, from row-and-column grids to two-person tables to stadium seating. Some draw inspiration from their favorite popular hangout spots, like Starbucks. (But others warn against turning flexible furniture design into a fad.)

For more traditional layouts—whether in rows or in the form of a semi-circle arrangement—past research suggests that students who sit toward the center tend to participate more in classroom discussions.

Although a fixed seating chart does make it easier to remember students’ names, a teacher might decide to change up the layout regularly for a variable learning experience, some as often as every day and others about once a month. That’s not to say that change is necessary for everyone. As long as a classroom is functioning harmoniously, a fixed seating chart can remain unchanged throughout the year. If something doesn’t work, then the teacher can adjust until an arrangement sticks.

Other Factors and Dependencies

There’s more to a seating chart than telling a student where to sit, as many other considerations must be taken into account. Learning disabilities, academic performance, and vision problems could necessitate students being placed in the front of the classroom to ensure better learning and higher engagement.

Social considerations and partner compatibility are important to consider because some students work well with others, even if their socialization can be distracting. It’s common for friends to ask to sit together and not unusual for a teacher to separate them to avoid over-socialization. What they might later learn is that the friends complement and challenge each other in a positive way. Being open and malleable as a teacher creates opportunities for students to learn from each other collaboratively.

Clustering students into groups can also lead to learning environments that foster student collaboration. Previous studies conducted by psychologist and John Hopkins research director, Robert Slavin, points to positive outcomes from cooperative learning, in the form of students learning more, enjoying school and the subject, and feeling more successful.

Create a Culture, not a Classroom

It is integral for teachers to find a layout that suits their preference and instructional style, in ways that make them most engaging and effective. But it is also important to create an environment where students can support each other.

Grouping high level and low level learners together is useful in facilitating peer coaching, and heterogeneous groups can help each other in the learning process. In my experience, this method has been the most effective way to encourage a positive exchange for collective learning in a classroom community.

The seating chart is an underrated tool that can help turn a good learning environment into a great one. While there is no clear model for where to place students, if done correctly, a well-thought-out seating chart fosters an effective classroom environment that allows students to maximize their learning potential.





Filed under how teachers teach

3 responses to “Seating Charts and the Grammar of Schooling

  1. Carl Malartre

    Thanks a lot for sharing this Larry and Kevin!

    In the even bigger picture, later in life, students are liberated from this management at the college level and then re-introduced to it when they get on the job market. Managers assign desks to employees and also create a culture, not an office. There is then a struggle: managers seeks to discover why employees are not empowered and could try to push down authority to those who knows, with self-organizing teams and hot desking (with all their pros and cons) being the ultimate expression of this.

    I’m also curious about the note on teachers getting informations from previous teachers as a possible positive outcome. School memory of student behaviour sounds to me like a potential problem were teacher biases on students keep a bad label on them for a long time, specially when context is missing « don’t put these two together ».

  2. Pingback: Headlines Around the World: Back to School 2019 Edition | International Education News

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