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A look at the link between classroom arrangement and cooperative learning

Written By: Jane Louise Evans
6 min read

Where are we now?

Having worked at the same school for almost two decades, I have witnessed many changes over the years. Seating plans, for example, have evolved from being mapped out in your head, to being scribbled down on a piece of paper, to finally being entered onto complex digital templates. What was once just a list of names has become a magnificent blueprint for the classroom. Seating plans are now filled with codes that signify everything from a child’s gender, special educational needs, and level of expected attainment, to name but a few. Teachers are playing the game on a grand scale so they can prove that they are ‘acutely aware of their (students) capabilities and of their prior learning.’ (Thorpe, 2012). However, is enough attention being given to how the room is arranged, rather than just where students are seated?

Were rows the way forward?

I know from my own experience as a student and a teacher that for many years, there was little debate; nearly all schools put children in rows. However, that all changed with the Plowden report (1967), which took the emphasis away from whole-class teaching and presented plans for primary schools in which the desks were arranged in groups, with children facing each other (Slavin, 1988). This meant that once the primary schools started to see improved results, secondary schools followed suit with CPD that focussed on group work.

Cooperative learning has been researched more than most teaching strategies. Research suggests that cooperative learning can be very effective in encouraging student interaction and developing positive attitudes toward school (Vaughn, 2002). This research has shown that the use of cooperative learning strategies can potentially increase student achievement and productivity (Johnson and Johnson, 1989) and have a positive impact on the social skills of students (Kagan, 1994). Social skills of students engaged in cooperative learning consistently grow in two major areas. Firstly, students involved in cooperative learning activities show an increase in working with others to solve problems, a willingness to help others, and greater self-direction (Kagan, 1994). Secondly, “through knowing, working with, and personal interactions with members of diverse groups … students really learn to value diversity, utilize it for creative problem solving, and develop an ability to work effectively with diverse peers” (Johnson and Johnson, 1989, p. 2).

The change in focus on learning also signified changes to the way classrooms were arranged. From my own experience, having taught in the smallest room in a school, where table arrangements were limited, rows became my comfort zone during my formative years. For years, I persisted with the format, maybe switching to a horseshoe and then reverting back because it never felt quite right. Eventually, given the shift in focus on teaching and learning styles, group work and collaborative learning meant those trusty rows or the reliable horseshoe plans of the past became diamonds, squares, and rectangles.

I was, of course, still aware of the needs and capabilities of the children in those seats, but wasn’t collaborative learning better? Didn’t the groups work well? I learned to live with the ‘buzz’ of group work, to appreciate collaborative learning and to tell myself that the communication skills students were gaining were worth giving up the feeling of control in having all children always facing forward. Results were improving across the school, children enjoyed their lessons and they learned from each other – what could possibly go wrong?

Facing up to the research

Marx et al. (2000) note that seating arrangements can be utilized to encourage desirable behaviour and interaction while limiting the opportunity for misbehaviour. Considerable research has also been conducted into different arrangements in the classroom. Wheldall and Bradd (2013) found that there is a significant advantage for rows over groups when students are completing individual assignments. According to Wheldall and Bradd (2013) in a typical study, children stayed on task for about 70 percent of the time when seated in groups and 88 percent of the time when seated in rows. This pattern persisted whether the children normally sat in rows or in groups, showing that the results were unlikely to have been caused by the children’s response to something new.

Moreover, the Chinese educational system is based on a Confucian framework which emphasises listening and individual hard work. In these classrooms teachers take the full responsibility of the classroom there is no room for student participation instead teachers are “regarded not only as authorities but also students’ moral mentors”, (Huang, J. 2009 cited in Fernandez et al., 2012, p49-67). In class, the teachers are mainly lecturers and students are very passive. They just listen to the teacher. However, a teacher’s individual instruction style greatly affects the selected seating arrangements. (Sztejnberg & Finch, 2006 cited in Fernandez et al., 2012, p49-67). Furthermore, a communal societal attitude, combined with a greater emphasis on respect for authorities, may, in fact, promote a more engaged classroom. (Lan, Ponitz, Miller, Li, & Cortina, 2009, cited in Fernandez et al., 2012, p49-67).

Studies have demonstrated that students’ location within the classroom can influence the amount of non-academic activity students engage in affecting students’ social behaviour and on-task engagement (Fernandes et al., 2011). Research suggests that non-academic peer interaction has the increased ability to negatively affect students’ academic achievement as the limitation of education distracters promotes increased retention and understanding (Ahmed and Arends-Kuenning, 2006). Unfortunately, this is what we were beginning to see in classrooms across the school. Too often what I and other senior leaders were seeing during learning walks was that teachers were no longer planning genuine group activities and instead students were being asked to work individually whilst sitting on a table with seven other students. Additionally, increased number of negative or passive behaviours linked to a lack of effort and this was pointing to the fact that the group seating arrangements were no longer working.

Time for change

Notwithstanding the research, I was still concerned that if I changed back to rows, criticism of my teaching style might follow. Would I be considered controlling, old-fashioned and opposed to change? Still, I was not going to let worries over lesson observations and performance management be a limiting factor in my decision. If pupils are all facing the same way, everybody can see easily, the teacher can see them and there is less opportunity for distraction. Students are focussed on what they need to do. Teachers can use non-verbal signals because they have good eye contact and can bring students back on task easily through immediate and timely questioning. Some might argue that students are not there to be controlled, that they are there to learn. But it is often the case that one can’t exist without the other.

With more and more teachers telling me anecdotally that students were less focused, talked across their tables at each other and were often off task I felt the need for change. So, I carried out a student voice survey, asking 150 students across 5 different classes and 3-year groups, their views on group work? I realised that most students no longer saw group work as work and instead most said they felt forced to do group work in all lessons when in fact what they wanted was the opportunity to work alone. A large proportion of students (60%) felt students talking across them interrupted their studies and that they no longer felt able to “just get on with it.”

So, rows became the norm once more in the course of one term the number of negative or passive behaviours across all year groups had decreased in all classrooms that have changed to rows. Students are more engaged and there is less off-task conversation. Teachers have a new-found confidence and are trying different things since changing their classroom environments. They no longer feel obliged to include group activities and instead only do so when they feel it will greatly improve the learning.

What really matters?

Academic Robin Alexander (cited in Maddern, 2011) studied 30 primary schools in five countries, found Indian teachers arranged children in rows, pupils in Russia worked in pairs, and those in the US were arranged in “work centres”. This and the experiences of teachers throughout England shows that there is no one right way to arrange a classroom. So maybe next year I will revert back to arranging students around square tables for decision-making, or horseshoes for question and answer sessions, or round tables for creative work. Perhaps I will move my tables around weekly, termly, daily.

What I do know is that no matter where I seat the students, my aim is always the same: to encourage the students to be the best they can be, to teach them to the best of my ability, to ensure that they learn in an environment in which they feel safe and supported. There is no right way to seat your students. But the wrong way is not to think about that individual class, the students within that class and the importance of providing a high-quality education for all.

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