1. Rows of desks arranged for teacher-centred Direct Instruction dominate classroom arrangements in second level classrooms.
2. Clusters of desks with four or six students around a desk are most common at elementary level; however, teacher-centred Direct Instruction is still the dominant teaching method.
3. In both instances, seating arrangements were viewed as fixed by the teachers using them.
While there may be no right or wrong spatial arrangement, there are undoubtedly major differences how our students interact with and are influenced by the set-up of the classroom. For example, John Hattie in his list of effects that impact upon student achievement lists Direct Instruction (DI) as one of the leading (ES=0.59) influences on achievement. Most teachers who adopt a DI method will arrange desks into rows. Rows reduce contact between students and raise concentration on individual tasks. They also focus the attention of the student onto the teacher. However, while student academic achievement may increase (where DI is correctly employed!), social contact and interactions can be negatively affected. For example, Koneya (1973) found that in classrooms with rows of seating, student participation was greatest in the zone where the teacher’s natural field of vision fell. Therefore, if a teacher sits at his desk or stands in a central position, those students across the front row and those back along the row directly in front of him will demonstrate greatest engagement. He called this the central zone of participation and he found that where students were moderately engaged, their engagement in class could be increased by moving them into this zone. However, engagement levels were not increased by moving students with low engagement into these areas. In 1982, Haber further found that minority students were more likely to sit outside the zone of participation. Thus if a teacher employs DI only to increase academic achievement, he risks losing minority and low-motivation students if he is not highly conscious of their seating dynamics.
Hattie (2009, 205-206) has neatly highlighted the seven steps involved in effective DI.
1. … sets learning outcomes
2. … sets success criteria and informs students
3. … hooks interest in the task
4. … consciously manages the lesson through modelling, checking for understanding etc.
5. … provides opportunity for guided practice
6. … provides closure on the task
7. … provides tasks/time for independent practice.
The problem is that too often rows of seating are used as a “management” tool, as a means of controlling the class by having them sit still in relative isolation, thus reducing the potential for disruption. Seating arrangements come to be fixed and teachers simply lecture the students. Many teachers comfort themselves by believing that they are conducting DI when they are not. The result is not only the marginalisation of minority and low-motivation students, it is having done this without the benefits in academic achievement that could possibly be won through the effective implementation of DI.
It is also important not to believe that in every elementary school where student desks are arranged into clusters of 4-6 students, Inquiry-based learning is taking place. Again, in my observations, though clusters dominate in the elementary classroom, Lecturing/DI is the dominant teaching method. This is a particularly unfair situation for the young child to find himself in because the seating arrangement indicates to him that he will be involved in cooperative learning practices such as Inquiry or Project-Based Learning (PBL). Instead, he is disciplined or told not to communicate with others and focus on individual tasks while his friends are so tantalisingly close. This sends mixed signals to the individual student. His physical and psychological interaction with the physical space of the classroom does not align with the teacher’s intentions and this can lead to confusion and conflict.
Where teachers engage in Inquiry or PBL, students must be prepared in advance to ensure that they understand that while social contact and building interpersonal relationships with all members of the class is highly valued, it is collaboration above all that the teacher hopes to promote, that is the directing of the positive elements of teamwork – communication, multiple perspectives, different attitudes, ideas and skills – orientated towards an academic task.
Find more on how to promote collaboration in the classroom here.
Haber, G.M. (1982). Spatial relations between dominants and marginals. Social Psychology, 17, 92-98.
Hattie, J.A. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London/New York: Routledge.
Koneya, M. (1973). The relationship between verbal interaction and seat location of members of large groups. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Denver University.