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Group Seating in Primary Schools: an indefensible strategy1?

Nigel Hastings & Karen Chantrey Wood
Nottingham Trent University

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England, 12-14 September 2002

In primary classrooms throughout the UK, it is standard practice for children to sit around grouped tables - usually with four to six children in each group. Such arrangements are also common in primary schools in other English-speaking countries, Australia and USA for example. Precisely because this configuration is so normal and so well established in our schools, it is unusual to ask about its rationale or to question its appropriateness. In this paper, we will examine common arguments for group seating, find them wanting and, informed by evidence of the consequences of different seating arrangements, argue that primary classroom organisation should be adapted to support the actual mix of learning activities that children experience. Finally, we'll offer examples of teachers organising their classrooms flexibly, but also strategically, to support children's learning.

When teachers reflect on why primary classroom seating is generally arranged in groups, four reasons are commonly mentioned, viz.:

Group seating facilitates:

'Group Seating facilitates Small Group Teaching'.

The strategy of teachers working with groups of children within a class was strongly endorsed by the Plowden Committee. By spending time with groups of children, the Committee reasoned, teachers could adjust their teaching to the needs of the individuals within the group to a greater extent than when working with the class as a whole, while also ensuring that all children have a reasonable amount of direct contact with their teacher - albeit shared with others in their group.

If a teacher is to work with groups of children and to move between these groups, it makes sense that children should be seated together as groups and also apart from other groups. In this context, there is an evident consistency between what the teacher is trying to do, what the pupils are to do, the kind of interaction that is intended and the configuration of the furniture. So, group seating seems to be a good idea for small group teaching and, to the extent that primary teachers make use of small group teaching, this would be a good way to organise classrooms.

But how much use is made of small group teaching? There is a wealth of evidence, drawn from over 25 years of observational studies of teachers' and pupils' interactions and activities in primary classrooms, that is relevant to this question. We have in mind, particularly, Maurice Galton and his colleagues' ORACLE and related studies , the London Infant and Junior School projects , Croll & Moses' One in Five study , Alexander's Leeds Evaluation project , the six-year PACE project and a recent smaller scale study in Scottish classrooms . Taken together, with proper regard for differences in method and sample, these studies reflect both change and consistency in primary classrooms over the last two and a half decades.

All these studies examined how teachers distribute their time between interacting with children individually, in groups and as a whole class. (See Table 1) Groups have consistently accounted for just 10-20 per cent of teachers' interactions with pupils - always less than whole-class or one-to-one interactions (See summaries of this evidence in ). But not all of teachers' recorded interactions with groups will be for small group teaching. In ORACLE 2, just over one-third of teachers' interactions with groups were 'task-focused' and construable as 'small group teaching': the remaining two-thirds concerned 'task-supervision' and matters of routine.

Evidence from observations of how children's time is spent and, in particular, of their contact with their teachers also indicates that small group teaching is not much used. In Key Stage 1 the indications are that six to ten percent of children's time is spent in a group with a teacher. In Key Stage 2 the figure is around four percent . These studies all collected their data prior to implementation of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies and there are indications that teachers in England now do more small group teaching : but it still accounts for only a very small proportion of most children's time.

Returning to the claim that group seating is valuable because it supports small group teaching, we have to conclude that, while this may well be true, the limited proportion of teachers' and especially of children's time that small group teaching accounts for means that it cannot (alone) justify group seating as the standard seating arrangement in primary classrooms.

'Group Seating facilitates Collaborative Learning'

A second argument for arranging classroom furniture in groups is that the layout supports collaboration between groups of children. As with small group teaching, the essence of the argument here is that the physical context should support the teaching and learning method. We have no dispute with this proposition. When children are to collaborate in learning they need to interact, share resources, and so on, a group seating arrangement clearly fits the bill.

Again, however, while the case in principle is sound, we need to enquire about practice. We know that children do sit in groups and that the intention to stimulate and support learning through collaboration is a good reason to arrange classrooms this way, but are these intentions realised? How much group collaboration in learning takes place in our primary classrooms?

The same body of classroom observation studies is helpful here in establishing how frequently children are asked to and, in practice, how much they do work together as groups. The emphasis is important, as collaboration does not have to involve a group: it can happen in pairs as well as in groups of three or more. Indeed, there is a mountain of literature and plenty of evidence on the power of pairs working together, in peer tutoring or other peer assisted learning relationships e.g. .

The two ORACLE studies , undertaken twenty years apart, suggest that children now spend 50 per cent more time talking with other pupils than their earlier counterparts. But this is not 50 per cent more chat: all of the increase is accounted for by work-related discussion. However, even so, ORACLE 2 pupils were recorded as actively working with at least one other in just 13.5 percent of observations - and most of this collaborative interaction took place between pairs of children, not within groups. PACE data showed that, work related or not, interactions involving more than two pupils accounted for an average of just eight percent of children's classroom activity .

The theoretical case for using collaborative learning activities is strong and there is a good deal of evidence from intervention studies, especially from America, of the benefits of carefully planned and well structured activities requiring collaboration. For reasons well considered by others however, e.g. , , , the evidence continues to be that teachers in UK primary schools make little use of collaborative learning activities, which have been typically reported as accounting for less than ten percent of children's time.

In summary, the situation is that collaboration in learning has increased in use and that it happens mostly through pairs of children working together. Collaboration within a group of more than two is rare in most classrooms, as are tasks in which teachers specifically intend a group to work together. While children sit in groups they are infrequently asked to work as groups. When they are required or choose to collaborate, it is usually in pairs - which does not require group seating.

As with the argument from small group teaching, collaboration in learning within a group is a sound reason for a group seating arrangement. But the method is little used and therefore cannot justify groups as the standard seating arrangement.

'Group Seating facilitates Ability Grouping'

A third reason proffered for using group seating is that it facilitates 'ability grouping'. This is an interesting but different type of reason from the two already considered. Whereas the first two arguments are sound in principle, but inconsistent with the actual balance of activities in classrooms, the claim that group seating supports 'ability grouping' is just muddled.

Teachers differ in the criteria they use to arrange seating groups. Some create mixed ability or mixed gender groups; others go for homogeneity. Some focus on friendship clusters and just about every teacher will modify seating arrangements if behaviour becomes an issue . In parallel with seating groups, teachers generally also plan and teach on the basis of what are commonly, though unfortunately, called 'ability groups' . These two forms of grouping - physically in the configuration of seating arrangements and pedagogically through differentiation of learning activities by 'setting' - can produce coincident allocations whereby children in the same set sit together. But this is not a necessary outcome. Indeed, in many classrooms seating arrangements are deliberately planned so that children from different 'ability groups' sit together.

The fact that seven children constitute a ' Literacy group' does not require them to sit as a group - unless, of course, they are to work together or are to work directly with their teacher as a group, in which case the argument for them sitting together is that they are to collaborate or to be taught as a small group. Ability grouping per se does not need and is not facilitated by group seating.

'Group Seating facilitates Access to Resources'

The fourth commonly suggested benefit of routinely seating children in groups is that the

arrangement allows six or eight children each to reach and use one centrally placed set of resources, such as pens, glue etc. This is self-evidently true. If children were to be seated in separate pairs or in a horseshoe, for instance, resource sets would either have to increase in number or be passed more frequently between children. We have no challenge to this argument for group seating: it reflects some practical realities but it is pretty trivial as a justification.

Matching classroom organisation and learning

Of the four arguments considered, only the two relating to small group teaching and to group collaboration in learning are pedagogical and coherent. Both reflect the proposition that the configuration of furniture should support the interactions and the types of attention that a teaching strategy requires. The problem is not in the case they make for group seating for small group teaching and for collaborative group work, but in the suggestion that this is a reason for group seating being the standard organisation when these two teaching strategies feature so infrequently in classrooms. We need to ask whether group seating arrangements are suitable for the types of teaching and learning activities that feature most in primary children's experience as well as for these two infrequently used strategies.

Studies of primary classrooms consistently report that the 'typical primary child' spends most of his/her classroom time working alone. They also show that s/he gets most of his/her limited direct teacher contact as a member of the whole class, not as an individual . Table 2 summarises the general prominence of different types of activity as revealed by studies of primary classrooms. Even though teachers now spend more time working with their classes as a whole than they did even ten years ago, individual work remains the most common type of task for children when they are not with their teacher: it often accounts for more than half of a child's classroom time.

If working alone and engaging with the teacher in a whole class session are the most prominent types of activity, the suitability of group seating for these activities needs to be considered. Adults faced with a task requiring independent work do not generally seek the company of others at the same work surface, but this is how young children are asked to concentrate. Evidence from studies which have compared the impact of group seating on children's attention with that of other arrangements, typically pairs facing the same direction, find marked differences.

These studies are not well known within the teaching profession but reviews of these experiments reveal two important effects. Firstly, almost all children's attention to their individual work increases when they sit in pairs, or in configurations in which no one sits opposite them, as compared with group seating. Average gains of more than 30 percent are common. Secondly, the children who benefit most are those who are the most distracted when sitting in a group: many double their time on-task. When undertaking individual work in a 'rows' type of arrangement, the variation between the most and the least attentive all but disappears: in group seating arrangements, the range is substantial.

So, we have a situation in which the standard practice of group seating is well matched to activities that are little used in most primary classrooms but which is ill-suited to individual work - a conspicuously frequently used activity. What should happen?

What should not happen is a change to another standard layout. The important theme here is that different types of learning activity require different types and levels of interaction, behaviour and attention. No single layout will suit all of the varied types of learning activities that are to be encouraged in primary classrooms. Classrooms need to reflect and support learning activities and, where necessary, to change to match those differing activities.

The case for strategic flexibility in classroom organisation seems to follow from the arguments and evidence we have reviewed. However, the practical feasibility of teachers operating in this way might well be questioned, at least by those who have never tried it or heard of teachers who work this way. We have reported elsewhere on a project that set out to discover, describe and then disseminate examples of classrooms, and indeed of whole schools, where classroom layout varies to fit task requirements .

The teachers in the project work in very varied contexts and differ in their professional experience. Some teach in spacious classrooms while others work in cramped conditions. Some work in schools serving relatively affluent areas: others are in schools within substantially disadvantaged communities. However, in every case, their strategies have been developed to suit local conditions as well as the principle of matching seating to activity. Here we will simply illustrate the strategy in operation though the approach developed by two teachers. They have been chosen to demonstrate how the principle can be developed and implemented in differing types of school, in spacious and cramped conditions and with classes throughout the primary age range.

Matt: Yr. 6

In the first example, Matt has a small classroom with a class of 25 Yr. 6 children. Although the limited space considerably restricts the scope for using varied seating layouts, he moves between two main layouts and also occasionally uses graph paper to plan alternative arrangements to suit other purposes.

The arrangement used most regularly is a simple 'extended E' formation for individual, paired and whole-class work (Figure 1.1). It allows free access to resources, easy view of the whiteboard and enables Matt to move around to work with everyone. In order to ensure all children have access to resources without having to move around too much, each child has an individual 'tool kit' of resources for 'mental and oral maths' and a 'magic' writing box, or 'carryall' with dictionary, a rubber and a sharpener for English.

The second arrangement, for group or workshop activities, involves moving the middle two 'prongs' of the 'E' formation out to the sides of the classroom, to join with other tables(Figure 1.2). Matt uses the instruction "move to a group situation" with the children to move from the 'E' and "back to normal" or "back to starting position" to return to the 'E' arrangement.

This arrangement is adapted on certain days in the week when one of the blocks of 8 to 10 seats on the right hand side of the classroom is used as a workshop for the deputy head to work specifically with children with English as an additional language. As well as certain named children, anyone in the class can choose to work with her if they feel they are having difficulties.

The furniture is normally moved about twice a day, often for Maths and for Topic or Science work. As the planning determines the seating, for a recent Science activity requiring access to lots of beakers and apparatus, Matt tried another arrangement. A set of tables was set end-to-end in the centre of the room to hold all the apparatus. On either side of this long table were squares made of two tables, allowing easy access to the equipment (Figure 1.3)

As the school sets across the year for Maths and English, Matt has the middle target group for Maths, and a lower attaining group for English. As a 'Leading Maths teacher', he is also responsible for Additional Maths groups. This means as well as Matt's own class, other children are taught in his classroom and so need to be familiar with and understand the rationale for having different seating arrangements for different tasks, as well as being trained in switching from one arrangement to another.

Moving between arrangements does not take a long time as not all of the classroom furniture is moved. Images of seats being passed over tables this way and that would be unrealistic. Most of the tables stay where they are whilst others are rotated, and it is the simplicity of the change that is one of the great merits of the approach that Matt has developed in this classroom where space is at a premium. Matt has taught in this way across the KS2 age range and in classrooms of varied shapes. Thinking about children's working environment is integral to his planning which, coupled with high expectations of his children and his simple training techniques, has resulted in a strategy that children can remember and operate easily, and that can be adapted to fit any shape and size of classroom.

Melanie: Reception & Yr. 1

Melanie, the teacher in the second example, is the Deputy Head in a church school in a commuter village. She began experimenting with seating arrangements in her previous school when she had a "lively" Yr. 3 / 4 class. Having rearranged the furniture into rows as part of a project on "The Victorians", she noticed the children responded to this unfamiliar environment in ways she had not anticipated. In both class teaching and individual work, children were less distracted and concentration was better than usual. She continued using row arrangements for some activities beyond the end of the project and found the effects endured. A few years later, she heard a talk on the issue and decided to try using varied arrangements with a younger age group

Melanie has developed three basic arrangements for her classroom; each associated with a working style that she identifies by name with the children. For 'Group Work' the children sit in groups of mostly four to six, around two tables drawn together to form a square surface (Figure 2.1). For 'Large Group Work', when large surfaces are required, children can be seated in groups of up to twelve, around four tables (Figure 2.2). As the children sit at only three sides of the working surface, no child has their back to the whiteboard. This means both arrangements can support group work, work requiring plenty of space, and whole class teaching.

The third arrangement is referred to as 'Quiet Work'(Figure 2.3). When each child has to work on their own or quietly in pairs, the children sit in twos at single tables, spaced out in columns, all facing the whiteboard. Although the tables in each line stand separately, this formation could reasonably be described as 'rows', but it is not. By calling the layout 'Quiet Work' instead, the nature of the work and behaviour that it supports is immediately and consistently evident, and also avoids triggering the negative connotations of the term 'rows'.

Melanie's class, being Reception and Year 1, grows in size throughout the academic year as children reach their fifth birthday and start school. As they are so young and also relatively inexperienced in the ways of school, Melanie feels it is important at the beginning of the year to spend some time ensuring all the children are able to move furniture safely and can appropriately organise the classroom. In practice, the time spent in training the children reaps long-term benefits in terms of time saved throughout the year. Within a couple of weeks the children can usually move between the different arrangements in just under a minute.

Moving between the three layouts happens about two or three times a day. As the day begins on the carpet and moves into 'Quiet Work', the first move is usually to rearrange the tables from the "Group Work' setting that they were left in at the end of the previous day. The 'Group Work' configuration is used for most Literacy sessions and also for many sessions in other subjects. However, "Quiet Work', is used a great deal for Numeracy and for extended writing. Whilst, the "Quiet Work" arrangement is used less frequently than the 'Group Work' setting, the difference and the move between the two, does act as a clear signal for the children about the nature of the work they are undertaking and about the behaviour appropriate to that task and setting.

Melanie's example demonstrates again the significance of planning, simple training and tailoring practice to fit the learning needs of the children within a strategic and flexible approach to classroom organisation.

An Indefensible Practice.....?

The case for change to the orthodox practice of seating primary school children in groups is compelling.

As for the alternative?

The physical environment in which we ask children to learn affects their attention; and learning requires attention. The physical environment of the classroom is a tool for teachers to use. It can be, and it should be, used to better effect. Group seating is suitable for some types of classroom activity, but its widespread use as standard practice is indefensible.

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Website: A classroom organisation website, currently under construction, is planned to provide a growing library of examples of practice in classroom organisation and of teachers' accounts of their successes and disappointments in trying new approaches. It will also provide a forum for discussions about primary classroom organisation, teaching and learning. The URL is http://education.ntu.ac/research/primary_class_org

Table 1. Summary of observational studies of distribution of English primary teachers' interactions with pupils by context as percentages of all teacher-pupil interactions (.

     

% of observed teacher interactions with pupils

Project details

KS

Data collection

1-1

Group

Class

ORACLE .

58 classes

40 classes

 

 

2

2

 

Late 1970s

 

 

72

69

 

 

9

15

 

 

19

16

One in Five

32 classes

 

 

2

Early 1980s

 

 

51

 

 

18

 

 

30

PRISMS

 

1

2

Early 1980s

 

61

58

 

13

16

 

26

26

School Matters

Yr4 classes in 50 schools

Yr5 classes in 50 schools

 

 

2

2

 

 

Mid-1980s

 

 

67

63

 

 

9

11

 

 

23

24

INCSS

 

2

 

1989/90

 

59

 

18

 

23

PACE

Yr1 9 classes

Yr2 9 classes

Yr3 9 classes

Yr4 9 classes

Yr5 9 classes

Yr6 9 classes

 

1

1

2

2

2

2

 

1990/91

1991/92

1992/93

1993/94

1994/95

1995/96

 

45

49

57

55

57

44

 

22

17

14

13

16

17

 

33

34

29

32

28

39

ORACLE 2

28 classes

 

 

2

 

 

1996

 

 

48

 

 

16

 

 

35

Note: The PACE figures in Table 1 have not been published in this form by the PACE team but have been developed from information kindly provided by Marilyn Osborn.

Table 2. Contexts in which primary school children are asked to work and learn. (.

 

Working

 

Task / Interaction

 

Prominence in children's experience

 

With teacher

One to one

Very rare

 

 

 

In a small group

Rare

 

 

 

As a whole class member

Common

 

Without teacher

On individual work

Prominent

 

 

 

Collaborating with one or more others

Rare

Very rare = < 5%. Rare = < 15%. Common = 20-40%. Prominent = 30 - 60% of observed classroom time. Table based on data drawn from UK studies 1976 - 2000.

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Notes:

1. This paper is a much abbreviated version of the first three chapters from Hastings, N. & Chantrey Wood, K. (2002) Reorganising Primary Classroom Learning ; Buckingham, Open University Press.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 23 September 2002