I love it when a seating plan comes together...
In the first Teach East blog of 2022, Director Henry Sauntson explores some thinking and research behind classroom dynamics - in particular seating arrangements - and the potential impact on teachers starting out in the profession.
Early Career Teachers - particularly those in the Secondary sector - find themselves in a difficult position at the present time; where do they stand? By this, I mean literally - where do they actually stand in a classroom that is no longer strictly and rigidly bound by the confines of social distancing and the limitations of movement that prevent circulating the learning environment, checking for understanding, managing behaviour before it manifests?
The ITE cohorts of 19/20 and 20/21 in particular learnt much about the art of sedentary (in a physical sense) teaching, rooted to a screen and delivering to a virtual world; yet, so much of success in teaching comes in the management of the non-verbal, the ergonomics of the environment.
Graham Nuthall refers to three ‘different, but interacting’ worlds in the classroom. Firstly, the public world, managed and overseen by the teacher - visible routines, tangible structures and positions, observable aspects; the second is the semi-private world of what he calls ‘on-going peer relationships’, the roles and status fostered and maintained by the students; thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, there is the private world of the students’ minds, uncontrollable by any but themselves but wherein lies all their self-belief, their attitudes, their opinions, experiences, perceptions and, most importantly, knowledge. After all, it is in this world that the learning actually takes place; we must construct and maintain classroom habitats that foster its growth and keep it fed and watered, not that put it at risk and compromise its efficiency.
Learning is highly contextual and highly cultural, and certainly very individual; we as teachers must learn to manage not only the cognitive environment through our pedagogical content knowledge, but also the socio-emotional environment of the humans that dwell within it. Of Nuthall’s worlds, the focus here lies on the first, the Public world. In particular, let us refer to the physical environment of the classroom itself, into which we must immerse ourselves in order to truly understand and manage it; after all, to be efficient and effective one must also be culturally attuned.
As far back as 1913 Dewey referred to ‘fictitious inducements to attention’ in learning environments and situations; inappropriate diversions for learners that impact on the efficiency potential. In his work on attention and distraction, Hobbiss (2019) identifies ‘other people’ as the significant and majority contributor to the distractedness of a student during learning; he indicates to us, via Willingham’s memory model, that attention is the ‘gateway to cognition’, and as such we as teachers must be effective gate-keepers - we must manage it as a thoroughfare, ensure appropriate traffic, limit bottle-necks and jams, keep the flow of knowledge at a steady rate. Too much traffic causes a jam.
There is so much potential traffic that may gather at the gateway that we have to be very alert in our traffic-control measures; much like, when we moan about being stuck in ‘traffic’, we must first acknowledge that we are part of the problem, not a victim of it. As teachers we can do plenty to manage the flow, not only through our selected pedagogies but also through our cognitive management, and, above all, our management of the physical space.
Too often a great concept falls foul of poor execution, and often the latter is brought about because of the lack of appreciation of the impact of conditions and ergonomics; the physical world of the classroom itself, and its layout, and where we are within it at any one time.
Shulman (2000) suggests that the very essence of pedagogy is ‘putting the inside out, working on it together…then putting the outside back in’. This process can only be efficiently realised if the workshop - the classroom - is itself fit for purpose. On screens and behind Teams calls the classroom is infinite, its walls are of blank, unending canvas; its resources unlimited. No one ever runs out of glue when teaching online, nor do they have to constantly remind students to face the front…
In working with trainee teachers in the past few years I have myself learnt much about proximity and the non-verbal; the power of a movement, the ways that focus can be channeled and distractions quashed by the art and subtlety of classroom positioning; the craft of the teacher as a physical embodiment of instruction. After all, as Brian Eno rightly points out, ‘Craft is what enables you to be successful when you’re not inspired’...
Take, for example, the seating plan. A rudimentary, basic document in all reality, but one with which many new and Early Career teachers will not be as familiar as they could be, because of the enforced limitations to their physical classroom practice in realistic spaces - the requirement to teach to the corners from behind the measured safety of the black & yellow tape, perhaps in a non-specialist setting. How many newer Science teachers wish they had had the opportunity for more practicals in actual classroom labs, for example? Practice - and failure - make permanent, after all. No practice, no developing competence, let alone expertise.
In their 2008 paper, Wannarka & Ruhl explored the research behind the power of seating design on academic and behavioural outcomes in classrooms; this research forms the basis of a session we include for Secondary ITT at Teach East, as we acknowledge that not everything in the classroom is transient or rooted in pedagogy; sometimes decisions must be made before the pedagogical ones to ensure that said pedagogical decisions have the opportunity to be successful. Among many insights, Wannarka & Ruhl summarise the following, for me vital, aspects of seating plans and classroom layout:
Firstly, ‘the physical arrangement of the classroom has the potential to encourage desirable behaviour’; seems obvious, but how often do we properly consider it as a new teacher when we are still getting to grips with lesson planning and resource creation? It seems so basic, but without secure basics we get no complexities or nuance. Wannarka & Ruhl remind us too, of the antithesis; physical arrangements can also ‘contribute to students’ misbehaviour’; we are often quick to blame the students - their attitude, their attention span, their choices - but how often do we turn the mirror on ourselves and our own practice? Are we fulfilling our role as gatekeeper to the best of our ability?
We are reminded by the research that ‘unlike any other factors…seating arrangement is one factor that is typically under teacher control’. It’s in the Public World, of course.
Further findings were as follows:
‘A student’s location in the classroom is related to the number of questions received from the teacher’, and ‘students at the back of the classroom tend to interact more with each other more frequently than those seated at the front’. Again, seems obvious, but only from experience; the key phrase to conclude the latter statement is that such peer-to-peer interaction has the potential to adversely impact ‘their attention to the task in hand’. By not acknowledging the ways in which our decisions about the Public World we can control can impact on the Semi-Private and Private worlds we cannot, we do our students a disservice; we hinder their chances; we cap their opportunities.
Wannarka and Ruhl suggest also that we focus on the stimulus conditions, i.e. those decisions and actions that preempt the behaviour, as opposed to the consequences of the behaviour itself; this may, as they state, ‘help teachers discretely prevent problem behaviours before they occur and avoid utilising unnecessary intrusive interventions’. We get ahead of their decision-making; we create the climate for positive cultures to grow.
The research concludes that ‘because proximity and orientation influence communication, it is possible that desk configuration impacts on the nature and extent of student interaction’. Now we can encourage some more student interaction and are less bound - at least physically - by the enforced limitations of the environment in which we work, we must work hard to help new teachers understand the benefits of investing time in decision-making from an aesthetic, physical perspective; we need them to have the necessary knowledge and understanding to make informed decisions about what aspects of classroom layout and seating dynamic will best meet the instructional needs of their students in their different settings and environments.
Ultimately, from a proactive perspective, teachers will adapt the seating arrangement (and where students are positioned within it) to best accommodate the type of behaviour that best fits the academic aim of the chosen task; however, where this is not possible a more pragmatic approach will allow the better-trained and supported teacher to reverse the process, changing the nature of the task design and the modality of instruction to best suit the established conditions, and in so doing ensuring that learning potential - the Private World of the student - is maximised; getting better at being the gate-keeper to the all-important attention and focus.
I personally have found great empowerment through adapting my seating plans to suit the ever-shifting sands of the Semi-Private World of student interactions, and also in optimizing the environment to suit my own idiosyncratic, unique instructional approach; perhaps not until we truly know ourselves and our parameters as teachers can we truly take full control here. It’s because of where I put the desks and place the students that I have places myself to stand; I can instruct from different angles, manage interactions through proximity alone, consider such things as lines of sight and clarity of material by immersing myself in the room alongside my students.
To support this growing knowledge, I encourage trainees to consider their layouts, and to control what they can; if they can’t change the layout or the seating plan, can they adapt the task or make a different instructional decision? Mentors can engage in discussion and share their thinking, explaining why they have their room set up in the way that they do, and how they ensure greater efficiency - speed of transitions, proximity to resources, lines of sight for practical demonstrations, reduced opportunities for distraction - in their teaching. Only through observation of - and discussion with - experts and those with experience will trainees and early teachers gain the confidence to make the decisions for themselves, and they must of course fail, but fail better every time.
When you hit on a seating arrangement that works, and the students slot in to it perfectly, the dynamics of your teaching change; you are energised, empowered, enthused. One size fits very few, but when you find your own style, in your own contexts and domains, stick to it.
-Wannarka, R. and Ruhl, K. (2008); Seating arrangements that promote positive academic and behavioural outcomes: a review of empirical research; NASEN; 23 / 2, May 2008, 89-93
-Hobbiss, M. H. (2019). Attention, Mindwandering and Mood: relating personal experiences in daily life and in the classroom to laboratory measures. UCL, UK
-Graham Nuthall (2007); The HIdden Lives of Learners; NZCER Press
-Shulman, L.S (2000); Teacher Development: Roles of Domain Expertise and Pedagogical Knowledge; Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology; 21 (1); 129 - 135