Let's all play musical chairs

Judith Judd discovers that arranging classroom seating to suit the task can have a beneficial effect on children's work rates
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The Independent Online
"You get more done sitting in rows. In groups you get distracted if there are two silly people sitting together and they talk and are silly," says Clare, aged eight.

Jonathan, who is 10, disagrees. "If you are doing a project like Kenya it's better in groups because you discuss more."

Children at Sonning Primary School in Reading, Berkshire, are debating the merits of seating arrangements in their class. For just over a year they have spent a third of their time sitting in groups and the rest with their desks in a formation similar tothe rows that were a feature of British classrooms in the Fifties and Sixties.

Moving the furniture became a daily ritual at Sonning after Julie Read, who teaches Clare and Jonathan, began to try out ideas from Reading University's department of education about the effect of seating on children's work rate. A study by Nigel Hastings and Josh Schwieso looked at two parallel classes of 9- to 11-year-olds in a junior school and monitored the "time-on-task" when chairs were arranged in rows and groups. The results show that children spend up to 20 per cent more time working when sitting in rows than when they are in groups.

The Reading findings are not new. Since the early Seventies, a series of research studies has come up with similar conclusions. Research in 1981 found that the children whose work rate improved most were disruptive ones, and that those who did least workin groups benefited especially from working in rows. Yet the studies failed to change the prevailing educational wisdom that children should sit in groups of between four and seven to foster collaboration between them.

The reception of the Reading research shows how the primary school climate has changed since the introduction of the national curriculum and the debate on progressive teaching prompted by Ministers' attacks on schools.

A number of schools are trying out new seating arrangements. Mrs Read introduced her scheme to cope with two disruptive boys. "They were beginning to annoy the rest of the children and I was spending a lot of time reprimanding them." The change in behaviour, she says, was dramatic.

"When children are sitting in rows you have eye contact with all of them when you are explaining something. When they look up, instead of seeing the child opposite and being tempted to talk, they see the teacher."

When she moved her desk to one side of the classroom so that fewer children could see her, their behaviour deteriorated.

The point of the changes, Mrs Read says, is to match the seating arrangements to particular activities. The Reading research does not back the argument of traditionalists that teaching the whole class in rows is best. Instead, it shows that it is nonsense, indeed cruel, to sit children in groups and expect them to work alone. It backs previous findings showing that many teachers are sitting children in groups and expecting them to work on their own.

A typical day in Mrs Read's class begins with the children in rows for a spelling test. That is followed by storywriting for some and handwriting for others. The break is the changeover time. "It's a good moment to move the chairs and tables because theywant to get out so they're quick," says Mrs Read. The move takes about three minutes. The children all know where the furniture goes in each of the two arrangements. There is chatter and clatter but the operation is orderly. If Mrs Read makes a mistake,the children soon put her right: "We have one more table over there."

After the break, the children work in groups, one group is sewing with a teaching assistant, another is doing maths. They are making different solid shapes such as pyramids and cubes and later decorating them. Mrs Read says it is useful to have them in groups when resources such as paints and paper are being shared. At the end of the day the chairs are moved back into rows in readiness for the following morning's writing.

The class does not look like a Fifties classroom, more like a horseshoe. To children used to sitting in groups, however, it feels like rows, says Mrs Read.

For Mrs Read's class the strategy clearly works but might not the musical chairs operation degenerate into chaos in some schools? Mrs Read, who has a conventional classroom, believes that it would be more difficult in an open-plan school, many of which have bays. It is also involves some extra planning for the teacher. One move a day is enough and Mrs Read admits that she sometimes changes the chairs by herself after school is over.

Mr Hastings argues that it is not the practical difficulties but an unthinking orthodoxy which prevents teachers from experimenting with different seating arrangements. "There is a kind of orthodoxy about what a primary school classroom looks like. It's a bit like men wearing ties. I don't think it's driven by any ideology. Teachers who have arranged their class in rows find themselves apologising when colleagues come into their class. Making the change takes a leap of courage."

Teachers' reluctance to make that leap seems incredible, given the overwhelming evidence that moving the chairs to suit the task makes such a difference to children's work rate.