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Desk Arrangement

  • How seating arrangements impact student behavior by Mary Damer, July 6, 2000:
    "...Results clearly show that an increase in physical space between students leads to increased on-task time and decreased disruptive behavior. ... Because fewer behavior disruptions occur in classrooms where students are spaced with more distance between each other, the teacher has fewer behavior problems to correct and can focus more energy on teaching and giving students positive feedback. ... Although a highly motivated, high performing, non-distractible student will continue to excel in spite of sitting in a pod, most students do not fall into that category."

  • Back to Front: [Does] It Matter Where Children Sit? The Guardian [UK], January 23, 2001. Excerpts:
    "According to Nigel Hastings, professor of education at Nottingham Trent University, ... anything but group seating is considerably better for individual work. 'We know from research already done that when the task is an individual one, if you switch the arrangement to something other than group seating the effect is to increase the amount of time the average child spends actively engaged in the task. For children who are most easily distracted, you could double the work rate.' Exactly what alternative formation you use is less important than that it isn't groups, says Hastings. 'The implication of this isn't a return to rows,' he stresses. 'You can have a horseshoe or an L-shape or another formation. The crucial thing is that for individual tasks, children aren't sitting opposite one another.'...
    What Hastings has to say sounds so much like basic common sense that it's extraordinary that we've spent three decades hardly questioning why our children spend their time working around small tables, some with their backs to the teacher and unable to have eye contact with the adult in charge. The status quo has become so orthodox it's rarely questioned - and what's more there's evidence that teachers are afraid to put different ideas they may have into practice, says Hastings....
    'Another fear teachers have is that rearranging desk formations will cause a lot of disruption and noise at the start of a class. But again, that wasn't the case in practice - we timed classes where it happened and the formation change was usually completed in around a minute.'"

  • "Pupils Who Face The Blackboard Learn More" by Laura Clark, Daily Mail [UK], October 9, 2000. Excerpts:
    "Many parents and educationalists who favour traditional methods have long suspected it. But now a 20-year study has confirmed that pupils who sit in groups are at a massive disadvantage compared to those who face the blackboard.
    Analysis of the research findings has shown that youngsters whose desks are arranged in old-style rows work up to twice as hard. Trendy teaching methods - in which pupils sit in groups in the belief that the learn from one another - can hold back learning by 50 per cent, say academics at Nottingham Trent University. The findings, based on studies which observed classroom behaviour, could change the face of primary school classrooms where group seating still prevails.
    Sitting around tables, children find it harder to concentrate, often have their backs to teachers and waste more time chatting - misusing as much as a quarter of the lesson. 'The distractions are not always about talking,' said Professor Nigel Hastings, who is carrying out the research with colleague Karen Chantry-Wood. 'They can be passive. For example, children just watching what somebody else is doing.'
    Children who changed to sitting in rows or pairs when they were given tasks to complete on their own improved their attention to work. One study put the increase in 'on-task' time at 124 per cent. The pupils who made the biggest improvements when they were moved out of groups were the ones who were the most easity distracted. Prof Hastings said: 'For the most scholarly pupils, there isn't much difference. The average child was affected appreciably and the ones least engaged in their work were affected dramatically. This could mean they were working up to the same sort of levels as the average child, in some cases doubling their concentration.'
    He added: 'We are not saying that sitting in rows is better than sitting round tables - it depends what you are trying to do.' Group seating can be appropriate for team projects, said Prof Hastings. The research team is studying schools that change the classroom layout depending on the sort of work children are doing. 'This can take as little as 90 seconds,' he said."

  • An interesting excerpt from a Tribune story: "Eileen Wild retired 10 years ago after almost 44 years in the system. Now she's mentoring teachers at Farragut Career Academy in Little Village. 'When you are a beginner, you need some guidance, so they brought back the old-timers,' Wild said. She says, however, that in her day the students were easier to deal with. When she began teaching in 1947, for example, students' chairs and desks were fastened to the floor. 'You can keep order this way,' she said. 'Now it's more flexible. It's much more difficult to maintain order.'" (Retired Teachers Pass Along Lessons, by Ana Beatriz Cholo, Chicago Tribune, April 8, 2004)

  • Excerpt from "Positive Teaching in the Primary School" by Frank Merrett and Kevin Wheldall:

      We have been able to show that simple manipulation of seating arrangements between pupils sitting in rows or around tables in top junior classes can bring about quite large changes in the pupils on-task behaviour.

      Since the practice was strongly commended in the Plowden Report, children in most primary classes in this country sit around tables in groups of four, five or six. The justification for this was that children can learn from each other through discussion and co- operation. However, for this to stand any chance of success the nature of the work set must be a group activity requiring collaboration. The reality is that whilst seating may have changed, the work demands have not. Much of the work set is still individually based, children being expected to work on their own, using work cards, for example. As a consequence, much of the talk in table groups tends to be chatter not related to the work in hand. There is a mis-match between the nature of the tasks set and the seating arrangements leading to less time spent on-task and less work being completed.

      We carried out parallel studies in two junior schools with classes of 10 to 11 year-old children. One class consisted of 28 boys and girls of mixed ability attending a school in an urban residential area whereas the other consisted of 25 similar children from a school on a council housing estate. In both classes the children normally sat around tables in groups.

      The children in both classes were initially observed for two weeks (ten days) in their normal seating arrangements around tables. An observation schedule was employed to obtain estimates of on-task behaviour. This was defined as doing what the teacher had asked, i.e. pupils looking at and listening to her when she was talking to them or looking at their books or work cards when they were required to complete set work, only being out of their seats with the teacher's permission and so on.

      After observing the class for two weeks sitting around tables the desks/tables were moved into rows without comment from the teacher and the children were observed for a further two weeks using the same procedure. Finally, the desks were moved back to their original positions, again without comment, for a further two weeks of observation. This time there were complaints from the children as some of them said they preferred sitting in rows.

      In both classes on-task behaviour rose by around 15% overall when the children were placed in rows and fell by nearly as much when they returned to sitting around tables. Looking at individual children, the most marked improvements (over 30%) occurred for those whose on-task behaviour had previously been very low. As we might expect, the effect was less in the case of those with high initial on-task behaviour.

      Subsequent studies have replicated these findings many times and have also shown that on-task behaviour remains high even after several weeks of sitting in rows. Moreover, we have shown that the quantity and the quality of work produced is greater when children are seated in rows. Let us emphasise immediately, however, that we are not advocating a back to rows movement for all children for all work. What we are saying is that teachers should vary the seating arrangements to suit the task in hand.

      Most of us would advocate that, ideally, children should be given as much choice as possible as to where they sit and with whom. In classrooms arranged in table groups this almost inevitably results in girls and boys being seated around separate tables. Similarly, in classes where children sit in rows children of the same sex prefer to sit next to each other. Teachers sometimes claim, however, that one of the most effective ways of curbing the disruptive behaviour of children, particularly boys, is to sit them next to a member of the opposite sex. The aim of the following study was to determine whether mixed-sex seating does in fact, produce such clear effects, in terms of changes in on-task behaviour.

      The study was carried out with two classes in a junior school in an inner-city area. One class consisted of 31 mixed ability children (16 boys, 15 girls) aged 9 to 10 years and the other comprised 25 similar 10 to 11 year-old children (13 boys and 12 girls). Both class teachers were female.

      In the younger class, the children were seated around six groups of tables. Three of the groups of tables were occupied solely by girls, the other three by boys. During the intervention phase of the study, the boys and girls were mixed so that boys and girls were now sitting next to each other. In the other class, the children were seated at conventional double desks, not tables. The desks were arranged in three rows and all of the children usually sat next to a member of the opposite sex. During the intervention period, girls and boys in each row changed places so that they were now sitting by a member of the same sex.

      Again, in this study the two classes were first observed for two weeks in their usual seating conditions followed by a two-week intervention phase. Observations carried out under the changed seating conditions were then followed by two more weeks of observation with children back in their usual seats. The results clearly showed that on-task behaviour in the older class, seated in rows, decreased (by 15%) when the children of the same sex sat together. In the younger class, seated in groups, on-task behaviour increased (by about 15%) when the normal same-sex seating was changed in favour of mixed-sex seating. The conclusion to be drawn is that mixed-sex seating produces the highest pupil on-task levels. Similarly, disruptive behaviour in both classes was at its lowest when boys and girls sat together. What also emerged clearly from the results was that children with the lowest on-task study levels were most positively affected by the change from mixed to same-sex seating.


  • Some additional references to books and articles on the benefits of classroom arrangements featuring separated desks:

    Wheldall, K., Morris, M., Vaughan, P. and Ng, Y.Y. (1981). Rows versus tables: an example of the use of behavioural ecology in two classes of eleven year-old children. Educational Psychology, 1, 171-184.

    Wheldall, K. and Olds, P. (1987). Of sex and seating: the effects of mixed and same-sex seating arrangements in junior school class- rooms. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 22, 71-85.

    Wheldall, K. and Glynn, T. (1989). Effective Classroom Learning: a behavioural interactionist approach to teaching. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

  • Back pain in young blamed on schooling, September 10, 2002. Both the Times and the Telegraph [both UK] report on a study carried out on back pain in schoolchildren. The study was carried out among 11-14 year-olds, and found that 49 per cent had complained of neck pain in the previous month, with 24 to 36 per cent suffering from lower back pain and 30 per cent experiencing upper back pain. This problem has been blamed on the way in which children now sit in schools. Instead of sitting at rows of desks facing the teacher, pupils sit in small groups facing each other, and have to twist their necks around to see the blackboard and the teacher. The findings suggest that today's schoolchildren face and epidemic of back pain in adulthood.

  • More Time on Task, Less Goofing Off by Fred Jones. The author makes a case for constant supervision and attention by the teacher, in both small group and separate desk arrangements.

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