How Seating Arrangements Affect Learning

How do seating arrangements affect learning? What is the best seating arrangement?

The seating arrangements of a classroom have an effect on where students focus their attention.  To use a non-teaching example, imagine you are out on a date—the traditional dinner and a movie. Which part of the date do you expect to interact with your date more? Hopefully, over the dinner where you can look directly at your partner and read their body language. In the movie theater the majority of our focus will be on the big screen.

To take our metaphor back to the classroom the movie theater is a standard classroom with the traditional seating arrangement i.e. nice straight rows. Instead of the focus being on a movie however, the focus is on the teacher. This environment encourages a teacher centered style of teaching. The teacher delivers the material occasionally throwing out comprehension questions to the class by either calling on a random student or by throwing out a question to the class like a beach ball.

In my experience this method has a couple of drawbacks.

First Korean students are nervous and do not enjoy responding in this manner as they are afraid that they will make a mistake and look stupid in front of the entire class.

Second in a class of 20 students only 2 voices active at one time (and often one of those voices is the teacher) leaving the other students unengaged.

This standard classroom is not the best environment for teaching students a language for a variety of reasons. The most important has to be that language is by its nature communicative it requires interaction with another individual to exist. The traditional classroom environment also has a tendency to change students into “listening objects” engagement levels are very low and the students (especially at the back of the classroom) can tune out.

If, as teachers, we are trying to encourage active participation and use of the language, we need to change the classroom environment so that it encourages this. The easiest way to do this is to go back to our date model.

During the dinner section (where most conversation occurs) the students are facing each other and focused inward on the task at hand. We don’t always have to work in pairs in fact groups of four students working together on the task is the optimum size with a small space between them and the next group. The teacher then floats between the groups giving support where it is needed.

In this seating arrangement the students are more engaged because they are interacting directly with their peers in a small group setting.  If students do make a mistake the embarrassment is limited to a small group of friends who have also been making mistakes. This group model also effectively increases the number of students who can speak at any one time.

The group of four also allows the teacher to make use of jigsaw activities. These are where the students leave their home groups and join a new team to discuss or share what their team created.

One of the best ways to change student behavior is to change the environment to support the behavior you are looking for. If you are looking for a more interactive classroom with a higher proportion of student engagement, the small group classroom model can provide a great deal of support.

Some teachers do not have the luxury of movable desks or seats and so have settled for the traditional layout.  There are ways to get your students into groups even in these circumstances you must shape the classroom to how you want to teach please don’t allow it to shape you.