Seating plans: Are they worth it?

At the beginning of each academic year I return to school full of good intentions and keen to make an efficient start. I aim to be purposeful, approachable and fair… but I have always used seating plans (assigned seating) to impress my authority upon my new classes and to ensure that those with IEPs are appropriately placed to suit their needs. This year I will once again be nomadic, moving from room to room throughout the maze of the Ashburton. My seating plans will take time, effort and careful planning if they are not to dissolve into chaos as I try to reorganise my preferred arrangement to suit a variety of room layouts. So, is it worth the hassle?

Whilst having a seating plan in the first week certainly helps me to learn new names, I have been wondering what other benefits there really are. Do the advantages I perceive outweigh some of the drawbacks of placing pupils at random and potentially next to people they don’t like? Whilst there is no Oakham policy regarding seating plans, some departments seem to encourage staff to use them and some teachers swear by them. Others, like me, use them every September but gradually relax this hold over their charges as the year unfolds.

Much of the educational literature links seating plans to behaviour management for obvious reasons. Sit X at the front away from Y and under your gaze to avoid constant interruptions, or sit A next to B to help A keep up and stop asking so many questions…. However seating plans may create as many problems as they claim to resolve. I have unwittingly paired pupils that hate each other and may have even hampered the progress of some conscientious and hardworking pupils by sitting them with the more disruptive or less motivated students in the set. Boy/girl alternate seating arrangements may be favoured by some, but may equally intimidate or inhibit others.

So what do the experts say? Is there any research-based academic literature to support assigned seating arrangements?

The issue of ‘assigned seating area’ was first questioned during the 1980s when lecture-style classroom arrangements were the norm. There are some interesting studies from that time which link the position of pupils in a classroom and their overall achievement. Those who sit at the front or in the middle seem to participate more and do better than those at the sides or back. Should we therefore move our pupils around constantly to enhance the development of them all? These articles make for interesting reading:

https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED134603

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0013916580122008

http://advan.physiology.org/content/38/2/181

Further questions spring to mind such as: Does sitting students of similar ability together help them? Does matching a stronger and weaker student benefit one more than the other? Does sitting friends together encourage them to participate, or simply to chat? We probably all have our own ‘evidence’ regarding these matters based on personal teaching experiences. Surprisingly and rather frustratingly there seems to be little published research into this area and a lack of large-scale studies. As I previously mentioned, the issue is most commonly cited in the academic discourse surrounding behaviour management where the effects and implications of a seating plan are largely applauded.

An article in the Creative Education journal in 2014 cites some convincing arguments relating seating plans to good behaviour management. (Creative Education, 2014, 5, 519-524 Published Online April 2014 in SciRes). The teacher establishes their territory and uses their professional wisdom and experience to decide who might work best where and with whom. Easy to do once you know your class, but what about at the beginning of the year?

Allowing pupils to self-select seating, rather than assigning places does seem to have other drawbacks too. It can lead to segregation and grouping based on a social hierarchy that may alienate some pupils. An advocate of the seating plan claims that “when teachers don’t assign seats classrooms are often segregated by race, ethnicity, academic readiness, and gender. Learning should be a social endeavor and by assigning seats and groups we help break down these walls. “….. http://www.brilliant-insane.com/2016/05/4-reasons-teachers-assign-seats.html

Conversely, some students will certainly be more predisposed to cooperate and more confident if they are trusted to sit with their friends and can work alongside children they know. We all use pair work and peer support in our teaching and know that if pupils can help each other and answer each other’s questions, not only is their learning enhanced but our job is made much easier.

This conundrum is usefully summarised by Diane Weaver Dunne in
Education World® (2001). She says: “There is a very delicate balance between the teacher communicating a sense of territory (teacher in charge) and the students feeling comfortable and at home,”

In state schools many teachers use seating plans as a means of effectively and efficiently recording data for each individual. With over 30 pupils in a class, having a plan and using a simple shorthand when marking or questioning in lessons can simplify the process of gathering data and monitoring pupil progress.

There is certainly a lack of academic literature on the topic, but this website neatly summarises many of the pros and cons of using a seating plan and is worth a read: https://www.shmoop.com/teachers/classroom-management/healthy-learning-environments/assigned-seating.html

I also stumbled across http://www.happyclassapp.com/ which automatically creates classroom seating arrangements based on your students’ needs and relationships. This amusing website claims to generate plans that make the student happy with their seat in the classroom whilst meeting the teacher’s needs and preferences.

So, has any of this influenced me? I will be sticking with my beginning of year seating plans (probably boy/girl in the first instance) for ease and to help establish some classroom authority, but I intend to be flexible as the term unfolds. However I will also give my seating plans more consideration and experiment with pupils in different places, different groupings and even self-selection of seats. I hope I may encourage a cooperative working atmosphere, but I’ll keep you posted….! If anyone has anything to add on this topic please do stop me in the common room for a chat.

 

Julie Summers (29/8/17)

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