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It was my third year of teaching and I remember struggling to get my year 4 class to focus consistently. There wasn’t any particular bad behaviour, only low-level disruption that I couldn’t quite nail.
Eager to try something new, I arranged my tables in horizontal rows facing the front. It worked: behaviour rapidly improved. On the second day, the deputy head walked in and saw the layout. Obviously not happy, she pulled me to one side and said ‘that’s not how we do things here. That looks appalling to anyone that walks in – it looks like we don’t do collaborative learning, and we do.’
Nearly a decade on, it still raises my blood pressure thinking about that episode. Did she have a point though? Is there anything we can learn from what the best performers in world education do?
Although PISA isn’t the best way of judging an education system (see my blog here), South Korea is certainly doing well. When watching the excellent BBC documentary ‘School Swap: Korea Style’, I noticed that most of the classrooms were arranged in rows. Also, from personal experience visiting Finnish schools, the majority of classrooms are arranged in traditional forward-facing layouts. It’s important to note that Finland prides itself on equality and social cohesion (Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, 2012). Finally, one clear aim of teachers in our eTwinning classroom design project was to promote student collaboration. However, many described how their classrooms were arranged in rows. From what’s been drummed into British teachers, this would seem counter-intuitive. However, if you look the at the research, it’s clear that rows don’t have to mean individualism and that grouped tables don’t necessarily mean collaboration.
What’s the problem with grouped tables?
You’ve probably all felt it yourself despite trying to push it to the back of your mind: grouped tables tend to be harder to manage. It’s backed up with a lot of research too. In one study (Wheldall, 1981), off task and off-task behaviour (defined by the quantity of ‘talk-outs’ and attention to the appropriate material amongst other indicators), was observed in a UK primary school classroom. The author found that on-task behaviour was more likely to occur in rows (88%) as opposed to groups (67% and 72%).
In a number of studies, group working is shown to be effective only when teachers plan for it deliberately. Gillies (2016) says that ‘group goals’ must be assigned and individual accountability emphasised otherwise there’s a tendency for groups to ‘implode’. Think back to your last staff meeting/training session: it’s all too common for one or two members of a group to do all the work, leaving the rest to relax unchallenged. To combat this, group skills need to be taught (for younger children) or negotiated (for older students). Left to their own devices, students aren’t likely to engage in quality group interactions (Meloth & Deering, 1999). Therefore, as teachers, we should either plan for more of these opportunities or accept that there are better methods for the majority of what we are doing. It’s clear to me that the British dogma of grouped tables doesn’t necessarily amount to better learning.
Be creative with layouts
That doesn’t mean that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater: there are clear benefits to certain layouts and we should be creative in how we use them. Betoret et al (2004) describe 5 main types (although there are many variations – more on that later). Horizontal rows and vertical rows (A and B on the picture) are best suited to individual tasks such as writing or grammar exercises. The ‘U’ shape (C on the picture) is best class discussions and group analysis. Pictures D (table islands) and E (a hybrid of groups and rows) are more suited to group tasks (albeit with the planning discussed above). On the picture, I’ve put arrows which show the potential relationship between student and teacher activity and individual and collaborative activity (although this very much depends on your expectations and the tasks planned for).
So, with group learning only being effective when clearly and deliberately planned and rows promoting better behaviour, is there a way we can have our cake and eat it? The hybrid layout (E) points to the creative use of classroom layouts, something we could learn a lot from in Britain. Sevgi Altun Dílek, (a Turkish teacher from Kütahya Social Sciences High School involved in our eTwinning project), employs a simple tweak in the direction of his tables. Sevgi explained that ‘it works well with role-playing and other physical activities’, because ‘the students can easily see and communicate with each other’ while the photo next to it is a lovely illustration of how slanting the tables has managed to capture a middle-ground between student interaction and focussed direct instruction.
Meanwhile, Sónia Maria Vicente Catarino de Araújo (from Secundária Dr. Serafim Leite school in Portugal), uses a U-shaped / horizontal row hybrid with space for teacher-directed group learning at the front. This effective tweak has allowed for a great deal of flexibility. Sónia explained that ‘as the layout of the room changes according to the needs of the activity to be performed, the layout will allow different learning experiences to be developed.’ Such classroom transitions might strike fear in your heart, but it needn’t be stressful or time-consuming (as discussed in a previous blog).
So it is possible to have a classroom with student collaboration and focussed individual work. With creative design, clear planning and slick transitions, we can have our cake and eat it. I only wished my old deputy head knew that.
BBC (2017) School Swap: Korea Style. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b084mld3 Watched 1st February 2017.
Betoret, FD and Artiga, AG, 2004. Trainee teachers’ conceptions of teaching and learning, classroom layout and exam design. Educational Studies; (30) 4.
Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, 2012. Education in Finland: Finnish education in a nutshell. http://www.oph.fi/download/146428_Finnish_Education_in_a_Nutshell.pdf accessed 23rd February 2017.
Gillies, R (2016). Cooperative Learning: Review of Research and Practice. Australian Journal of Teacher Education Volume. 41:3
Meloth, M., & Deering, P. (1999). The role of the teacher in promoting cognitive processing during collaborative learning. In A. O’Donnell & A. King (Eds.), Cognitive perspectives on peer learning (pp. 235-255). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Wheldall, K; Morris, M; Vaughan, P; Ng, Y (1981). Rows Versus Tables: an example of the use of behavioural ecology in two classes of eleven‐year‐old children. Educational Psychology 1:2 p171-184