Engagement isn’t something you can infer from smiling faces or a classroom arrangement. Engagement is what the brain attends to.Source: Teacher-blogger Blake Harvard
Should students sit in rows?
In my view, there are only two silly answers to this question:
- No, never.
- Yes, always.
The answer, as all sensible folks know, is more nuanced: it depends.
In my room, students sit in pairs, and those pairs are situated in columns and rows. This is what my Powerschool seating chart looks like.
I used to have students sit in groups of four, facing each other in pods. I found this sub-optimal, mainly because too many of my students were needing to exert too much effort too much of the time to focus on something besides the folks they were sitting at the table with. E.g., when they were doing things like this —
- Having a pair talk
- Listening to direct instruction or another student
— they were needing to put cognitive effort into not being distracted by the faces sitting across from them.
So, for my class, I find that the most learning-conducive environment is the one organized like you see in the seating chart above.
Anti-row folks would say that in such a room, students are being treated like industrial widgets. Community cannot be fostered in such a room. Such a seating format is militaristic or prison-like. In this kind of a place, it's all about the teacher, the sage on the stage.
There was a brief time in my career where I even bought in to this kind of thinking.
But then I started noticing row-seating classrooms run by competent colleagues in which the classroom vibe was
- Highly engaging,
- Warmly communal, and
- Deeply humanizing.
In fact, they were much more so than my own group-seating room was. And I started to realize that it was because I was placing such a tax on my students' effort levels by seating them in a way that wasn't best for the kind of learning work we most often do in my class (i.e., writing, reading, speaking and listening, knowledge-building, arguing — see my book).
In other words, it turned out that the seating chart wasn't the deal-maker or the deal-breaker. As comforting as either-or thinking can be with its black-and-white certainties, pedagogical decisions often resists dogmatic oversimplification.
And so in my room with rows, I find that:
- My students have less to tune out when trying to work independently.
- They can be comfortable when I am giving direct instruction at the front of the room, not needing to crane their necks.
- They can be comfortable when we're doing something on the document camera or the projector screen.
- They can still interact with one another every single day (e.g., through Think-Pair-Share, Conversation Challenge, and Pop-up Debate).
So, should your students sit in rows? My answer is that it depends on what kind of work they're most often going to be doing.
But in my room, yes: students should.