Rows vs. tables

Students “work harder and are less disruptive if they sit in rows rather than in groups around tables, according to researchers at the University of Birmingham.

A team led by Dr Kevin Wheldall, of the university’s department of educational psychology, found children spent up to twice as long concentrating on their work when seated in rows and teachers found it easier to praise them and to refrain from disapproval.

“Time on task” rose by 15 percent when students were seated in rows instead of at tables.

A similar study in a special school for children with behavioural difficulties found that on task time doubled in rows and disruptions were reduced to a third of their former frequency.

Education Watch reprinted the study, which dates from 1982. With the emphasis on group work, seating students at tables is more popular than ever.

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  1. I never was a great fan of group work, finding that groups enable slackers to continue slacking and put the onus of completing the assignment on the backs of the more motivated students. And if you give one grade to the group, it just ain’t fair. If you’re going to use it, better to put all the slackers together and let them to the bottom as a unit. Why should they drag others down with them? However, I still use pairs from time to time just to break up the daily rhythm. As for seating in rows, I’ve found there’s no substitute for learning and class management. It’s supposedly “creative” to seat kids in circles, semi-circles, trapezoids, rhomboids, and at tables, but it doesn’t really help anything. I always hated to be seated in such arrangements. The study is right on.

  2. How about following the example of the adult work world, and seat students in cubicles? That would really minimize disruptive influences, and allow real students to work hard and concentrate. Of course, they would have no chance to socialize, the very raison d’etre of educratic education.

    And can’t the kids socialize on their own time anyway?

  3. Katherine C says:

    Wouldn’t it depend on the kind of work they’re doing? For instance, if it’s a class discussion it makes much more sense to seat them all in a circle or something so that they can see the person who’s talking and feel part of the group that’s discussing. On the other hand, if it’s an individual assignment you don’t want to put kids too close because most of them will get off track talking and socializing. Personally, I’m weary of most group work since there’s often the possiblity of one or two kids doing all the work while the other students glide along so I normally wouldn’t encourage that arrangement. Even so, if it’s a small class and can be highly moderated by the teacher, then for some things even that and the seating arrangement that goes with it can work. Maybe the key to seating should be to be flexible.

  4. Chris C. says:

    I don’t really buy the ‘kids slack off’ in groups complaint because that may be true in poorly-structured group tasks, but isn’t necessarily the case in more thoughtful activities.

    Certainly, a lot more is known know about structuring group activities effectively than 25 years ago (when the study was conducted).

    That said, I think tables are a problem. I see a lot of elementary/middle school classrooms that *only* have tables with 3-5 students sitting in a circle and this makes it very difficult to get all the students’ attention during teacher-directed tasks.

  5. so they’re just re-discovering what my 1st grade teacher knew in 1959.

  6. My first year teaching, I thought I’d be a cool teacher and let the kids sit anywhere they wanted. No seating charts at all. It went over big in September. By Christmas it was bedlam.

    For the last 25 years, my students have been been seated in rows. Nobody is allowed to get out of his chair to sharpen a pencil, get a drink of water, get a tissue or drop something in the wastebasket without first asking permission. And I call it a wastebasket, not a recycling bin.

    I haven’t been cool in a long time.

  7. “so they’re just re-discovering what my 1st grade teacher knew in 1959.”

    Unfortunately, this report is from 1982, but nothing has changed. The child-centered, mixed-ability, teacher as guide-on-the-side, discovery, spiraling, common-table seating, thematic, top-down education is as strong as ever.

    One private high school in our area is adopting the “Harkness Table” aproach for all of their classes. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, yak, yak, yakitty-yak, with the students treated almost as equals to the teacher. I suppose this could work in some instances, but for all classes, all of the time? Process dominates all. What happened to the teacher who really knows their subject and knows how to bring the students up to a specific and testable level of content knowledge, skills, and mastery?

  8. “Certainly, a lot more is known know about structuring group activities effectively than 25 years ago (when the study was conducted)”…is this really the case? People have been working in groups for thousands of years. Could you summarize what, specifically, is now known about this field that wasn’t known 25 years ago?

  9. Walter E. Wallis says:

    How about shock collars?

  10. There is nothing wrong with class discussions, when appropriate. The problem is, with most classes of one teacher and 30+ students, it doesn’t work. And few teachers are trained or equipped for intelligent Socratic discussions.

  11. georgelarson says:

    On a slightly different note, I found that in a group activity people took the task they already did best. People good in math did the charts and calculations, good writers wrote the reports, artists did the illustrations, and the noisy ones did the public speaking. That is fine in the real world, but in school it would have been better if people were required to work in their weak areas.