Group Seating in the Classroom: Seating Arrangements

Classroom seating charts are an art form. Balancing IEP inclusions, student personalities, and the unique group dynamics from one class to the next can present some tricky puzzles. Let’s chat about some fresh ideas for middle school seating arrangements in today’s episode.

Topics Discussed

  • Survey results about what’s working in other middle school classrooms right now
  • How to measure if a seating arrangement is working
  • What to consider when creating a new seating arrangement
  • How often to change seats


Edutopia article for L-shaped seating:

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Brittany 0:00

Hey Ellie, when you head into a lecture or a conference or a gathering of some sort, where do you tend to look for a seat?

Ellie 0:08

Honestly, I'm usually one of those people who goes right to the back of the room. How about you?

Ellie 0:17

For me, it kind of depends on my mood. If I'm eager to be there and want to learn, I'll usually tend to sit up front. And if I really don't want to be there, like a teacher in service, I'll sit in the back.

Ellie 0:31

Yeah, for some reason, I just gravitate to the back.

Brittany 0:33

Welcome to the teaching Toolbox Podcast. I'm Brittany, and I'm here with Ellie.

Ellie 0:39


Brittany 0:40

We're so glad you're here to join us for a discussion on various seating arrangements, their pros and cons, what the research says about student seating, and more.

Ellie 0:52

So to start off, let's think about what a seating arrangement actually means. So we're all thinking about the same thing. A seating arrangement refers to the layout, or the physical setup of the chairs, tables, desks, materials, and so on that are in a school classroom. When we think about the layout of the desks or seats in the classroom, this could be rows of single desks, or rows of two or three desks together. It can be pods, or groups of desks with four or five or six students, it could be tables with seats on only one side or on both sides. Or it could be different arrangements of desks like a U shape or a semicircle, or even a combination of rows and groups, there are so many different seating options. Before we get into some more specific seating ideas and the benefits of different seating options, we'd like to share some survey results, about seating that we each took in our Facebook groups and on Instagram. And here's what we found with these teachers.

Brittany 1:52

So I have a strictly sixth grade group. And in that group, 55% of the teachers that responded, chose to seat in pods for the majority of the school year. And then next up 17% chose rows of two. And then 12% chose various other organized arrangements like Us, or semi circles. 9% liked rows of three 5% had tables where kids received it on both sides. 3% were tables were seated, with kids seated on one side, and then only 1% had kids seated in rows of singles.

Ellie 2:36


Brittany 2:37

I did have one respondent said that she did pods of just three kids each. And when I asked her why she said that thinking classrooms did research and found that three people adds diversity and sparks discussion. But pods of four tends to break into groups of two and that's not enough input for true problem solving so I thought that was interesting.

Ellie 3:03

Yeah and now that you mentioned that I did read that book now that you mentioned it that sparking something in my brain. Interesting. So I did an Instagram poll, and a Facebook poll. And so I did not have as many options in my poll. My results are a little bit different. So I had my options were rows, groups, tables, or other. So I had about 22% say they did rows, about 39% That said groups 21% said tables, and then other was 8%. So that's very interesting. We both had like groups or pods as the highest. But my rows was much different than your rows. And maybe it's because you had more row options. Yeah, interesting.

Brittany 3:49

So we've got all of these different seating options. Is there one that's better than another? Or does it depend on your students and your physical classroom layout. So one of the respondents to the survey also shared that she loves groups, but that they don't really work for her in her classroom. And understanding that every arrangement won't work in every classroom will briefly share some of the research we found. When we dived into this topic. A classroom's layout can have a significant impact on the educational success of students. Studies have shown that one way to have a positive impact on engagement and academic success is to use flexible seating. But I can share from my experience that I tried flexible seating in my first year at an inner city school. It was supposedly the best Middle School in the district. However, the students and I we worked on doing our honor code we worked together on setting up our rules. So they had buy in and they had ownership of everything. But within the first quarter all my yoga balls had been punctured by pencils. And my little like lap floor desks had all been broken in half.

Ellie 5:09

Oh, man.

Brittany 5:10

So by October 1, we were in desks in rows. And no one was allowed on my couch except for me.

Ellie 5:18

Oh, man, I'd be really curious to hear some experiences of our listeners and see if it's similar to yours if you know, very, very different. So, um, that's a bummer. Sounds like it should be great.

Brittany 5:31

Yeah, I was over it.

Ellie 5:33

Yeah. One study that we found indicated that students will ask more questions if they're seated in a semicircle arrangement than if they're seated in rows. Altogether, circular arrangements can create more interactive behaviors. And so though they promote more discussion and problem solving, they might also promote more talking in general. So you see how you want to balance that. Another study showed that students who choose to sit in the back like me, reported three main choices for deciding their seat position. So if they have this choice, this might be what they're thinking about. One reason might be pure avoidance about 27% have that as a as a reason for choosing to sit in the back. 21% ish have pragmatic reasoning as their reason for sitting in the back and then about 18% have as the reason seeing and hearing the lecture, so maybe they feel like they can attend to everything better if they're sitting in the back.

Brittany 6:34

So the benefit of seating and rows is that it can create a more structured environmen, reduce distractions promote individual work. Rows can also make it easier for teachers to monitor and manage the class while providing all students with equal access to instruction. A lot of teachers feel more in control when their classroom is in rows. The seating arrangement is often preferred for activities that require independent work or when you're doing assessments. So where students need to focus without being influenced by their peers, you might want to change things to rows.

Brittany 7:15

And maybe that's one reason I saw a post on Instagram not too long ago that said rows are back in. And, you know, as you get into the springtime, I think sometimes teachers tend to go more back to the rows for that control. But if you think about group seating, one of the benefits of group seating is that seating students in groups has been found to foster teamwork, communication, and social skills. And even as you get into the springtime, and students are more chatty, they also may be better communicators than they were in the fall. And so you might want to consider sticking with group seating for a little longer. It encourages students to collaborate and share ideas and learn from each other. It also promotes a sense of community within the classroom. And it can help students develop important interpersonal skills that are valuable both academically and in real world situations.

Brittany 8:06

Kind of related to the group seating. There's an interesting article on Edutopia about L shaped groups, using four desks and creating an L with them. The article explains that this layout makes it pretty easy for all the students to see the front of the room, but also makes it easy for the students to turn and discuss and do group work together. It makes it easy just to turn and talk to one person in the L as well.

Ellie 8:35

Hmm. I like that idea. Because then the students aren't facing each other necessarily, but they're still in in proximity, and can have some of that conversation when you want them to. But they're not always face to face. You know what I mean?

Brittany 8:48

Yeah, interesting. And we'll link that article in our show notes.

Ellie 8:53

Oh, great. All right. Another thing to think about is the back of the room versus the front of the room, like how you're seeing students, and thinking about back versus front. If you're someone who's fairly stationary in your teaching, you need to take that into account when you're seeing the students. But if you're a roamer as you teach, then you have a lot more flexibility in how you see it students because there's not necessarily a front or back. In my classroom, I tried to teach from all the different parts of the classroom, I had a whiteboard in the front of the room and a smartboard and chalkboard in the back of the room. So I might work at the whiteboard, or I might work at the smartboard or the chalkboard and so there was not natural like front and back. I also tended to walk around a lot during class, so I was never stuck in one place. And in this way, students were never really in the back. So I would not have functioned well because I could not be in the back of a room like that. My desk was on the side of the room. So if I was even standing there during part of the lesson, then the back and the front, were on my left and right so Oh, yeah, just think about that, as you're placing students,


I did much the same thing. When I taught elementary, we had to be at an overhead for spelling. So I was stationary for that subject. But the rest of the time I roamed around and taught. When I moved to junior high, I had a projector and I could manipulate it with my iPad. So that made things much easier. And my desk was on the side as well.


Early on, I liked to move my desk. But then we had to be connected to the TV we had, the computer had to be connected. So there was no more moving my desk that really bummed me out, because I like moving my desk a lot. So what kind of things should should we be remembering when we're considering where and how to see specific students?


One thing to consider is whether or not you want to seat students heterogeneously. I have a blog post on the Kagan method, you do groups of four. But it's based on how a fancy dinner works, you tend to talk with those across from you. And those next few but not generally, those diagonally from you.




And so in this situation, you put students heterogeneously in the group based on their academics, or their scores on like a MAP test, or on a standardized test. And so you mix them based on their abilities. So you might have one really high student, one really low student, and then two middle of the road kids. And so you put the, the high student and the low student diagonally across from each other, and you put the two middle kids diagonally across from each other. Okay. And so that way, a middle of the road kid is helping a low kid either across from each other or next to them. And the high kid is helping the middle kids.


And you use that for a while in your classroom.


I use that for about five years. Yeah.


Okay. And that worked well?


It did work. Well. Yes.




But our groups, I will say our groups were already based off of scores.


And this is in math?


Yeah, that was a math class. Those were math classes. And so our math classes were already grouped according to scores.




so we didn't have very, very high kids with very, very low kids, it was already kind of a middle of the road class.


So is that it? Like it was like heterogeneous within more homogeneous?




Okay, that sounds pretty effective. Something else you can think about is, again, the back and the sides of the classroom might be a good place for students who have ADHD or who like to kneel or stand or move a little bit. If you allow them to do that, if they're in the back or the sides, it gives them some freedom to have that movement without disturbing others in the room. Or if, as we mentioned, there isn't really a back of the room, and maybe a corner of the room, you know, is the best place for those students.


Or if you have students who need to leave often for special services or whatever being near the door might be helpful to them, so that they are disturbing the class less often.


Right? I remember one of my last years of teaching that was in students education plan was had to be student seated right next to the door, while others are needing to be far from the door to minimize distractions like that might be in their IEP, that they need to be far from the door. Although one challenge I always had was that my heater, which was farthest from the door was really loud. And that ended up being more distracting. So I was like, Well, I don't want to put them at the door. But I also don't want them next to that heater. So somewhere in the middle, on a side, you know of the room might be better.


Yeah, you can't win in that situation. Some IEP say students need to be close to the board. But if you have boards in both the front and the back, or the front and the side, then maybe placing them in in the middle of the room is the best for them.


You might want to think about whether you want to let good friends sit together. This can have pros and cons. Some students who get along really well might get into some trouble together. But there could be other students who might be actually more willing to discuss and offer ideas to a group. If they have a friend in the group. They might just need that extra support, confidence, you know, to be able to share if they're good friends, but they're quiet good friends. And if you have time and you do groups, it's kind of nice to do like a little getting to know you activity when the groups are new, especially if you're going to want them to participate in group activities or discussions. I know there's not always a lot of time for that, but sometimes there are some quick things that you can do to kind of build group team spirit.


I never thought of doing that. But that's a great idea to just build some camaraderie, do a little activity where they can get to know each other.


The pentominoes are really good for that.


And we did mention in a previous episode about maybe in the fourth quarter, you want to sit friends next to each other.




if they've earned it.


Right, right.


You might also want to think about how frequently will you want students to work together or share materials? And do you want groups of students in a certain way for a particular unit or time period?


Right? And so if that's the case, you might find yourself changing things up a little bit more frequently?




you know, is there a good amount of time to leave students in a certain seating arrangement or to leave your classroom organized in a certain way, I like to change my classroom arrangement a lot. So I pretty much once a month, I would kind of get tired of the way the seats were, we would switch everything around. And usually I didn't just switch to where the kids were sitting. Usually, I switched the whole layout of the classroom because I would get tired of it. And I wanted something different.


I usually only switched desks around once per quarter. But once I found an arrangement I liked, I rarely switched that. I tend to be on the larger size so making enough space to get around and through all the desks was a consideration I had to make as well. And so once I found a layout that worked for me and my body, I usually just kept it.


That makes sense. And sometimes if students have have to get around in a certain way, if there's something that makes it easier for students that might have movement issues, yeah, then you might need to keep things a certain way. Sometimes I would let my homeroom students actually design the classroom layout, because I would be like, I don't know what I want to do next. And so they would often have creative ideas, sometimes more creative than mine. So I would say Okay, you guys draw up whatever you're thinking of, and then we'll look at it and we'll decide what to do. And so I almost always have like four or five students draw up some kind of arrangement, because they would want theirs to be picked, maybe like who I'm going to, I'm going to arrange the classroom. And sometimes I would just pick one. And other times, I might let my homeroom students vote. And I always did it with my homeroom students, because they were in the class, the most often, you know, they were there in the morning, and in the last period of the day, and then once or twice, and the other periods. And so then we would try the layout and see how it worked. And sometimes they even wanted to do like both groups and small rows. And so we did something like that. Another time, we had like, really big you around the room, but then some smaller groups kind of inside the you, they can get pretty creative with that, especially based on what they like and what they know, their peers might like. They know some people like rows, and they know some people like groups.


So that's really nice. That creates a lot of ownership and just a good relationship with the kids to do that. I did let my kids try to guess where they were going to be placed. And if they got the pod, right, I gave them $2 of classroom money. And then if they got their seat exactly right, I'd give them $5 of classroom money, and they let they really enjoyed that game.


oh, that sounds like fun. That's great. I never thought of doing that. That's good. So ultimately, the choice of seating arrangement should be based on the specific needs and goals of your class, taking into consideration factors like student learning styles, classroom dynamics, and teaching objectives. With so many seating options, it might be hard to know what is best, but if your current arrangement isn't working, try some different options and mix things up a little bit. Just remember to change your seating charts for your sub plans. So a sub doesn't get confused.


Yes, definitely. We included some gems today for your teaching toolbox. I hope you add them in there. Are there other topics you'd like to hear about on the podcast? If so, head to the teaching Toolbox Podcast website, choose the Contact tab and send us your requests. We'd love to hear them. We'll see you next time.



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