Teaching Opinion

Situation-Specific Student Seating

By David Ginsburg — December 19, 2010 2 min read
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Would you go to a movie theater where you sit facing a side wall rather than the screen? Or a football game where you have your back to the field? Me neither. Yet that’s exactly what I did to my students until a colleague set me straight. And I’ve seen this in a lot of classrooms over the years, so now it’s my turn to set others straight.

The problem is that because teachers assign students to small groups for certain activities, they have them sit in small groups during whole-group instruction too. Some students, as a result, go back and forth between craning their necks or contorting their torsos to see what’s on the board and turning back around to record notes. Other students, meanwhile, don’t even bother straining to see the board, and instead either space out or socialize--no matter how much teachers exhort them to pay attention.

But pay attention to what? It’s only natural for students to focus on what’s in their direct line of vision. If students are seated in groups, the implication is (and should be) that they may interact with each other. If they’re facing forward, the unspoken message is that they should direct their attention up front. It’s important, therefore, to establish a procedure for students to re-orient their desks whenever you shift from whole-group instruction to a small-group activity or vice versa. And because it’s hard to get the class’ attention using your voice when they’re in groups, find a non-verbal way to do this. (A lot of teachers flip the lights. I preferred a train whistle--more fun, plus it was always at my fingertips thanks to my tool belt: see Strap on Supplies Rather than Search for Them.)

Granted, some circumstances make it less conducive than others to having students shift back and forth like this, but there’s usually some modification you can make. If, for example, your classroom is equipped with large tables rather than individual student desks, advise students who sit with their backs or sides to the board to turn their chairs for whole-group instruction. (If they need a writing surface, give them clipboards--some kids prefer this anyway, since they think using a clipboard is cool!)

And if this seat shifting sounds like a hassle, rest assured the time it takes for students to re-orient their desks/chairs (less than 30 seconds once they get it down) or for you to pass out a few clipboards is more than worth the positive effect on student engagement. So if you’re looking for a simple yet significant classroom change for the new year, make sure students never have their backs or sides to the action in your classroom just as you never do when you go to the show or a game.

Image by Monkeybusinessimages, provided by Dreamstime license

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