The Timeless Wisdom of Sitting in Rows

Some of the strangest debates or memes about education that pop up now and then are about the idea of students sitting in rows.  You don’t have to look too far to find people aligning this commonplace desk configuration along the axis of evil.  Only recently I came across a tweet that mentioned children sitting in rows in a list of features of modern schooling that included compliant, submissive…. It’s just the weirdest thing.  But it’s not uncommon. Sitting rows = factory schooling, 19th C, Gradgrindian, ‘Victorian’ – all intended as pejoratives.

But look:

Here’s the thing: sitting is rows is great because YOU CAN SEE EVERYONE’S FACE AT THE SAME TIME.  The reason classrooms are very often configured in this way is not because schools are old fashioned. It is because this very sensible, very human set-up has stood the test of time.  And it always will.

Human?  Of course it is.  When I teach, I want to look everyone in the eye; I want to gauge their responses, hold their attention; I want to communicate with them. All of them.  At the same time.  This is the most intimate person-to-person aspect of teaching: eye contact.  It matters; it’s powerful. It’s a deeply human element of communicating ideas and emotions.

Of course, this has a context.  I’m a maths and physics teacher. It’s not art or drama or PE.  (Let’s deal with the obvious objections.) And, of course, sometimes, I might have a reason for them to turn around to form bigger groups – most of the time the best group of all is pairs; you and your neighbour.  Sometimes,  I want them to get up and do some practical work. Of course.  Sometimes I want them to gather around in huddle to see something close up.  Yes, that happens.

But, most of the time, in the majority of situations when I am likely to be teaching, explaining, instructing, questioning – or getting my students up to do it –  rows work absolutely beautifully.  Is this about exerting my authority, sage on the stage, being in control, telling students things, asking them things…? Yes, of course it is.  That’s my responsibility.  Is this a miserable, oppressive state of affairs for the poor compliant souls at my mercy?  No. Not at all.  They can see me; look me in the eye, communicate, engage, interact, listen, learn, think… It’s all good. Efficient and effective, yes. And human – always human.

Ever read Graham Nuttall’s Hidden Lives of Learners?  It tells you a lot about peer influences in student learning – and it’s not all good news.  As I see first hand on many of my lesson observations, students sat in groups continually distract each other.  The dynamics of the peer space are strong.  I’ve even been in classrooms with up to half the students sitting with their backs to the teacher, continually craning their necks like Regan MacNeil but largely facing the other way, tuned out. Sometimes, grouped tables have been there so long, students have developed a group table culture with a mighty force field around them virtually impossible to penetrate with learning.  Our space; keep out. 

So, come on people.  Get real about rows.  The schools of the future won’t all be about interactive micropods and blended autonomous triads – there will be teachers who know things explaining them to students sitting rows, keeping teaching and learning human. Thank God.




  1. Hi, I always organise my classroom to have students sit in groups of 3 or 4 max. The tables are arranged in such a way that every student can see the board and I can see them when I’m at the front: noones back is ever to me. A way to avoid your so-called protective forcefield around students is to change the seating plans regularly (students love the random name picker on teacher toolkit as a decision maker). As a maths teacher I NEED my students to discuss problems with each other and learn from each other. Also if I need students to work in silence, they can do that with a set timer. School is also about students forming social skills, so if there is a conversation not related to the task at hand, of course I need to re-direct it back to the activity but sometimes it can happen. I hate having rows in my classroom because it stops students feel like they can move around and go look at other peoples work. It also reminds me of an examination room. I don’t like seeing other classrooms in rows because to me I can see what the lessons could potentially be like: chalk and talk. The only drawback to my group tables is that students can copy each other’s work more easily. And it being a small classroom, it’s can be more difficult for the teacher to maneuvre around the room.

    I haven’t been convinced by your article that rows are best, but I may do a little experiment and get feedback off students.. thanks for the opportunity to debate this!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I would have loved to be able to choose to do this, but have never taught in a classroom that was big enough to space the desks out and allow me or a TA to walk around.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Well said sir, I concur – I want to see how my teaching is going across to my students. When I’m talking I need their eye contact. They can talk about things when that is the activity.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We also sit in rows in all situations where we need to focus on something: theatre, cinema, etc., so we can see what is going on! Until we develop extra eyes, this will always make sense for students and teachers alike!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Tom,
    Thanks again for another great blog post. I’ve written two posts discussing the evidence and my own classroom practice on this issue…so far so good!

    To Dora specifically: I outline some of the evidence in the two posts below.

    Let me know what you think:

    Best wishes,


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your article is sound and logical, I agree on your presentation.
    The problem is that you looked at it from a teaching prespective.
    We are interested in learning and this doesn’t or is “a not applicable factor” when we do an evaluation of learning.
    Reverse role and tell me you are learning and not just taking in data by the gallons; most just “down the stuff without thinking.


    • Perhaps not if they’re sat facing the opposite direction.

      You could also say you see everyone’s face at the same time because light is reflecting off their faces and into your eyes, but it might not be useful.


  7. I agree with this seating arrangement and as you do I switch it up every 9 weeks. Sitting arrangements in groups of 4 are grest while the activity is designed for that type a arrangement. But for other activities it creates too many distractions. I know that every arrangement has its own merits but the rows have worked best for me, I am glad that your article states the benefits of doing this!


  8. Interesting collection of comments here. I’d just like to add one more thing:

    In all the classrooms I’ve taught in, I’ve never found that the desks were bolted to the floor. In other words, there’s no reason that seating can’t be flexible. If you need eyes up front, then ask student to arrange the desks into rows. If you need them to work collaboratively, ask them to move into groups. It’s not that hard to have two (or even three) seating arrangements that students are able to move into with a moment’s notice.

    This also makes it fairly obvious what kind of teaching and learning are prioritized at different points of the lesson, which could very well help with student behavior (“we’re in rows, now’s not the time for side conversations”).

    Rows or groupings don’t bother me. What bothers me is rigidity. The seating arrangement should be flexible and match the purpose of the learning.

    I’d also echo Johannes’ comments that your post seems overly focused on teaching, not learning.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. There are multiple ways of setting up your classroom (not in rows) that allow you to see all the faces of the students; horse shoe, islands (if thought out and space permitting), a big circle. I also feel that the ‘obvious objections’ would could actually be the majority of school subjects:

    Language education

    So, is it not that rows have their place, they are not the enemy, but they are certainly not the optimal for all situations? Students spend hour after hour sitting in rows – variation is important.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Absolutely yes to have all the kids facing the front. I’ve done it all – group tables, horse-shoe, t-arranged three desk sets ups…have come back to the well tried and trusted method of them being in rows. I also find myself strangely moving back to books and work sheet hand outs and less reliant on technology. But that’s another blog topic.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s