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.