It is standard practice across most primary school classrooms to group children around school desks so that four or six children sit together to work. Younger children may congregate on the carpet in front of the board for input and then return to their school desks to carry out their work; older children will typically listen to their teacher’s input from where they normally sit at their desks.
As this arrangement is so common, few teachers question it and assume that it produces the best results. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that it is far from optimal.
The main reasons given by teachers for group seating include:
- Group seating can facilitate ‘setting’ or sorting children by ability - children who are in the same set can sit together at a block of school desks to ‘work together’ on the same, differentiated work; placing children of mixed ability together at a group of desks can enable the more able children to support the less able children.
- By sitting the children at blocks of desks, a single pot of resources (pencils, rulers etc.) can be reached by all children.
- The teacher can teach small groups of children whilst the rest of the class is engaged in independent work.
- Children can work as a group, collaborating with those seated with them at their group of school desks.
Yet these reasons may be disingenuous. The reality is that when left to work ‘independently’, children rarely manage to talk quietly in groups. Teachers who may be trying to instruct a small group will often have to break off to remind children to keep the noise level down.
Grouping children at school desks often involves a complicated algorithm familiar to any teacher: which children should or should not sit together. In a class of 30 children, it can be very difficult to find groups of four or six children who get along well, do not fall out and do not chat excessively.
Furthermore, the majority of school work, particularly in KS2 and above, needs to be carried out independently and there are very few occasions where group work is genuinely required: a science experiment might require group work, but routine maths and English work will not. Therefore, the idea of grouping children according to ability might make it easier to distribute work but if there is no need to work collaboratively as a group, there is a strong argument that sitting children in pairs with a peer from their ‘set’ may be quieter and more beneficial.
Children have been shown to be more attentive and focused when seated in more traditional classroom layouts, such as columns of school desks facing the whiteboard, or in a horseshoe layout.