A primary headteacher recently asked on Twitter what research says about the most effective classroom layout, noting that her teachers had enjoyed teaching in rows during the pandemic. It’s a question that feels like it should have a simple answer ̶ and yet, as with so many things in education, it’s a little more complicated than that.
When one group of researchers interviewed teachers about what influenced their decisions around seating plans and classroom layouts, each teacher gave between two and 19 different considerations! These were primarily academic, but issues concerning behaviour management also came out highly.
And yet robust research in this area seems limited. There are remarkably few empirical studies that directly look at desk layout. Wannarka and Ruhl’s 2008 research found only eight studies in the previous 28 years that compared at least two of the three common seating layouts.
These three ‘typical’ seating arrangements are rows, clusters and U-shape (or horseshoe), and the first thing to note is that they lend themselves to different modes of instruction.
Rows are typically seen as the best layout for direct instruction approaches. Pupils all face the front, able to see and hear the teacher clearly, and the teacher is likewise able to see and hear them all clearly. Off-task behaviours may be reduced, and an older piece of research found that while students produced work of equal quality in clusters, they produced a significantly greater quantity in rows.
In comparison, a cluster layout may encourage more interaction during group work. A U-shape may offer some of the advantages of each, encouraging more interaction but also having a general focus on the teacher. Marx, Fuhrer and Hartig found that students asked their teacher significantly more questions when they were seated in a U-shape than in rows.
Classroom layout clearly also has implications for behaviour management. Wannarka and Ruhl found that in almost all studies they looked at, on-task behaviour was increased and off-task behaviour reduced in rows when compared to clusters. The one exception was where the task in question was a brainstorming activity, emphasising the point that the goals we are aiming for must be a part of the decision.
Other aspects of effective behaviour management and learning support are important considerations too. For example, it is likely to be helpful to have access around all sides of a row, cluster or horseshoe layout. This enables strategic placement as part of “walking the room” and ensures teachers are able to see and assess work in progress.
But what about where individual pupils sit? Are there any helpful considerations for seating plans, within whatever desk layout one chooses? Some research suggests that students in the front rows tend to be more attentive, are more likely to ask questions and to participate actively, though there is an argument this may be a case of self-selection in seating rather than a causal relationship.
Of course, the basics of a seating plan will include placing students with particular requirements appropriately so they have access to the resources they need. Setting a seating plan is also in and of itself a behaviour management strategy, communicating clear expectations and allowing the teacher to group or separate particular students.
Interestingly, one study also found that teacher-defined seating plans, in comparison both to free choice and to randomly assigned seats, led to improved outcomes overall – suggesting that (unsurprisingly) teachers are best placed to make these decisions.
So the best that can be said is that the research is patchy. But what’s certain is that it’s best to have a seating plan, whatever the layout. And that’s reassuring, because we don’t always have a choice about the latter, particularly if we teach in multiple classrooms.
Of course, layouts also tend to be subject- or phase-dependent. Labs, IT rooms, music studios and early years settings, for example, typically have their own distinct approaches – and expert teachers who are adept at making the most of these.
Learning from them remains a great bet for developing the routines that are at the heart of effective classroom management.