Two days ago I set up my tables and chairs for the new school year. It took me a lot longer and more thinking time than I originally planned.
Two years ago I was told to always have my tables set up so that children were in groups of four or six. In the summer term of last year, I began to question internally whether seating my pupils in groups of four or six for a number of reasons. Large groups (six pupils) rarely produced high quality work unless they had lots of adult input, which then meant behaviour started to slip with some pupils. Medium sized groups (four pupils) worked well for discussions (after lots of training in things like Kagan seating) but rarely for written work. Groups of two however, were often a very quick and easy collaborative way for my pupils to learn, once pairs were set correctly.
So, is ‘group seating’ of four or six pupils an effective enough strategy to have as default seating in classrooms? Does it stand up to research evidence? Or is it just a fad built on romantic educational ideas?
Further to my concerns, Hastings & Wood (1996; 2002) cite that teachers commonly mention three advantageous reasons for group seating:
- Group seating facilitates small group teaching
- Group seating facilitates collaborative learning
- Group seating facilitates ability grouping in lesson time
Let’s discuss each one in turn.
Group seating facilitates small group teaching
This strategy was strongly recommended by the Plowden Committee (1967). Their reasoning was that by spending time with smaller groups of pupils, teachers could more accurately adjust their teaching to the learning needs of that particular group of four or six pupils. They reasoned that the learning environment must support the teaching. In other words, learning can be more focussed when pupils are grouped according to learning needs, whether it is by ability or behaviour. By grouping children in this way, as a teacher it was seen as easier to direct the sort of feedback, both written and oral, that pupils need in a more focussed way.
But how often do we do plan for group work in our classrooms as teachers? Research from the past twenty five years reveals it is far less than we might perceive (see below for the list of research I am referring to). These studies have looked closely at the way teachers distribute their time between interacting with pupils as individuals, groups and as a whole class. Teacher interaction with groups of four to six children in lesson time only accounts for 10-20 percent – consistently less than one-to-one or whole class interaction. This evidence accounts for primary schools as a whole. However, when we look more closely at Key Stage 2, the amount of time that pupils spend with a teacher in a small group is only 4 percent across English and Maths lessons…
That’s 2 and a half minutes per lesson.
I am sure that sitting children in groups of four or six facilitates group teaching but if as teachers we are only spending 2 and half minutes per lesson interacting with pupils in groups – does it justify our standard seating arrangements in our classrooms being in fours and sixes? I think not.
‘Group Seating facilitates Collaborative Learning’
Another argument made for group seating is that is facilitates collaborative learning. Digging deeper, just like the previous argument, there is an assumption here that the classroom environment should support teaching and learning. I don’t disagree with this aim but I have a hunch that the method is flawed.
But before we do this, we must consider the meaning of ‘collaborative learning’ more carefully. The natural assumption is that this is a synonymous term for working in a group of four or six children; this may be the case on occasion but it can also mean working in a pair. Collaboration in the Oxford English dictionary is defined as ‘working with one or more parties to create something’. By this definition, pair work would definitely fall into this category. This is important, since I would hazard a bet that most primary teachers across the country get their pupils to ‘think, pair and share’ their ideas with others or get their pupils to ask their partner for help when they are struggling. Do we not consider this to be ‘collaborative’? For me, it is one of the core ways that my pupils are collaborative but I previously might not have defined it in this way.
The same body of research cited above is helpful for thinking through whether group seating facilitates collaborative learning in the broader definition that we have created here. Two ORACLE studies (Galton et al. 1980;1999), conducted twenty years apart, claim that children now spend 50 per cent more time talking with other pupils than pupils in previous years. This is not just 50 percent more chat though: all of the increase is found in work-related discussion. Despite this, ORACLE 2 pupils were recorded as actively working with at least one other in only 13.5 percent of observations – and most of this collaborative interaction took place between pairs of children, not within groups. Furthermore, PACE data showed that, work related or not, interactions involving more than two pupils accounted for an average of only eight percent of children’s classroom activity – still a very small amount in the grand scheme of a lesson.
In brief, if this research is true, it would suggest that there is more collaborative learning going on in lesson time in our primary classrooms but most of it is done in pairs. Even though our pupils are sat in groups, they are rarely asked to work in this way. Furthermore, the research shows that when pupils choose to collaborate, they often choose pairs – which does not require group seating. I totally agree that collaboration is important and that the classroom environment should support learning but this evidence would suggest that group seating might even hinder rather than support progress in our classrooms.
Facilitates ‘ability grouping’ or setting within a class
My final issue with group seating is the claim that it facilitates the grouping of pupils into abilities. The first two arguments made had admirable aims but when their methods were considered, problems arose. Firstly, teachers up and down the country (not to mention within the same schools) differ in the way that they organise their classroom groups. Some focus on mixed ability or set their pupils, while just about every teacher (including myself) might arrange their seating to minimise behaviour problems.
In so many ways it feels intuitive to ‘group’ pupils according to their ability, seat them in these groups, differentiate for them in lesson times and interact with them differently according to which group they are. However, both the aim and the method of these claims are problematic when scrutinised more closely. What Boaler et al. (2000) and subsequent researchers have shown (Bennet et al. 1984), is that the experience of students when sat in ability groups is far more negative than when they are sat in mixed ability groups. Many pupils discussed their lack of confidence in their learning when they realised they were in a ‘less able’ group and engagement suffered drastically. Furthermore, their research showed that the pupils who needed to make the most progress in lesson time missed out the most when ability grouping and seating was used, while their more able peers performed similarly regardless of their seating arrangements. Teaching in a school in a socio-economically deprived context accentuates these pressures.
A scary thought is that a simple pedagogical strategy that is often deemed to enable teaching specific groups to maximise progress could make them perform even worse than if they were simply sat in a different way.
I have been quite critical here and I feel a little bit guilty for it. However, my next post will suggest a potential solution to the problem…I hope!
Core Paper: Hastings, N. & Chantrey Wood, K. (2002) Reorganising Primary Classroom Learning ; Buckingham, Open University Press.
Alexander, R. (1991). Primary Education in Leeds. Twelfth and final report from the Primary Needs Independent Evaluation Project (12): University of Leeds.
Bennet, N ., Desforges, C ., Cockburn, A and Wilkinson, B . (1984) The Quality of Pupil Learning Experiences (London, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates).
Boaler, J., Wiliam, D. and Brown, M., (2000) ‘Students’ Experiences of Ability Grouping: Disaffection, Polarisation and the Construction of Failure’, British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 26, No. 5, pp. 631-648
Croll, P. (1996a). Teacher-Pupil Interaction in the Classroom. In P. Croll & N. Hastings (Eds.), Effective Primary Teaching: research-based classroom strategies . London: David Fulton Publishers.
Croll, P. (Ed.). (1996b). Teachers, Pupils and Primary Schooling: Continuity and Change. London: Cassell.
Galton, M., Hargreaves, L., Comber, C., Wall, D., & Pell, A. (1999). Inside the Primary Classroom: 20 years on. London: Routledge.
Galton, M., Simon, B., & Croll, P. (1980). Inside the Primary Classroom. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul.
Galton, M., & Williamson, J. (1992). Group Work in the Primary Classroom. London: Routledge.
Hastings, N., Schwieso, J., & Wheldall, K. (1996). A Place for Learning. In P. Croll & N. Hastings (Eds.), Effective Primary Teaching; research-based classroom strategies . London: David Fulton Publishers.
Osborn, M. (2001). PACE classroom observation data .
Osborn, M., McNess, E., & Broadfoot, P. (2000). What Teachers Do: Changing Policy and Practice in Primary Education. London: Continuum.
Plowden Report Great Britain. Department of Education and Science. Central Advisory Council for Education (England) (1967). Children and their Primary Schools. London: HMSO