Seating students for engagement – what does (some of) the evidence say?

In my last post, I raised three issues with group seating as standard in the primary classroom. Of the three considered, only two had any sort of pedagogical value. The arguments related to group seating supporting group teaching and collaboration both at their cores assumed that the configuration of furniture should support teaching. This is an excellent assumption and aim but the method is flawed, as previously noted.

As Hastings and Wood (2002) rightly note:

“The problem (with these arguments) is not in the case they make for group seating for small group teaching and for collaborative group work, but in the suggestion that this is a reason for group seating being the standard organisation when these two teaching strategies feature so infrequently in classrooms.” (italics my own, from:

So the two core questions are:

What methods could be used?

What is the best way to seat pupils to maximize classroom learning?

 The evidence

Research consistently shows that the primary student spends most of their time working independently (Hallam et al. 1999; Osborn, 2001; Hastings & Wood, 2002) . These studies also show that students get most of their direct teacher contact in a whole class context, focused on the front of the classroom. Despite more time being spent in small groups and in pairs in lesson time in classrooms today, the time a pupil spends working independently is still about half (Osborn, 2001).

If studying independently and interacting with the teacher in a whole class session are the most common forms of activity, group seating seems to be a very ineffective way to arrange pupils.

This is not just a hunch I’ve had. Evidence from this research that have compared the impact of group seating on children’s attention with that of other arrangements (typically pairs facing the same direction) find considerable differences (Blatchford & Kutnick, 1999). Furthermore, they reveal two important things to reflect upon as teaching professionals:

Firstly, almost all pupil’s attention and engagement in their independent work increases when they sit in pairs, or in arrangements where no one sits opposite them. Gains in attention and engagement average at about 30 percent in the studies cited here (Croll, 1996; Osborn, 2001; Hastings & Wood, 2002).

Secondly, and most importantly, the pupils in these studies who were the most distracted when sitting in a group benefitted the most (building on the claim made about pupils who need to make the most progress in my previous post here). Many students in the study doubled their time on task (Blatchford & Kutnick, 1999; Hastings & Wood, 2002). Fascinatingly, when undertaking individual work in ‘rows’ formation, there was no difference in motivation and engagement, whereas in group seating, the range in these two factors was enormous.

So is that it? Shall we just sit our pupils in twos, in rows facing the whiteboard? I think this would be the wrong thing to do (in the primary school at least). A core theme running throughout this research is that different types of learning activity require different types of seating. No single seating arrangement will match all types of learning activity. Therefore, we need lots of seating variation and flexibility in our classrooms.

The core principle I’m taking away from this is to make sure that my seating arrangements enable the classroom learning as often as possible. Keeping seating flexible to facilitate the learning activities will hopefully maximize the motivation, engagement and progress of my students.

The practice (or what I am going to try out)

Surely it is too difficult to be constantly moving tables around the classroom depending on the activity that is going on? My answer to this is that I don’t think so; I think this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – especially in Year 5 and 6. Maybe it is too much to ask Key Stage 1 children to move tables around the classroom several times a day but maybe it isn’t; I’m undecided. Regardless, in Year 5 and 6, I think developing a range of seating arrangements can form a part of them developing their independence as learners and ownership of the classroom.

For example, if large chunks of lesson time is going to be spent working independently or in pairs, sit students in pairs, in a way that allows them to always see the white board, teacher or core focus for the lesson (I’m going to try for all three!). Equally, if pupils are going to be working in groups, sit pupils in groups! Here are some further examples I can think of:

In a Science experiment: Pupils deciding how to lay out the classroom furniture for maximum safety and effective group dynamics.

In Art lessons: since there is a real range of resources needs, could all pupils sit in one large table formation? Or even in a carousel style seatig formation to move from station to station.

In PSHCE, R.E or Music lessons: are tables needed? If not then where do they need to go safely? Something pupils should think about ally.

I am teaching a class of 26 pupils this year in a spacious classroom, which naturally allows me to be more flexible with my seating. My morning seating will largely stay the same, with some flexibility depending on the needs of my pupils. I’ve attached a few rough picture (definitely not to scale) below to show you how I am going to lay out my classroom.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 13.38.18

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Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 13.44.51


The past two posts were inspired by reading an abbreviated version of Hastings, N. & Chantrey Wood, K. (2002) Reorganising Primary Classroom Learning. Their far more detailed work on this issue can be read here:





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.

Croll, P., & Moses, D. (1985). One in Five: The Assessment and Incidence of Special Educational Needs. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul.

Blatchford, P., & Kutnick, P. (1999). The Nature and Use of Classroom groups in Primary schools. Final report (R000237255): Economic and Social Research Council.

Galton, M., Hargreaves, L., Comber, C., Wall, D., & Pell, A. (1999). Inside the Primary Classroom: 20 years on. London: Routledge.

Galton, M., & Patrick, H. (1990). Curriculum Provision in Small Schools. 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.

Hallam, S., Ireson, J., Chaudhury, I., Lister, V., Davies, J., & Mortimore, P. (1999, September). Ability grouping practices in the primary school: A survey of what schools are doing. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association, Brighton.

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.

Hastings, N., & Wood, K. C. (2002). Reorganizing Primary Classroom Learning. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Osborn, M. (2001). PACE classroom observation data .

3 thoughts on “Seating students for engagement – what does (some of) the evidence say?”

  1. Hi – Interesting post with lots of good supporting research. As a parent, not a teacher, I favour desks facing the front in the main.

    Something that may not be considered by teachers when arranging desks is the strain on children’s necks/bodies when they need to twist and turn to see the teacher or whiteboard. I see you have addressed this by the idea of rearranging desks according to need/lesson. However, many teachers I have seen have a horse shoe or some other strange arrangement and this caused headaches in both my kids. A physio. once said to me, “I really dislike the seating arrangements in schools today as its causing lots of issues for kids, including headache/migraine/neck pain etc. The light/shine from the whiteboard is also a problem in relation to headaches for my kids. They prefer blackboards.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for your thoughts on this. It’s been an interesting term using primarily the horse shoe shape. My pupils have told me they have really enjoyed their seating arrangements this term on the whole.
      At first I made sure every pupil was able to see the board comfortably and if they weeent then I moved them so they could be.
      I’ll get back to you if there any future developments in this.
      Interesting about the blackboard idea! This had made me stop and think at regular intervals this term!
      Thanks for your comment once again.


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