Classroom to learn part I

Classroom – the word conjures up an image of desks in pencil-straight lines, with aisles just wide enough to hold a supervising adult. A blackboard at the far end, the sharp answer-ready front benchers in the front rows and the talkative troublemakers in the back, with the forgotten averages in between. Is this the way it has to be? What does classroom seating arrangement have to do with how we experience the teaching/learning space? Teacher Plus explores…
 
 
During a normal school day, a student spends about six hours within a classroom. For every hour spent learning new things, good health and state of mind have always been accepted factors that influence performance. However, during these six hours of school, performance is hugely impacted by how the student is seated in the classroom. Studies show that students get influenced by how far they are from the teacher, by the view from their seat and also by who is seated next to them.
 
Classroom seating arrangements are always situational, and requirements vary all the time. The type of furniture and space constraints in a typical Indian classroom do not always allow for much flexibility, but the resourceful teacher may be able to find ways to vary seating arrangements – for example, by taking the children outside the class when different arrangements would work better. For instance, a group discussion amongst students requires a “cluster” arrangement while a collaborative discussion demands a “semi-circular” arrangement. Each of them contributes to the levels of learning. This article gives an insight into different seating arrangements and how they can be best used to provide children with appropriate proximity from the point of action, proper ventilation, illumination, maximum comfort, and keep clear of classroom traffic. It is surprising to see how a simple change in seating arrangement can soak in all the distraction and transform the mood of a session.
 
The individual and group characteristics of students in a class also impact the requirements. So, by merging what we know about our students with the ideal physical environment we can maximize teaching and learning efficiency. There are many seating arrangements that teachers can use. Some common arrangements are cluster, desk rows, table rows, semi- circle, pairs and centers or activity zones.
 
In India, the conventional “desk rows” have been in use for decades. This is because of the need to accommodate a large number of students in every class. “With a large strength, changes in the seating arrangement become very restricted. It is usually only in the labs that the table rows are used, where the requirements are different from the usual,” says Mrs. Pansy, a retired teacher from St. George’s High School who has taught for 25 years and in the regular setting never deviated from the traditional seating arrangement. But she does agree that when the number of students is small then there certainly are opportunities to experiment with seating arrangements. She recollects her own experience of teaching a class of five students in Varanasi. Once when the weather was inviting, Mrs. Pansy took her Science class out under a tree for their day’s lesson. She says the students seemed to enjoy the change and were surprisingly, very receptive. For a teacher in a typical school, however, such opportunities are rare, Mrs. Pansy admits. Also being an English teacher, she preferred a formal atmosphere to an informal one. “The subject demands must first be considered. Science subjects being practical can provide for clusters or activity centers.”
 
Most often, the bench or desk rows serve the important eye contact factor. By making all the students face her in the class the teacher can concentrate on explaining the lesson. Also, by standing in a class, the teacher assumes an elevated position and gets a clear view of the entire classroom.
 
In sessions that demand collaborative learning and student interaction, there is less direct instruction and more lateral interaction. For instance, in science labs, students need to work together. By sitting in the “table row” arrangement with long tables placed perpendicular to the front and back of the room, the students are organized into groups. This helps create a spirit of teamwork and students assume responsibility for the task given. When an activity is to be assigned, four or five tables can be put together to form large teams. Of course, with such an arrangement the class can get loud and uncontrollable and working one on one becomes impossible. But, this still is the best way to help students discover fun in learning as the arrangement is very social and they are doing the activity together.
 
Children aged below 13 years are very open, they ask and answer impulsively but older children, particularly girls, become less responsive, they may not even come forward and say when they don’t understand a lesson unless they are repeatedly asked. In such a scenario, activity centers and table rows help students work together and break the ice. They realize that everybody in the class is learning together and have similar doubts. The arrangements can be changed weekly depending on the class size and subject of study.
 
Some classes involve debates, discussions and project work, which help in developing initiative and self expression. For such requirements, activity centers are a good arrangement. In this form of seating arrangement the tables are grouped so that they seat smaller numbers with children seated facing their group members to foster inclusiveness. A semi circular arrangement helps maintain the seriousness and at the same time enables monitoring. With such an arrangement the teacher can step back, when required, and assume a passive role while giving full independence to the students in a discussion.
 
As students learn to assume responsibility for their own actions, arrangements such as pairs can also be used. In this arrangement, students sit with a partner with pairs seated at a distance from the others. This arrangement gives a mix of an adult run and collaborative learning experience. Most commonly, while choosing a partner, teachers seat students’ height wise and allot the front positions to students who need more attention. Mrs. Pansy has often arranged students in pairs grouping the weaker ones with the high performing students, so that responsibility is shared. Soon enough, it was seen that the students took it on themselves to help their partners perform better and helped them in catching up where required. But will such an arrangement increase the chances of creating a superiority complex amongst the high performing students? Mrs. Pansy insists that she has always seen students feeling responsible for the others’ performance and taking pride when their partner performs better. This also brings in a spirit of collaboration and helps instill greater confidence among the academically challenged students. Child psychologist, Mrs. Gowri suggests that teachers consider reversing the usual seating arrangement, and get students who perform better to sit at the back while the under performing students can be seated in the front. It has been observed that with greater attention from the teacher, even lower performing students tend to do better.
 
Mrs. Madhuri Raijada, Sociology Professor at St. Xavier’s College Mumbai, who was always known to develop a personal connection with each of her students notes that students, especially those in their teens are the most sensitive lot. They come from different backgrounds with different abilities and it becomes very important for the teacher to empathies with them before enforcing any form of instructions. She personally believes that teachers are there to encourage all, and therefore “cater to the average student” and encourage those who are ahead to push their limits further.
 
She says, “Our responsibilities as teachers goes beyond teaching, it contributes to molding them as they grow, therefore, increased interaction must always be a part of every session irrespective of subject, syllabus, scope, and seating arrangement limitations.” Mrs. Raijada prefers the semi-circular arrangement where every child gets a clear view of the teacher, the teacher has freedom of movement and students also feel inclusive. Not being a strong supporter of the American schooling system, Mrs. Raijada thinks Indian students have an upper hand even today, but believes that electronic boards and improved infrastructure will certainly boost effectiveness and complement the personal touch of the Indian education system.
 
Rearranging a classroom
 
 
“The more fixed you are to your seat; the more fixed you become in your thinking. It may be difficult to change but learning to adapt to change is what will take students a long way,” believes Mrs. Gowri. A classroom often consists of children who are different in as many ways as the subjects of study. For many of them, their seats are symbolic of their place amongst peers. So, don’t be surprised at the behavioral changes in students soon after the change of place. The changes can be sudden or gradual, for better or for worse. Therefore, it is very important for teachers to understand their students’ requirements individually before allotting places.
 
If you are planning to change the way the class sits let the students know in advance and ask them for their opinions. Changing seating arrangements becomes easier if you let your students know from the beginning of the year that the classroom changes ever so often. Despite this if there still are students who are upset after a change in the seating arrangement tells them that you are willing to listen to their worries and that you are open to reconsidering their seats.
 
All students learn differently and the teacher’s philosophy and the physical classroom environment influence students in different ways. Varying the seating arrangements can get the students to see the class from a different perspective, work with other people and process information from a different angle. A teacher needs to plan each seating arrangement carefully and look at all personalities and levels of students. “Even while changing their seats, students must be told why they are being arranged in that manner to avoid any wrong assumptions and also to help them understand what is best for them. We, as teachers often think that we are always right in rearranging students in a certain manner but forget that by not sending the message across to the students, we are reducing the benefits of that arrangement,” says Mrs. Pansy. She adds, “It is important to stay in constant communication and keep track of the changes.”
 
While rearranging seats, most often, students have preferences like, the seat should help to actively participate in class, it should be near the teacher or the blackboard should be visible. While choosing neighbors, they may want them to be of the same sex, have a similar outlook, fine physical appearance, be from the same city and other considerations.
 
It is often seen that partners become sources of inspiration to work harder and listen better. When students with different performance levels are seated beside each other, comparisons must be avoided and instead, students must be encouraged to come forward themselves and get the benefit of sharing. This also inculcates a spirit of sharing and collaborative learning.
 
In every section of the classroom, it is important to have students of all kinds, be it hardworking, fun loving, introvert, enterprising, active, humorous, beautiful or successful. Students must learn to accept diversity as they grow up and at the same time, appreciate uniqueness amongst their classmates. This is to ensure continuous growth and increased adaptability. The classroom will become a place of learning within itself and students will discover something new in every arrangement during the course of the year.
 
Try and succeed
Karan Makhija, of the ‘Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na’ fame, better known as “Rotlu”, is a well known theatre artiste in Mumbai, and a brilliant communicator.
 
In one of his sessions, he had a class of 40 students. All were seated in rows facing him. In the beginning, he paced up and down while talking, repeatedly requesting his audience for feedback. When the response was feeble he changed the way the class sat. He had the desks pushed to either side which created space in the centre to walk. His idea was that it would enable students face each other, notice each other’s reactions and be conscious of the mood in the class.
 
The lecture soon turned interactive and students began addressing their argument to the entire class rather than just Karan, which was his agenda. He brought out the point that good communicators are always created out of good “listeners” and here, he was subconsciously inculcating this practice within his listeners by increasing their levels of consciousness, simply by altering the arrangement.
 
The author is a student at St. Xavier’s, Mumbai. She can be reached at snehareddy.aiesecer@gmail.com.
 
Discipline for free
A Mathew Antony
 
School managements the world over have spent precious time, money and energy to provide a favorable environment to the children attending their institutions. The various factors that are considered range from ventilation, lighting, timing, basic furniture and equipment and other logistics, Very few, however, give a thought to the seating arrangement in a classroom.
 
Teacher Plus quizzed some teachers and heads of institutions to find out how they view the importance or otherwise of seating arrangements and whether this plays a vital role in the development of their wards.
 
Mrs. Marie F Prabhu, Directress, The Happy Scholar School, Mehdipatnam, Hyderabad notes: “For the nursery and lower kindergarten classes, it is ideal to have a long low table or two square tables with the children sitting around. The teacher should sit at the head of the table in order to get a proper view. Freeze boards or charts should be placed in such a way, so as to accommodate easy viewing.”
 
Rifka Khambati is a teacher at Gitanjali Devshala, Hyderabad. She quotes classroom management expert Ford Jones, who said, “Good classroom seating arrangement is the cheapest form of classroom management”. She adds, “IT IS DISCIPLINE FOR FREE. While a seating arrangement may at first seem despotic and unpopular, it does give students time to adjust to the teacher, classroom and their peer group.” She explains, “For my class, at the beginning of the academic year they sit with their friends for a few days, who are then replaced with students who share the same interests like those who love vanilla ice-cream, who have the same number of brothers/ sisters, the same color bag, the same mode of transport, or whose mothers’ share the same name, etc.”
 
Mrs. S Raha, Senior English Teacher, St. Thomas’ Girls School, Kolkata and Lecturer, English Methods, B.Ed. Dept. St. Xavier’s college, Kolkata said, “The classroom reflects the new psychological principles governing education. The seating plan ensures that the student can interact with his peers as well as his teachers. The junior classrooms normally have students seated in groups of four or five around a table. This helps the process of socialisation and freer interaction with the micro and macro groups. The teacher also has the freedom to interact with the students.”
 
“The middle school classroom seating plan should take into consideration the L shaped or U shaped arrangements. It ensures that all students get an equal amount of attention. Flexibility is the keyword here. The teacher’s table can move from the head of the room to the centre of the room. The senior school normally has lecture chairs and more traditional seating plans as the focus is on serious learning. However, having said all this, we have to acknowledge that most classrooms are cramped and overcrowded places with no thought or planning about the seating of the students.”
 
Mrs. Margaret Francis, HOD – Social Management at St. Francis College for Women, Hyderabad, feels, “The strategic placement of students in a classroom can affect the learning process for each individual student. The physical arrangement of the classroom is an important aspect to consider. It is one way to get control of the classroom. I keep the following criteria in mind… room logistics, student personalities and types of interaction. From this perspective and my experiences, I feel circle or semi-circle structure of seating is good because it helps me see all the students and initiate group discussions easily.”
 
Rev. Sr. Christine Rebello, Correspondent, Holy Mary Girls High School, Hyderabad, (Formerly, Principal of St Francis College for Women, Hyderabad) states, “The placement of students in a classroom must be done according to the normal roll call method. As there are students from various communities, it helps them to interact and learn not just what is taught in class but also about the other faiths followed.”
 
Clearly, seating plays a role in the level and type of interaction that can happen in a classroom. It can impact the way students see each other and themselves, in relation to the teacher and other authority figures that enter the classroom. Seating arrangements, carefully thought out, can create the right ambience for learning.

This article first appeared in the August 2009 issue of the Teacher Plus

 

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