Why I Like a Good Seating Plan
In just over a week I will be starting in a new Director role, and the first thing I really want to focus on with the faculty is the importance of carefully considered seating plans to enhance behaviour for learning. I’ve just been reading “Creating Outstanding Classrooms” by Oliver Knight and David Benson, a book which is full of practical and sensible advice on improving our schools. However, I was quite surprised to find there was nothing on the use of seating plans in the book, despite the fact that its focus is primarily on classrooms that deliver traditional academic subjects (they mainly focus on Maths, Science and History).
Approaches to planning for seating have played an important part in the development of my pedagogical thinking and how I teach, and I want my new colleagues to focus on this as a priority too. The first section of this post describes how I came to place such importance on seating plans; the second part outlines the phases I went through in rationalising my seating plans and the main principles I now adhere to. It should be taken into account that I am talking about my own experiences as a teacher of English, but I think what follows applies across most of the curriculum.
During the first three years after completing my PGCE I barely taught two consecutive lessons in the same room. I sometimes had the same group in two or three different rooms over the course of a week and had never even entertained the idea of a “seating plan”. Suffice to say behaviour in many of these classes was appalling, and I felt pretty powerless to do anything about it. I seemed to fall from one lesson to the next, just hoping to survive until the end of the day. No matter what kind of exciting, interesting and engaging activities I thought I had planned, everything went to pot in the classroom. With hindsight I now put this down to lack of a clearly thought out seating plan, but planning the seating of students within a classroom was never touched upon in my PGCE and it was not something that was ever discussed or mentioned in the department or even the school as a whole.
In my second or third year I noticed that one of my colleagues organised her classes so that they sat alphabetically in mixed sex pairs. This was a revelation. She was (and is) a lovely, unimposing lady who always taught large and difficult groups but never had any problems with behaviour management. I suddenly realised that this was down to the fact that she ordered the space in her room and therefore she owned it. The students picked up on this during the first lesson of the year and instantly “knew their place”, so to speak. I quickly incorporated this approach into my classroom practice and suddenly problem behaviour was practically eradicated. This situation was further improved when, in my fourth year, I finally got my own room. Suddenly, I was completely in control. I was always there to greet the students and had all the resources and equipment to hand that I needed, whether they were planned for or spur of the moment. It was at this point that I really felt I had “arrived”; lesson observations became consistently “good with outstanding features” and a lot of the enigma surrounding being a good teacher was demystified.
And so, like many teachers, I plateaued. I had sussed it. I had worked it out. Kids behaved, work got done, everybody was happy. But were they actually reaching their potential? Of course not. The emphasis was on imposing a culture of control in which students were engaged in their work, but not challenged and stretched. Unfortunately I was blissfully unaware of this. The school had a very conservative culture where most teachers were established and nobody talked about changing or improving teaching and learning. It was taken for granted that each teacher was an expert in their own domain and I suddenly felt like I had joined this rank of elites.
Then about four years ago, I decided it might be a good idea to do some research into perceptions of behaviour in the school during my year 11 gained time. A lot of the teaching staff were complaining that student behaviour was getting progressively worse. Teachers would share horror stories in the staffroom about shocking behaviour, and I wanted to try and find out whether there were any patterns in the types of perceptions shared by “types” of staff in the school (e.g. classroom teachers/middle leaders/SLT/ variations in length of service etc.). I got the Head’s permission and began to do some reading and distribute some questionnaires. A lot of the reading I was doing was on behaviour management and how it was influenced by different factors, for example, the structure and content of lessons, the physical environment of the school building and the organisation of seating within lessons.
This last aspect became something of a focus for me. I had always thought that the seating plan in a classroom should be based on a philosophy of control, like a mini-panopticon that allowed the teacher to focus student attention on the front of the room. This led me to two questions. Firstly, were the teachers that were experiencing increasing levels of poor student behaviour also the teachers who had no seating plan? Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to dig into this any further, but I suspect there may have been at least a kernel of correlation there. But the second idea was by far and away more important to me; could I manipulate the layout of my room and where students sat in that room to improve the learning culture of the classroom?
The answer to this was overwhelmingly positive and I suddenly became very enthusiastic about experimenting with layouts and seating plans. First of all, the rows disappeared and were replaced with five tables of six. Secondly, I wanted to get away from the idea that there was a “front” of the classroom. I wanted whiteboards up all around the room so that students could, at any time, demonstrate their ideas to the rest of the group and therefore develop a higher level of student engagement in my lessons. (I’m a little disappointed to say that in hindsight this didn’t really take off: I didn’t give enough time over to developing a culture within the classroom where students demonstrating their ideas around the room using the boards was “normal”). However, the biggest challenge was thinking about where individual students should sit in within the room to maximise their potential. This has been an ongoing experiment and is a constantly evolving and changing process, and in the last three years I have experimented with a variety of approaches, and when I look back I can see a definite development of thinking which informed my planning in each stage.
Approaches to planning for seating:
- When I first began designing seating plans, I worked on the principle that I would group students by their targets and KS2 APS. A-target students all sat together but would be subdivided according to their KS2 APS and so on, the rationale being that they would all be working at the same level and would need the same work and the same support. This was back when I still thought there was a place for things like “must, should, could” and differentiation by difficulty of task.
- The second approach was grouping by current attainment levels, for the same reasons as those in phase 1. In this phase I made a point of making it clear to students why they were grouped in the way they were but that the seating plan was by no means permanent and people could move tables depending on how well they progressed. This was a definite improvement on the first phase as it engendered fluidity within the classroom and created an element of competition, as well as being more in line with Dweck’s work on Growth Mindsets, which I had begun to be introduced to through reading “Visible Learning for Teachers” by John Hattie.
- The next phase was to go completely mixed ability and to try and have a wide range of prior attainment, current attainment and targets on each table. The reason behind this was that I had begun to realise that most of the approaches to planning and differentiation I’d been encouraged to use were rubbish and wrong because they were a cap to aspiration and achievement. During this phase I also tried experimenting with single sex mixed ability groupings, which did seem to have a positive effect on behaviour. This seemed to work well, although didn’t necessarily have any motivational influence on students as there was no competitive element governing movement between tables.
- The fourth phase, and the one I’m currently still in, uses a combination of the above strategies. All of these approaches can work, but some will work with certain groups and individuals better than others. I’ll begin this year by grouping students in mixed ability, mixed sex groupings of four. At certain points in the year I will review the seating plans in light of observations I make during lessons, and for certain activities I will group students of similar ability together. A major revision I made to my plans last year was after the second data collection. I divided a class into two groups: those that were making good progress and those that were making little or no progress. I then buddied them up into pairs. Straightaway I noticed a positive effect on behaviour for learning, and so I will look to implement this strategy again this year.
In light of the above, three key underlying principles inform my seating plans.
- Every class should have a default seating plan from which each lesson begins. This is because a truly dynamic classroom needs very rigid underlying structures and routines in which to operate effectively. Great lessons do not happen without the participants internalising the rules they must follow and the expectations placed upon them.
- Seating plans should be rationalised. By rationalised, I mean that teachers should be able to explain why their seating plan is set up the way it is and have sound reasoning behind it.
- Seating plans should be data-led, and by data-led I mean that we should take into account not only students’ prior and current attainment and targets, but also things like interests, social and emotional elements and some SEN considerations.
- Seating plans should be the result of careful discussion. Discussions with colleagues about seating plans are important because a lot of the really important data that we don’t get from a spreadsheet is carried in teachers’ heads from their prior experiences. It might be that two students should not be placed on the same table for a very good reason, or that a particular student works better in a certain position within a room. Colleagues are mines of valuable information and to not seek and use that information is folly.
- Seating plans should be flexible. They should be constantly revised and updated in light of what happens in the classroom.
By taking the time to carefully create seating plans at the start of the year, I am convinced that there are many positive long-term knock on effects. Some of these are:
- we get to know our new classes much more quickly;
- we can plan much more effective lessons by having a better idea of a group’s dynamics;
- A wider range of effective differentiation strategies can be employed both proactively in planning and reactively during the lesson;
- the process of creating seating plans in this way allows teachers to become more intimate with the numerical data more quickly;
- students are given the message that they are in a carefully structured environment thus eliminating low-level disruption.