To make a seating plan or not to make a seating plan? I’ve been in schools where it was the teacher’s choice and where it was mandatory for every class. I now firmly believe that a seating plan is a vital tool in the teacher’s armoury.
The paramount reason for this is the basic, essential message to all your students that this is YOUR classroom, that this is not a social space and you are doing absolutely everything in your power to ensure that the students get the maximum opportunity to learn the maximum in your lessons. You’re not a pushover, and you’re not going to seat best friends together because they tell you they “work really well together. Honest, Miss.”
(Actually, I do let them sometimes after a while with a stern warning that if they lapse into chat I will move them straight back. Nine times out of ten that happens within ten minutes. A persuasive lesson in itself.)
I look back and reflect uncomfortably that I used to let kids come in and sit wherever they wanted was basically out of laziness. It meant that the entry and the beginning of the lesson was simply a continuation of the social business which had so engrossed them since they tumbled out of Physics.
Create seating plans carefully to ensure that every student has the best chance of taking as much as they can from your lesson. There are certain rules for this which I find helpful:
1. The first students that you should think about should be those with social or learning difficulties. Very often you will have been given some guidance in a protocol document about the students as to where it is good for them to sit. Sometimes the nature of the learning or social difficulty will give you some idea of where they will learn best. If they are accompanied by an LSA or a TA, then they must be able to get at them to help them.
2. After that, you start filling in the other places.
a) If you don’t know the students at all and you have little information about them, start off by placing them boy, girl, boy, girl in alphabetical order around the room, but stress that this is an introductory measure, and that you will change the seating plan, and keep changing it, until you arrive at the best arrangement.
b) If you do have information or prior knowledge of the students, then start with students who will be demanding from a behaviour perspective.
3. Anybody who is likely to be distracted must be in the direct eye-line of the teacher and there should be no visual obstacle between that student and the teacher. The same should apply to attention-seeking students. Their attention-seeking behaviour should not involve others between you and then.
4. If two students are likely to distract each other, seat them with their backs to one another. It is not nearly as important to have them physically distant from one another. In fact, if they are distant, but in each other’s eye-lines, you have the worst possible scenario – two students far away from one another and therefore gesticulating or calling across the room and distracting everyone in between. My particular favourite is directly back to back.
5. After that, if you have tables grouped together, either you can go down the top table, middle table, bottom table route. There is a problem with this, however and that is about how students measure themselves against each other. Regardless of whether you call them the Blue Table or the Elephants or the Knights, they know exactly why they are where they are. Alternatively you can group students according to behaviour; or you can arrange them so that there are two of a similar ability, and another two who are slightly above or below. Mixing things up is arguably subtler. Some teacher organiser apps allow you to create seating plans according to whatever data you have about students by selecting a column in your mark book.
6. At Key Stage 4, some teachers choose to group them according to their TARGET grade – not the teacher’s target, but their own target. Some professionals really hate this, but it works well for others. Which is rather the point – it should work FOR YOU.
7. A horseshoe arrangement works well for some teachers in some subject areas. it means that the direct focus of the students is the teacher and what they are doing and saying. It also gives the teacher their own stage area, and excellent visibility of all. It does not lend itself easily to group work or carousel work, but it’s never that difficult to move tables and chairs just for one activity or lesson.
8. Some teachers find rows with students seated at individual desks, in pairs or fours the optimum arrangement. Like the horseshoe it allows for great visibility and means that students can easily focus on the teacher and the work. Some teacher find that it limits their movement in the class and quickfire changes of activity from group to pair to activities which involve carousels.
9. NEVER get drawn into a discussion about seating plans with a student in public. If a student has a real problem with a specific student, then they will approach you quietly after the lesson and you can consider it then.
10. Remember: it’s YOUR classroom, even if you’re only in it for 35 minutes one Tuesday morning. Your classroom, your rules, your decision.