Challenging one of my personal myths …

If you have been a teacher for some time now, there are probably certain principles you strongly believe in. It is possible that you consider some approaches better than others. For example, you might believe that communicative language teaching is better than the grammar translation method. Or, and this is my case, you may believe that certain seating arrangements work better for your classes than other alternatives.

I’ve always felt a strong dislike of teaching language classes in the traditional classroom layout – straight rows facing the front of the classroom. Ironically, although this straight row arrangement has been widely criticized, mostly because it is said to inhibit experimentation in the classroom, it still predominates in most educational settings. It is not surprising that the majority of classrooms in the school where I work are arranged this way.

I’ve always preferred the horseshoe arrangement, mainly because I believe that it’s best for both student-student and student-teacher interaction. I like it when I can face all my students and I like the space this type of layout provides. But more importantly, I think it’s good when students can see one another’s faces (and mouths) all the time. This is particularly important in a language classroom, where people listen and talk to each other most of the time. In fact, whenever I had to teach in a room where this arrangement wasn’t possible, I felt extremely uncomfortable.

But some time ago I became a student again and I started attending seminars and workshops, where both types of layouts were common. Suddenly, seen from the student perspective, the one I disliked as a teacher didn’t seem much worse than the one I preferred. On the contrary, I remember occasions when I felt physical and psychological discomfort when sitting in the horseshoe arrangement; either because I had chosen an inconvenient spot – one of those places where I was forced to keep my head and neck in a very unhealthy position when looking at the board – or because the room was jam-packed with people and I felt I had lost my personal space – the intimate zone reserved for close friends and family members.

Back to my teaching context, though. I teach in a small room which can accommodate up to 22 people. The size of the room allows you to make a horseshoe out of 8 double desks at the most. However, as I started teaching slightly larger classes back in September, and I didn’t really want to move into a different room, I simply brought three more desks and created an additional, smaller horseshoe inside the big one. As you can see below, although it looked pretty cosy and learner-friendly, it was crammed with quite a few students. This realization, as well as my personal experience, nudged me into a small experiment.

Before …

One day, before the first group entered the room, I had changed the current layout to the traditional one (see below). As it is quite a small room, the change didn’t look too dramatic to me, but I felt that at least I had created some space around each desk. Nevertheless, it was interesting to observe my students’ first reactions to the tweak. I had to smile when I overheard some of the comments the kids uttered upon entering the classroom: “What? ” Oh no! ” What’s this supposed to be? ” “Oh dear!” “This is terrible!” Some just looked puzzled thinking that this was only a mistake which was going to be fixed as soon as their lesson started.

After

The whole point of the post will be revealed soon. I obviously might have changed the layout right after having heard the initial negative reactions, but I decided to wait for a couple of more lessons and enjoy all the psychological impact this alternation had on my students. I want to stress that all my students are in their teens, which means that their negative reactions may only be a type of adolescent rebellion. Anyway, after the second lesson spent in the ‘new’ room, when they seemed to have adjusted to the change a bit, I asked each group the following question: I know you said you felt discomfort when you entered the room for the first time, but I’d like to ask you to share with me some potential advantages this seating arrangement might bring. 

I was really surprised at some of their ideas. Although some students still kept the defensive pose, others had already changed their mind. Well, actually, it’s not that bad. I’m enjoying it after all.

Here are some of the perks they eventually came up with. The tongue-in-the-cheek ones are indicated with a smiley face.

1) I can hear my partner better during the speaking activities, probably due to the fact that our personal space is not invaded from all directions.
2) I don’t have to look at other people’s faces 🙂 My personal note: I believe that some students might also find it embarrassing to be constantly observed by their peers.
3) At least it doesn’t feel like the awful evening language course we attend. 🙂
4) My neck doesn’t hurt anymore.
5) I can rest my arm on the radiator, which I couldn’t before. 🙂
6) The teacher can’t spot the mobile phones hidden under the desks. 🙂
7) We can concentrate better.
8) Swinging on chairs is safer now. 🙂

The most obvious conclusion is that most people resist change and they don’t hesitate to express the resistance as soon as they are confronted with something new. But once they adjust to the new thing, they may discover that it’s not that bad in the end. It’s possible that sooner or later they will want to come back to the old and traditional, or maybe they’ll want to move one step forward. I myself made a step forward when I tried something I had always been reluctant to do. I should add that from a technical point of view, there are some advantages to this seating arrangement, such as the fact that the students can easily and smoothly change partners without even having to stand up. But this is for another post.

…and this is probably a parody of my post :-))

 

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
This entry was posted in Classroom management, Trying out something new and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Challenging one of my personal myths …

  1. Clare Tyrer says:

    An interesting post. My institution's preferred layout is putting four desks together to faciliate group work. Admittedy, it is good for group work but some students have to twist to see the board so it's not great when it comes to focus on the teacher. Are you going to keep this seeting arrangement or are you going to revert to the horseshoe? Secondary schools in the UK tend to use a seating plan to arrange the students according to the teacher's preference. Would this work or be too restrictive? Just musings…

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi, Clare! I sometimes put two double desks together when we do project work, and it works well because the teacher plays a minor role throughout such activities. But as you say, it's really uncomfortable when you have to twist to see the board (or the teacher) – I would never choose to sit in such a place voluntarily myself. I think I'm going to keep the traditional arrangement for a while. It's a bit selfish of me, but I really like it this way. Plus I'm curious to see whether my students will fully adjust. In some classes, the teachers require students to sit according a pre-arranged seating plan, but I mostly teach relatively small groups (half the class), so this is not a big issue for me. We do a lot of and moving, so it would be pointless anyway. Thanks for stopping by again!

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  3. Most of the time I taught oral English and didn't feel the need for desks or tables. I'd push them to the back of the room and have the students sit in a horseshoe (several rows if there were a lot of them) – just on chairs. Not only did it make it easy for them to move around but it dissuaded them from using notebooks which was my main objective. Having of several students engrossed in their notebooks and not paying attention to what the other students were saying really spoiled the group dynamics I found. Also, they couldn't see what I was doing to help with improving the English of those who were speaking. During a conversation outside of class we don't usually take notes so why do it in class? Outside the classroom may sit around a table to have somewhere to put our glasses and though it's true that alcohol does loosen the tongue, it's consumption in class was not encouraged in the institution where I worked.

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  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for the comment, Glenys. The idea of sitting on chairs (with no desks around) is interesting, and I believe it's perfectly suitable for a conversation class. However, in my teaching context, it wouldn't be feasible. We use coursebooks and other materials, plus students are supposed to take notes. Although we don't normally take notes outside the classroom, as you point out, I still believe it's useful in class. Also, I personally find it somewhat uncomfortable to have no desk in front of me. On the contrary, I find it quite practical to have one: at least I have somewhere to rest my arms and put my stuff on. From a psychological perspective, although the desk in front of a student may create a kind of barrier, some may feel more vulnerable without one.

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  5. Zhenya says:

    Hi Hana

    Thank you for sharing this post – as usual, it is a chance to enter the class you teach with you and 'observe' something you are trying out and reflecting on. I myself like the 'double horse shoe' seating for several reasons: I can see everyone, people have desks and 'private zones' to take notes and think, people can make eye contact easily and communicate with each other, and with the teacher. One thing I sometimes do (and I see in the pic that it was different on the lesson you took it) is putting 2 desks 'head to head' and letting the student in the 'inner' circle sit facing the student in the outer circle, both with desks for note-taking. In that case, however, the 'inner' circle people don't talk to each other. One more advantage for a larger room (maybe) is that the space in the middle can be used for mingling activities when students have to stand up and talk to someone they were not sitting together before. One question: do you ever change the seating arrangement during a lesson? Do you let students change their seats and continue in a different part of the room? Sometimes those little tricks help me and my students, or teachers on a course. They do take time, so might not work in every context.

    One more thing I really liked is how you organized the ideas/opinions exchange about the new seating – clearly helps students see that their voices are heard and respected!

    Thank you for your thought-provoking post.

    Zhenya

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  6. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Zhenya,

    Thanks for another perspective on the issue of seating arrangement. As for your questions: yes, I sometimes change the seating arrangement during the lesson but I do so without moving the furniture. For example, Ss work in pairs and then they turn around and work in groups. I also let my Ss change their seats and continue in a different part of the room. I rarely plan these tweaks in advance though – it somehow emerges from the situation, e.g. when Ss look bored or tired, or they don't seem to be working well with their partner. I really like your idea of putting 2 desks 'head to head' and letting the student in the 'inner' circle sit facing the student in the outer circle. I have a question though: does that mean that the inner circle people can’t see the board?

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  7. Zhenya says:

    Hi Hana – in reply to the question you asked: I think the people in the 'center' of the inner circle might need to turn their chairs for the 'board time' and then turn to each other for the 'talk time' – something like this. Another thing I have tried (and this depends on the room and resources of course) is stepping to the back turning it into the 'front' for the instructions – in that case, everyone can see me/the board. I now see that this is clearly not an idea for a small room! Re moving furniture: what I tried (with adults and older teens) is drawing a new seating plan on the board and asking them to move desks and chairs into a new setup. Once the instructions are clear, takes 2 mins, not more. Again, the room size needs to allow that.

    (please don't treat these as suggestions – it is thinking aloud merely!)
    Zhenya 🙂

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