Saturday, January 7, 2012

From rows to groups : meeting the challenges

In this final part of the series on changing the classroom desk configuration from rows to groups (see Part1 and Part 2), I consider some of the challenges resulting from the changeover.

Learning together about working in groups
I’m still in the early days of learning to be an effective mathematics teacher, and arguably learning how to manage group activities introduces another level of complexity. One thing I did realise early on was the need to be explicit with students about the reasons why I rearranged the desks and we regularly discussed how to make the group configuration work better. I also asked students through my anonymous class surveys for their feedback. They told me they appreciated the group configuration, but did highlight areas I need to work on. Their main concerns were: that the group seating encourages them to be less focused; that sometimes it was hard to work alone without being distracted; and that during whole class instruction, the layout sometimes made it hard to see the teacher.  All of which begs the question - what about when we aren't doing group work?

How does the group configuration work with Direct Instruction?
As summarised by Hattie (2009),  Direct Instruction occurs when “the teacher decides learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to students, demonstrates them by modelling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and retelling what they have been told by tying it all together with closure” (p. 206).  Two other key elements are guided practice (in class) and independent practice (outside class). Hattie reports that Direct Instruction has one of the highest effect sizes (d=0.59) of all teaching strategies, so it remains an important tool in our kit - especially when understood as something other than just lecturing at students. A learning program designed exclusively on group activities has the potential to miss out on teacher modelling and guided practice, demonstrated to be particularly important when developing procedural knowledge (Marzano 2007, p.80) as well as opportunities for review*. Hattie is clear however that we do not need to choose between teacher-centred teaching or student-centred learning – we can and should achieve a blend of the two approaches.

So in this mixed-mode teaching environment, the classroom configuration needs to support Direct Instruction. When it's time for guided practice, the group configuration does seem to be at a disadvantage to the row configuration, it seems to require more effective classroom management skills to ensure students can work without distractions.  To help with the classroom management, I have two standalone desks on the side and move students who can’t focus to those desks temporarily. When it comes to teacher modelling – usually most efficiently done as whole-class instruction – the group configuration can make it harder for students who are ‘side on’ to see and hear clearly. I’m still working on optimising the sight lines for some desk and will experiment this year with students turning out their desks as needed.

So is rearranging the furniture worth it?  
Moving from rows to groups is certainly not without challenges, and the mere act of physically moving desks doesn’t magically transform teaching and learning. However it seems provide strong support for the outcomes I seek: learners working together, solving problems, sharing their learning and hopefully enjoying their time in math class. Looking at the bigger picture, I’m aiming to create an environment where students manage their own learning and develop the skills and inclinations to work effectively and creatively with others. These are the critical skills that will help my students in their future lives, more than their ability to factorise non-monic quadratic expressions (as much as I think that’s important!).

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning : A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.  Oxon : Routledge.

Marzano, R. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Update and a warning....
There is some research that strongly advises against arranging desks in group cluster. Here is an article from the Guardian that points at the work. Need to do some more thinking ...
Here is post by Pak Liam with a different take Classroom desk arrangements; Rows, Clusters or U Shape?

* This year I’m planning for students to take turns to perform the role of conducting reviews for the class – Reciprocal Teaching (d=0.74 !) More than one way to bake this cake!


  1. With rows you can still do group work when needed. Either move the desk into the group arrangement or get two students to just move their chairs so they sit on the opposite side of the desk to two other students in their row.

  2. Totally agree. But consider the reasons given in the two previous posts: I think on the balance having the group configuration as the default brings other benefits - albeit at a price of more complex classroom management. But not everyone will feel so strongly about those reasons and thus may not feel the trade off is worth it.