Thursday, January 5, 2012

Rearranging the desks: from rows to groups

At the beginning of Term 4 in 2011, I took the plunge and did this to my classroom:

When I first reconfigured the desks in my classroom from rows to groups, it was a leap into the unknown. Two factors pushed me to make the change: feedback from students that I was talking too much; and participating in some group activity sessions at the MANSW 2011 conference run by the incredible Charles Lovitt, which so clearly demonstrated to me the power of doing something different from lecturing in the mathematics classroom.

The change has not been without challenges, and I’ve been doing some hard thinking if I should continue using the group configuration during 2012. In the next few posts, I’m going to discuss why I’ve decided to stay with my group configuration, and then consider some of the challenges raised by the change, ask where Direct Instruction fits into the picture and finally think about the bigger picture beyond mathematics (yes - surprisingly there is one!).

Thanks to the many colleagues on Google+, Twitter and the AAMT mailing list who helped me reflect on this and consolidate my thinking.

Reason 1:To make the idea that the "student is their own teacher" central to my classroom

What message do high school mathematics students receive when they walk into a classroom with the desks arranged in groups? My hope is the message they receive is that in this classroom, an important part of learning mathematics will be working together. It’s possible they may also think the teacher is a bit odd, or that this reminds them of primary school, or that this is going to be a great opportunity to have a chat for the next fifty minutes. Hopefully these less helpful messages are dispelled once students receive a clear message I'm serious about using class time for learning and working on mathematics.

The benefits of peer learning are clear and measurable. John Hattie (2009) reports highly ranked effect sizes for Peer Tutoring (d=0.56) and Cooperative versus Individualist learning (d = 0.59). In Hattie’s description of his synthesis of best practice, he writes: "The remarkable feature of the evidence is the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers. When students become their own teachers they exhibit the self-regulatory attributes that seem most desirable for learners (self-monitoring, self-evaluation, self-assessment, self-teaching)" (p.22).

In contrast, what message do students receive when they walk into a classroom of rows of desks, all lined up to face the front? The predominant message is mathematics is a solitary activity, you will learn it from your teacher, you will practice and internalise it on your own. Don’t get me wrong - in no way am I saying I want to totally abandon teacher led instruction. As Hattie points out there is an important place of Direct Instruction, however I think the message of students taking control of their own learning is so important I want a desk configuration that reinforces it.

What do you think of this reasoning?

Part 2 considers two other reasons for staying with the group configuration: because it creates a positive environment that reduces "maths anxiety", and because of the effect it has on my teaching.

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


  1. I know as a student I always preferred and learned more in group situations. Hattie advocates this with this in this article . I know I will be using group seating this year as I will be teaching all three levels (5.1, 5.2 and 5.3) in the same class at the same time. I always like to think ‘Why do students go to school?’ The main reason being to prepare themselves for employment and there are not many occupations that do not require teamwork. So any group work done properly will help improve teamwork skills. Thank you for the discussion Nordin.

  2. A maths colleague of mine has used the group configuration as long as I can remember, and with very challenging lower maths classes. It is a much more inclusive and welcoming arrangement, as well as contributing to greater ease with group work!