Back to School, Class Management

Rows or Groups: The Classroom Seating Debate

Rows or Groups: The Classroom Seating Debate

Originally published July 2016

By Martha Beach

When Catherine Hickey’s youngest daughter was in kindergarten, the teacher organized the class into rows. Some parents were up in arms: preschool was supposed to be all play, and now the kids were expected to sit in a line? But the teacher had a plan and she knew how to manage the class to reach her goals.

“Within four months, my daughter was reading,” says Hickey, a teacher and mom of two in West Nyack, NY. “The teacher knew the testing level of her children and she had good, clear structure.” Sitting in rows to keep kids focused on the teacher was an integral part of that structure.

A linear approach is just one way to organize a classroom. Some teachers assign seats alphabetically. Others allow students to pick and choose anew every day. And many educators often find a sweet spot in between.

“It completely depends on the philosophy of the teacher, the content of the course, and what the objectives are,” explains Charles Pascal, Professor of Applied Psychology and Human Development at University of Toronto. But that’s not all: where a child sits is also very much based on personality and how students interact with each other, not to mention medical or behavioural issues that may crop up.

At its core, a seating arrangement should aid the students in their learning process. “You have to put the kids’ learning first,” Hickey says. She currently teaches an Intensive Day Treatment (IDT) program that supports kids from Grades 5-12.

“Teaching should be judged by what the students are learning,” Pascal adds. “So how do we arrange the environment so the students learn?”

Sometimes, straightforward is the way to go. A small study from the University of Western Ontario found that memory retention among post-secondary students was highest in a sterile classroom arranged in rows. Younger children often learn differently. A report on the impact of space design by furniture company Steelcase found that at the heart of the issue, intentionally designing a classroom with learning in mind results in more effective education as a whole. Seat your students with a focus on learning, based on how you teach.

For logistical reasons, like remembering names, a seating plan is key. In her early days, 22 years ago, Hickey assigned seats alphabetically, saw that it worked, and learned from experience. She still initially assigns seats then moves kids as the year goes on based on behaviour or learning styles (don’t put your ADHD student near the window or your visually impaired child at the back).


“You have to get to know the children,” Hickey says. Sometimes a child needs to move in order to learn. “You can tell from their body language, their eyes darting, or how many times they’ve dropped their pencil in the last 10 minutes,” she explains. So if you’re spending more time correcting behaviour than teaching, you know something has to change.

Hickey’s IDT classroom has assigned groups, but also has two separate desks by the teacher’s table, not as punishment but as a space to focus on learning.

Learning the curriculum is one of the main goals, “but there is no one appropriate seating plan,” Pascal stresses. A linear lecture-style might work for your class. In Pascal’s opinion, discussion is the way to go. “You see rows of chairs and [it represents] one-way communication,” he says. So if the objective is to help students learn through problem-solving, opt for semi-circles and groups of two to five students.

“Students can’t become life-long problem-solvers with just rows of chairs,” Pascal says. “It’s better to break off into small groups. And you can do it with a lecture of 200 or with a class of 20.” Pascal highly recommends lecturing in moderation, followed by active student learning and feedback. “It’s not about drill-and-kill,” he adds. “A combination of both styles is important.”

Hickey has found that middle-of-the-road approach to be most successful, as well. She usually follows a “think, pair, share” motto. Give out information, ask the students to think about it, then have them form groups to share and digest the ideas. But keep in mind, as much freedom as you want to give your students, kids thrive on predictability.

Even with her “think, pair, share” strategy, Hickey always explains the process to students the first couple of times. For some kids, switching seats and settling into groups is very scary. “It can make kids anxious because they’re leaving their space. You’re making them uncomfortable,” Hickey says, which can be good. A little change here and there teaches adaptation.

Seating arrangements may seem basic at first, but they are a key element in classroom management. Help your ADHD kid focus on work by seating them at the front, move that squinting kid up a few rows until they get their new glasses, and separate your chatty kids into different groups. Seating plans can make a world of difference in supporting your teaching style and helping your students learn all they can.

If you want… Arrange desks…
  • To deliver straightforward information
  • To keep talking to a minimum
  • In forward-facing rows
  • To facilitate large group discussion
  • To be able to see everyone
  •  Into a large U-shape around the room
  • To easily move around the room
  • To encourage discussion to digest information
  • In small groups of three and four, facing each other
  • To encourage partner work
  • To keep noise level down
  •  In pairs, preferably facing each other
  • Specific students to focus
  • To keep an eye on behaviour/learning
  • So that there are two to four separate desks close to you

Martha Beach is a graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and factchecker in Toronto.