Classroom desk arrangements; Rows, Clusters or U Shape?

There are a several critical teaching behaviours that affect student behaviour. One of the most important is how a teacher plans the physical classroom environment ? When I was studying Education at University, in Australia, it was pretty much an accepted fact that an arrangement that suited collaborative group work for our students was best, and therefore clusters or groups of tables was preferred. Not surprisingly, given that collaborative workers is one of the IB Learner Profile attributes there is an emphasis on group work and therefore a classroom arrangement of groups or clusters would be the most effective. Though, critics point out that half the students are not facing the board and some researchers have found that sitting around tables, children find it harder to concentrate, often have their backs to teachers and waste more time chatting – misusing as much as a quarter of the lesson.

However, traditional teachers prefer the more classic rows, this makes it easier for them to control the students and they can be certain that all students are paying attention to the front of the class. A 20-year study by Professor Nigel Hastings of Nottingham Trent University, has confirmed that pupils who sit in groups are at a massive disadvantage compared to those who face the blackboard. Some of his analysis of the research findings has shown that youngsters whose desks are arranged in old-style rows work up to twice as hard. Which is generally a good thing for classrooms that rely on a teacher centred model of learning but not  so great for student inquiry.

However, other studies such as one by Rosenfield et al published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that their results confirm their hypotheses that students seated in circles engage in significantly more on-task behavior than those in rows and that students seated in clusters engage in more on-task behavior than those in rows but less than those in circles. But they also acknowledged that students’ behavior varied significantly across student types, as one would expect.

Essentially, it boils down to a combination of teaching styles, students’ learning styles and the type of activity being conducted at the time. Being flexible is paramount, a concern that teachers may have is that regularly rearranging desk arrangements may cause disruption and noise at the start of a class. But this does not have to be the case, in practice classroom desk ararngement changes can usually be completed in around one minute once the students are used to the concept.


  1. “Desk arrangement effects on pupil classroom behavior.” By Rosenfield, Peter; Lambert, Nadine M.; Black, Allen, Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 77(1), Feb 1985, 101-108.
  2. “Back to Front: [Does] It Matter Where Children Sit?” by Joanna Moorhead, The Guardian [UK], January 23, 2001. last accessed 17th November 2011
  3. pictures modified by clipart from last accessed 17th November 2011

About Pak Liam

Living, teaching and traveling in Asia.
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8 Responses to Classroom desk arrangements; Rows, Clusters or U Shape?

  1. How timely considering my row classroom is being redesigned this summer to better suit our IB philosophy. I’ll let you know how the changes work out.

  2. Pingback: Top 10 pages on my blog and search terms that found it | MYP @ Global Jaya International School

  3. Thank you for putting this together in one place. Sad how little attention the physical space for learning has been given.

  4. Bethan says:

    I’m trying to find any research that has been done on KS3 students sitting on the floor for music lessons. Almost all of the seating arrangement research I have found so far has been either primary on the floor or secondary in chairs… Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    • Pak Liam says:

      Hmmmm, how interesting, I didn’t think of that. I’d be inclined to say that a comfortable learning environment is the one most conducive to a lesson. If they do not need to be writing much, then why not sit them on the floor. (provided you have this space available).

      I know the music teacher at our school has his room set up without chairs (he has stools for when some students choose to sit on stool to play guitar etc, he has some sofa’s for relaxed listening and often this students are either sitting or standing.

      As for research, I’ve asked him if he has any and I will let you know.

  5. Pingback: Communication on classroom layout | The Importance of Classroom Layout

  6. Pak Liam says:

    Actually, now we are about to trial the use of Yoga balls instead of chairs. I will post the results soon.

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