A teacher’s classroom seating plan reveals a lot about what they value in education. The ways desks are set up shows, primarily, how you want your students to interact.
When planning a classroom seating char, ask yourself questions like:
- Do you want small group interaction?
- Do you prioritize individual practice?
- Is a ‘stage’ for modeled teaching important to you?
- Do you need to accommodate wall plugs for computers?
So the reality is, there’s no perfect classroom seating plan. Different lessons, subject areas and age groups have different needs.
As Wannarka and Ruhl argue:
“There is no single classroom seating arrangement that promotes positive behavioural and academic outcomes for all tasks, because the available research clearly indicates that the nature (i.e., interactive versus independent) of the task should dictate the arrangement.”
So in this article I want to walk through a range of classroom seating charts to get you thinking about how you’d want to set up your desks to get the most out of your students.
12 Classroom Seating Charts – Compared
1. The Circle
The circle plan has all the students facing one another in a whole group circle (see seating chart image).
Students can all see one another in this layout, with no one having their back to any other student. The teacher’s desk is usually on the outside looking in, although the teacher can sit at one of the seats around the circle if they wish.
- Equal Power Distribution – There is no ‘head’ of the table or ‘best’ seat in this seating plan. All students are an equal distance from the middle of the circle.
- All Students can see the Speaker – If one student is speaking, all other students will have that student in their eyesight. There is no need for students to crane their necks or look over their backs to see each other.
- Helps with Whole Class Discussions – All the students are members of one big group here, enabling some high quality whole group interactions.
- Teacher Positioning – Students will need to crane their neck to see the teacher’s desk or whiteboard.
- Access to Students – It’s also hard to access students’ work as you’re always behind them leaning over their shoulders.
- Hard to do Small Group Work – Whenever I’ve taught in classrooms like this, breaking off into small groups has been difficult. I’d prefer table groupings (discussed later) for small group classes.
- Open up the Middle – A good variation is to have a gap between desks so the teacher can walk into the middle area, which makes it very easy to go from student to student to help them out. This also makes the middle a good ‘presentation’ and ‘modelling’ staging area.
2. Table Groups
The table groups plan separates students out into a few small groups who can work with one another to complete their tasks. It’s very commonly found in elementary school classrooms, but it’s also my favorite seating plan in my college seminar groups.
Typically, students are seated in tables of between 4 and 8 students, but I find 6 to be the sweet spot.
- Social Interaction – Students can talk, debate and teach one another as they go about their work. As a social constructivist, I believe communication between students in the classroom can significantly help students to get through learning barriers.
- Resource Sharing – The teacher can place one resource in the middle of each group desk so students can share them between one another.
- Students Have their Backs to Teacher – When the teacher is presenting in the front of the classroom, some students will have to crane their necks. With small children, you can get them to sit at the front of the classroom when the teacher is talking.
- Cheating is Easy – If you’re worried about your students cheating, this might not be the best seating plan. Students are able to look straight ahead and see another student’s work.
- It’ll be Noisy – When students are looking at each other, talking is very natural. When it comes to quiet time, you really need to train your students to resist chatting.
- Don’t Underestimate it for Older Students – This layout is common in the early years. But as students get older, it gets less common. I find it’s great for all ages, though, so give it a go – no matter the age groups!
The table rows plan has all students facing forward and seated in rows, split in the middle with a walkway. It’s the most common seating arrangement I see in classrooms, but it’s also one I’m not particularly fond of.
This layout is best designed for teacher-centered instruction and discourages student interaction because students have only one student either side of them who they can talk to.
- Space Saver – It’also one of the most space saving layouts, which I assume is why many teachers use it. There’s not a big space in the middle of the class that’s wasted; rather, the whole class is filled with rows.
- Good for Presentations – When the teacher (or other students) are out the front of class, all the students are facing in the direction of the speaker.
- Minimizes Chatter – Students don’t have opportunities to talk to too many other students.
- Not Enough Social Interaction – Teachers often use this setup to minimize social interaction. You’re sending a message that individual work is your priority.
- Students Looking Through Heads – Sometimes you need to sit shorter students at the front of the class.
- Tight Squeeze – If the classroom is small, students find it hard to get down the rows to their seat without disturbing their peers.
- The Teaching Spot – Find a ‘teaching spot’ at the front of the classroom and train your students to go quiet and pay attention whenever you’re at your teaching spot.
The workstations plan is a 21st Century teaching style that is very common in library spaces and universal design for learning classrooms. It involves different workstations around the classroom with different layouts – some social, some individual.
This plan allows students to work in ways that best match their learning style (or, more accurately, their learning preference). A student who likes to work quietly can sit facing a wall. A student who likes to work in groups can sit in a table group, and so forth.
- Student Choice – Students can choose which workstation they’re most comfortable with.
- Social Learning – This classroom structure often leads to a buzzing, active classroom environment.
- Tech Integration – You can place computers at several workstations to more effectively integrate technology into the everyday life of the classroom.
- Resource Scarcity – It usually ends up being the case that students have a ‘favorite’ spot which everyone fights over.
- No Personal Space – Students don’t get one spot they can call their own.
- Noise – I’ve observed many classrooms with this structure that end up being unruly very fast. Ensure you maintain your control over the space.
- Explicitly Teach Independent Learning – Students need a lot of support at the beginning of the year to learn how to behave appropriately in this space. Independent learning and positive interdependent group work both need to be clearly modeled.
5. The Horseshoe
The horseshoe plan involves having all the desks in a wide U-shape, allowing for a lot of space in the middle of the classroom that acts as a stage for modeled teaching, performances and ‘fishbowl’ lessons. (See seating chart image).
The structure of this seating plan indicates the teacher values whole group instruction and modeled teaching, followed by individual learning. There are no small group break-out opportunities here.
- Large Stage – There’s a big area in the middle of the classroom for presentations, modeled teaching and demonstrations from guest speakers.
- All Students can See – Unlike the rows structure, in this classroom no student has to look over any other student’s head to see the front of the room.
- Teacher can see all Students – This is good for classroom management because students are always easy to see. It’s also great for helping students as you can walk across the open space to reach everyone’s desk easily.
- Not Space Efficient – Many classrooms end up needing to do an adaptation of the horseshoe shape in order to fit all the students in the room (see double-U seating chart below)
- Student Access is Hard – Some students have to walk around a lot of other students’ chairs to access their place, causing distractions in the classroom.
- Make the Most of the Stage – When doing demonstrations, you can place a table in the middle of the open space and have the students stand to get a good look.
6. The Double-U Horseshoe
The Double-U horseshoe seating plan is a variation of the horseshoe model above, but the middle section is filled with seats as well. This is a more common seating structure than the typical horseshoe because it’s more space efficient.
This structure is a practical and makeshift way of arranging the classroom, but does dilute many of the upsides of the horseshoe structure, making it less desirable in my opinion.
Often, teachers will choose to seat those students who misbehave the most in the inner horseshoe to ensure they have better oversight.
- Space Efficient – You can fit more students into this space than the traditional horseshoe seating chart model.
- Students all Face Same Direction – While the students at the sides may have to pivot a little, the students generally all face toward the center of the classroom.
- No Staging Area – You don’t have the large stage for modeled teaching that you would have in the traditional horseshoe model.
- Harder to Access Students – The students in the outer horseshoe are harder to access when there are two horseshoes in the class.
- Looking over Heads – The students in the outer horseshoe will also have to look over other students’ heads.
- Students who misbehave can sit in the inner horseshoe where they’re easier to see and manage.
7. Class Conference
The class conference plan is common in universities, but can be used in any educational setting. This plan involves having everyone sit around one large conference table.
In this arrangement, students can act as if they’re in the workplace or a corporate environment where they will need to participate in discussions as a whole group to come to conclusions. Everyone is facing one another which facilitates open discussion.
Usually you need the desks to be wide as well as long or else it becomes a corridor in which students aren’t able to see one another sufficiently.
- Mimics the Corporate Workplace – This seating chart can be used to help students see what it’s like in a true workplace. Bridging the gap between education and the workforce can be helpful for students to see the relevance of what they’re learning.
- Whole Group Discussion Encouraged – The open discussion format allows for good whole group interaction if you’ve got a group of students confident to speak up.
- Resource Sharing – You can place some resources in the middle and everyone can share them.
- Students not Facing a Board – There isn’t a front presentation area where the teacher can stand to do model ed instruction.
- Small Group Work is Difficult – It’s hard to break off and do small group work with this seating plan.
- Consider using this style once every now and then to mix things up, but I wouldn’t use it as my regular structure.
8. Exam Style
The exam style plan is what many of us may remember from our days in school. Students are seated at their own individual desks so they can’t see one another, can’t cheat, and can’t interact.
This setup is less and less common, but some teachers still do prefer it as it gives the teacher maximum control over their class. I remember my high school history teacher took this structure one step further by seating us all boy-girl boy-girl. He was old school!
- Teacher Control – There is a strong message being sent here that students should not interact with anyone but the teacher.
- Independence – Students are encouraged to learn in their own bubble, which can encourage independence. However in my opinion this can also cause stress for students who are struggling and want explanations from friends.
- No Social Interaction – I strongly believe children can be very good teachers of one another (even better than us adults at times!). This model can significantly impede student learning for those who need to talk things through with peers to learn.
- While this seating chart looks archaic, sometimes it’s good to get students used to this format before walking into standardized exams which will look just like this.
9. Pair Up
The pair up seating plan is an improvement on the exam style, but continues many of its features, such as having all students facing the teacher and board at the front and intentionally limiting social interaction (this time to one other student).
This style is also very similar to the ‘rows’ style, except that there is a gap ever 2nd seat. This gap does allow for greater access to seats and more free-flowing movement around the classroom. With a large enough classroom you can ensure each table is separated enough so that students in wheelchairs and other disabilities may benefit from this space because they will have greater access to the whole classroom and greater choice where to sit.
- Quiet Interaction Enabled – If you’re after a classroom that tolerates whispers but not a raucous riot, this might be good. Students can interact with one other student only, which is nice.
- Easy Movement – You can get around the desks easily to access students’ work
- Students face Forward – All students can see the teacher presentation at the front of the class and no one needs to strain their neck.
- Group work Hard – This seating chart isn’t designed for groups of students larger than 2.
- Minimal Activities Space – If you’ve got a large classroom, you might prefer to structure the tables so there’s open spaces for activities and experiments to take place.
- If you want students to work in groups of 4, get the front row to turn their desks around so they can talk to the students behind them as a group.
10. The Runway
The runway seating plan is similar to the horseshoe, but there is not a back row. One of the best features of this seating plan is it splits the class into two distinct groups. This allows for competitions and debates without too much change to the classroom environment.
I often find that this layout isn’t sufficient because the classroom needs to be long and thin for this layout to work (if you’ve got, say, 28 students in the class it can get hard to fit them all along the rows)
- Good for Debates – You can have the students on each side debating one another over topics.
- Activity Space – All students have clear unimpeded view of the central area where the teacher or other students can do presentations.
- Takes up Space – You need a large (or at least long) classroom for this format to work out.
- Small Group work Hard – I often find that I’ll split students into two groups for each row, but the student at one end of the row can’t interact with the student at the other end!
11. The Stadium
The stadium plan is a take on the ‘rows’ format that pivots students slightly so they don’t have to crane their necks to see the front of the classroom. In this sense, it’s potentially even more teacher-centered than the rows seating chart.
Teachers who like to have control over the class or do a large amount of presentation work might like this format. Similarly, teachers who use a lot of powerpoints or movies in the class could benefit from using this seating plan.
- Good for Student Vision – Students don’t have to crane their necks to see the front of the classroom.
- Opening for Presentations – You’ll find the front desks lean slightly away from the presentation area, allowing you more space to do modeling.
- Awkward – Beware that the students at the back row can often be squeezed into their space without room to get out, as they often end up hitting against the back wall. Similarly, students seem to find it hard to keep the tables in that row format. You’ll find them often rotating the tables so they’re square with the walls.
- Takes up Space – This seating chart takes up more space for a very similar end result than the square rows format.
- Change the classroom to this format when doing a unit of work that involves watching lots of movies.
12. The Computer Room
The computer room plan involves having all the desks facing the wall of the classroom, with student seats also placed so students are facing the wall. This would seem very odd except for the fact there are computers on all the desks for students to look at.
This seating chart is practical more than anything. Computers need to be plugged into the walls, and you don’t want cables all over the place for students to trip over.
As more and more schools move to laptops, this format is getting less common.
- Teacher can see Screens – At times, it can be a complete nightmare getting students to stop looking at their monitors and pay attention to the teacher’s instructions. In this format, you can see when students are misbehaving, and you can also ask students to fully rotate their chairs when you’re talking.
- Cords are Tucked Away – Students won’t trip on the cords.
- Students Facing Away – The students are pivoted to face away from the teacher.
- Not Space Efficient – There is a wide open space in the middle of the classroom that isn’t being utilized.
- Use laptops to avoid having to use this classroom seating chart style.
Ideally, we would be free to set up our classroom desks however we’d like. But when we compare our classroom seating chart to the room we’re given at the start of the teaching year … we realize it’s not always so easy.
There’s often not enough space, not enough desks, or even obstacles like pillars crossing through the classroom.
Hopefully this article has shown you a few creative ideas for setting up your classroom in a way that reflects your teaching philosophy!
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.