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The ideological battle over classroom seating arrangements

Credit: Dave Thompson/PA Wire/PA Images

Credit: Dave Thompson/PA Wire/PA Images

February 21, 2018   2 mins

In the postmodernist worldview, the structures of society are interpreted as hierarchies of power, privilege and oppression.

This even includes physical structures, for instance the arrangement of desks in a classroom. In a post for the teacherhead website, Tom Sherrington describes the battleground:

“Some of the strangest debates or memes about education that pop up now and then are about the idea of students sitting in rows. You don’t have to look too far to find people aligning this commonplace desk configuration along the axis of evil. Only recently I came across a tweet that mentioned children sitting in rows in a list of features of modern schooling that included compliant, submissive… It’s just the weirdest thing. But it’s not uncommon. Sitting rows = factory schooling, 19th C, Gradgrindian, ‘Victorian’ – all intended as pejoratives.”

As the old saying goes, ‘when you’ve got a hammer every problem looks like a nail’. Similarly, when you view the world solely in terms of power relationships (and necessarily oppressive ones at that), it becomes impossible to see that social structures might not have evolved to embed privilege, but rather to provide for the common good.

That’s certainly true of classroom seating arrangements:

“…sitting in rows is great because YOU CAN SEE EVERYONE’S FACE AT THE SAME TIME.  The reason classrooms are very often configured in this way is not because schools are old fashioned. It is because this very sensible, very human set-up has stood the test of time. And it always will.”

“Human? Of course it is. When I teach, I want to look everyone in the eye; I want to gauge their responses, hold their attention; I want to communicate with them. All of them. At the same time. This is the most intimate person-to-person aspect of teaching: eye contact. It matters; it’s powerful. It’s a deeply human element of communicating ideas and emotions.”

At the secondary school I went to, we mostly sat in rows. In a few classrooms, however, we sat in groups. We much prefered those for the simple reason that it maximised mucking around opportunities. This hasn’t escaped Mr. Sherrington’s attention:

“As I see first hand on many of my lesson observations, students sat in groups continually distract each other. The dynamics of the peer space are strong… Sometimes, grouped tables have been there so long, students have developed a group table culture with a mighty force field around them virtually impossible to penetrate with learning. Our space; keep out.”

Seating arrangements are a tangible example of the way that social structures evolve in response to context. For instance, churches, theatres, concert halls are like traditional classrooms – people sit in rows so that they can focus their attention on the person or people they need to focus on (be that the priest, the actors, the musicians or the teacher). In legislatures, elected representatives sit on opposing benches, or in a hemicycle, so that they can face one another, while identifying party allegiance. In restaurants, diners sit in small groups – creating private space in a public environment. In a courtroom, the complex seating arrangements help distinguish the very different roles and responsibilities of the judge, jury, lawyers, witnesses, the public and, of course, the defendant.

In many cases these structures arose by accident, but as Tom Sherrington says they have stood the test of time.

To deconstruct them on the assumption that tradition must be oppressive is to privilege the faddish theories of the few over the lived experience of the many. This is itself an elitist power grab and the ultimate in ‘post-modern irony’.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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