The crew seating arrangement has been with us for quite some time and we have changed the way our students used to sit (in rows) . The immediate advantages of shifting to crews or groups became evident as the arrangement provided for better collaboration among students and it encouraged group activities. Lesson plans had to be changed as they needed to cater to group activities, delegation of tasks to each group and increased teacher movement in class.
After some time however, a few niggling doubts began to creep in when one noticed the increased voice levels and the fact that there was more cross talking than when the students were sitting in rows. The reason perhaps was that when students sat in rows, they would not be able to talk to the backs of their friends’ heads, unless of course the student ahead turned his head, and then he would be caught by the teacher! What took time to understand was that this arrangement was suitable mainly for group group work - anything that went beyond collaborative work was not very successful. The use of the green board for demonstration purposes, and for noting important observations by crew, and the use of the white board to display projected images did not go well with the students who could not look at them because their backs were toward the front of the classroom.
Students who were sitting sideways had to crane their necks sideways at the green-board and the white board to note down important points while those with their backs to the front of the classroom had to depend on their crew members who were able to note down what was written on the green board and what was projected on the white board. The demand to look into their peer’s notebook meant that there was constant talking and this included protests when those who were able to look at the green board and the white board were being hampered from further noting important information.
The amount of cross talking did increase and I thought that perhaps it was because the children were being deliberately noisy. It was later that I observed that students who had their backs to other students were really not aware about the raised hands of their peers and they would start talking at the same time when the teacher nodded to a particular student to answer a question. The students who did not have a line of sight with some of the others were not aware of this and they started talking at the same time as their friends.
It became clear that the crew seating arrangement did offer a suitable line of vision for some students and thus demonstration classes were really not a tremendous success. The alternative was to ask the students to sit in rows when a demonstration was taking place, but then the amount of time it took to re-arrange the desks and chairs went beyond the permitted settling time!
The reason why the crew seating arrangement is not successful at all times will become obvious in the first image posted below. While no doubt the advantages of the crew seating arrangement might have advantages in collaborative learning in the K-7 grades, the advantages begin to fade in the 8-12 grade levels where the teacher has to resort to the demonstration, and the lecture methods of teaching in class.
A suitable alternative to the crew seating arrangement would probably be the paired seating arrangement where students sit in pairs. The advantages of the second seating arrangement would offer better line of vision for both the teacher and the students. While groups of more than four might be manageable, groups of five or more would increase the need for teacher movement, and the voice level would increase as the number of students in each group exceeds four. In a class of more than twenty-five students, this means that the teacher will have to be constantly on the move! A more manageable arrangement for classes where there are more than twenty-five student would perhaps be to make them sit in pairs. Many years ago, students sat on desks that seated pairs or even triples, and that arrangement worked fine. If you look at the second image, you will notice that the paired seating arrangement offers better line of sight, and perhaps it would be easier to manage pairs rather than more unwieldy groups of fives or even sixes.
The only disadvantage with the paired seating arrangement would be perhaps that then in a class of thirty; the teacher would have to cater to fifteen pairs or groups rather than six. Take for example the teaching of a poem. If the poem has five stanzas, then it would be easy to give one stanza to each group to analyse the same for the central theme, mood, tone, figures of speech, overall atmosphere, and style of writing, a total of six elements. When you have fifteen pairs or groups, you probably have to give one stanza to two pairs and then you would have to give one pair the first three elements to analyse and the second pair the other three elements. The presentations however would take a lot of time.
The best alternative, I guess to all the above arrangements would be the Horse-Shoe Semi-Crew seating arrangment. In this case the students sit in a horseshoe shape and all the students can see each other, moreover, the teacher too can maintain eye contact with all his or her students. The horseshoe seating arrangement also provides enough space for the teacher to move around. I find this arrangement to be a most interesting and viable seating arrangement since it encourages the emotional connect between students and the teacher. The horseshoe seating arrangement will work very well in situations where you have a teacher owned classroom and students come to the class room for a particular subject.