Why I Have Such A Strong Reaction To Rows

This morning, my students wrote their Geometry Math Test. Since EQAO is coming up at the end of May, and I want students to understand how it feels to be in this testing environment, I had students move into rows this morning. We’ve done this before for tests, but regardless of that, both the students and I have the same reaction to these rows: it’s a silent group groan. 

The room just feels wrong when students are all sitting in isolation. I know a testing environment should be silent, and this one definitely was, but even the silence feels wrong. It’s too quiet. I love the hum of collaboration. It’s great to see students working and learning together. Learning is social.

It’s funny: even my students that like to work alone see the power of collaboration. I am amazed at all of the different ways that they use tools such as GoogleDocs to comment on each other’s work, share ideas, and ask questions. They even use it to study. 🙂

As a teacher, I continually hear about the importance of collaboration and I encourage it, but then in a testing situation, everything changes. It makes me sad to sit and watch a silent classroom. But did the students feel this sadness too?

I think that they did: the moment that they handed in their test, they quickly grouped together. Some moved out into the hallway to continue working on group projects. Others used GoogleDocs or Twitter to share online. Another group moved to the guided reading table to whisper their thoughts as they finished a project together. And even though the test took us right until the nutrition break, students happily gave up a few minutes of eating time  to move their desks back into groups. Ahhh … order restored. 🙂

How do you and your students feel about rows? Can collaboration still exist in a classroom of rows?

13 thoughts on “Why I Have Such A Strong Reaction To Rows

  1. There is something seemingly oppressive about rows, I agree. It conjures images of S.S., storm troupers, and lame exercise classes with yelling, squealing instructors. Well, even the latter are slightly offset arrays. Yes, rows exert a certain power over the class stating that the teacher will speak and the students will listen. It also reminds me of sweat shops.
    Okay, that is pretty harsh. Is there a plus side? A garden is in rows and spreadsheets are in rows and columns too. The order is beautiful and easy to understand and tend to. The order is peaceful and beautiful.
    There is a dark side and a beautiful side to rows. As is often the case in education, so much depends on what the teacher is doing. I think the ideal situation is where students and teachers can exist in a modular environment that can be redesigned, hacked and mobilized to suit the needs of the learners, the lesson and the task. Sometimes I am most creative when I am alone and that sets up me to go on to do wonderful collaborative work after. At other times, I crave a big noisy group to laugh and riff on ideas. Let us flow between the different class formats.
    Maybe wheels are the new killer app? If everything was modular and flexible, what then?
    Great post, Aviva. Thanks for writing. As a grade 3 teacher, I totally hear where you are coming from. @cordym

    • Michelle, thank you so much for your comment! You really made me think. I wonder if I feel so strongly against rows not because of the rows themselves, but just the fact that all students are made to work and learn in the same environment. Everything else that we do in the classroom allows for choice: students work alone or they work in a group; the work with their tables apart or together; they work on paper or they work on a device; they work at tables or desks or even on the floor; they work in the environment that suits them best. Today didn’t allow for that though. Testing environments really don’t. Today all students were put in rows. They were all given a test. They were all told to work silently. And they all had to work alone. It’s strange to think that we test in a way that is polar opposite to how we teach and how students learn.

      So much to consider …

  2. Aviva,

    I love having my students in groups. I find groups foster sense of collaboration that rows really can’t. I had my students in rows for a bit this year after they requested it. It was a nice change for a bit but we changed into groups after two weeks!

    • Thanks for your comment, Mary! It’s interesting to hear that your students requested rows for a bit. Why did they want the rows? Why did they wish to move back? Did the teaching/learning environment change with the rows? Always so much to think about!


      • I change seating plans about once a month/6 weeks and they had added it as one of our options. They then voted to have rows! I think they wanted to try it out and see what rows were like because we always sit in groups.

        I feel like rows made me feel like I needed to lecture more because the students weren’t sitting in groups. It’s was a bit strange for me because I don’t like standing up front for long periods of time.

        Maybe I will ask them how they found the row experience on Monday.

        • Thanks for elaborating here, Mary! I would be very curious to hear what the students have to say. The environment feels different in rows to me. I wonder if the students feel the same way. I’m very curious to hear if teachers have had success getting students to collaborate in a classroom full of rows. Can these two things go together?


  3. Aviva,

    What a timely post! My students have sat in groups of 4 (or 5 if needed) all year long – in fact, for the past 6 years that I’ve taught intermediates. Yes, the noise level is increased, and sometimes of course it’s from off-task conversation. But the benefits far outweigh that issue. Groupings are strategically set, and changed monthly. Introverted students, while perhaps not contributing to the conversation, can at least hear the conversation and benefit. Ideas voiced by one student stimulate deep thinking from others.

    So yesterday I moved them into rows, something I haven’t done in years. Why? Because I was away the previous day, and the students behaviour and conversation was off task for most of the day for the supply teacher. This wasn’t the first time for this class. The reaction from my students after being moved into rows? Shocked. My reaction? I felt terrible – it’s entirely against my belief. The room was too quiet. I hated it.

    So maybe there’s a different solution for this group of students who still haven’t learned how to behave for a supply teacher. Rows for when a supply teacher is in? Suggestions welcome, but I’m pretty sure after my one day trial, I’m going back to groups on Monday. After all, we are a community of collaborative learners, and I miss the noise of the students’ voices.

    • Heather, thanks for adding to this conversation! It’s funny that you said this. For the first part of the school year, I did the group assignments. Students had some input, but I made the final decision. Right after Christmas, I changed that plan. I let students decide where to sit. They made their groups with the understanding that they were able to work and learn in that environment and nobody was excluded. It’s worked!

      Students are constantly working in different groups, and their desk is really just for storing items. As such, I don’t move the seats often, and even the student-created groups have worked equally as well (maybe even better than the ones I made). Students know though that they have to behave no matter what teacher is in the classroom.

      Earlier in the year, I had a supply teacher in, and things did not go very well. I told the students that the number one thing that I want to hear when I get a note from the supply teacher is, “You were awesome!” Every time I’m going to be away, I tell the students beforehand. After sharing who’s coming in as the supply teacher, I then always ask, “What do I want to hear?” And I have to say that I’ve been out at inservices or away at appointments at least four times since this one problem, and the class has been PERFECT!

      It’s strange Heather, as I used to say something similar when I taught primary, and I wasn’t sure that this would work in the junior classroom, but so far, so good. I wonder if a similar discussion could work for your students as well. I hope that it does, as it doesn’t seem like you like the row solution any more than the students do. Good luck!


  4. Thank you for your post Aviva. As a former grade 6 teacher (for many years), moving to rows was always an awkward moment in the year for me. Like Michelle, I believe there is a time for quiet thought and reflection but I don’t think that happens in the classroom in rows. The part of your post that spoke to me the most is:

    “It’s funny: even my students that like to work alone see the power of collaboration. I am amazed at all of the different ways that they use tools such as GoogleDocs to comment on each other’s work, share ideas, and ask questions. They even use it to study.”

    I have been thinking a lot about collaboration and introverts. I am very happy to hear that your students who choose to work alone are seeing the power of collaboration. This is credit to you honouring how they feel and creating a safe environment for their learning.

    Just know that you have created a safe, collaborative environment and the rows will not stop great discussion, inquiry and reflection from taking place. @marshatkelly

    • Thank you, Marsha, for your comment and your kind words! I think it’s important to give all students a way to learn together. That’s why I love a tool like GoogleDocs. Students can still collaborate, but without having to rely on speaking to each other. Technology gives options for collaboration, and I love that!

      I’m happy to hear that rows will not stop great discussions from happening, but that being said, I’m glad we’re only in rows temporarily. 🙂

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