Take back the class, one row at a time

CAROL MILSTONE

A report prepared by the Ontario Coalition for Educational Reform, for which Mrs. Morrison served on the steering committee, calls for the return to things such as desks in rows, classroom discipline (but not corporal punishment) and standardized testing. In short, says the coalition, dispense with today’s child-centred approach to education, and allow the teacher to regain control of the classroom.


Ottawa's Emily Carr Middle School is a dark brown, bunker-like brick building whose open-concept interior has virtually no windows, and classrooms that are defined by groupings of desks and bookshelves rather than walls. With a vast central pit area that serves for social functions and the student parliament, Emily Carr is either a modern beauty from an era of progressive educational reform — or an unmitigated urban eyesore and an affront to anyone who values anything about the traditional approach to classroom teaching.

"I taught in a one-room schoolhouse with 52 kids, and I never had the classroom problems that today's schools are having," says Sheila Morrison, whose views on classroom structure rest squarely with the traditionalists. When Mrs. Morrison taught 60 years ago, in Red Rock, Ont., the kids were seated in rows, there were large windows for natural daylight and the teacher was an authority figure to be revered — and at times even feared.

"We also had class management skills, including rules about speaking in class and the assignment of seats. Today, we have teachers who were never taught these skills during their training, and there are just plain bad manners out there," Mrs. Morrison says.

Mrs. Morrison says tearing down schools such as Emily Carr is a first step toward educational reform. She is not alone in her preference for traditional-style classrooms. A report prepared by the Ontario Coalition for Educational Reform, for which Mrs. Morrison served on the steering committee, calls for the return to things such as desks in rows, classroom discipline (but not corporal punishment) and standardized testing. In short, says the coalition, dispense with today's child-centred approach to education, and allow the teacher to regain control of the classroom.

Heretical as these views may seem, research is being conducted to support some of these views. In particular, results from more than 10 years of research in Britain on the effects of classroom seating show that group seating is problematic for easily distracted students, and all students learn more effectively when seated in rows.

In the most noted experiment, published in the 1995 Educational Research journal, British researchers Nigel Hastings and Joshua Schwieso had primary grade students sit in rows, then groups, then back to rows during two-week intervals. The percentage of time the students spent working on their assigned tasks began at 75% while in rows, then plummeted to 56% while seated in small groups, then rose to 79% when the students were again assigned to sit in rows. Similar benefits to row seating were observed when the order of assigned seating arrangements was reversed — the students began in groups, then went to rows, then back to groups.

In another study by the same researchers, students were instructed to complete an assignment on their own, without interaction with their peers. The students produced substantially superior work when seated in rows as opposed to groups. Improvement during row seating was particularly dramatic for students whom the teachers identified as distractible.

"A characteristic of the child-centred approach [to education]," says the report of the Ontario Coalition for Educational Reform, "is its emphasis on group work and peer evaluation."

However, it concludes, "arranging children in this way also guarantees that at any given moment, many of the students will not be facing the teacher, and it reduces their ability to focus on tasks."

As well, says the coalition, small-group seating arrangements in the classroom reduces motivation for the weaker students to do their best, since the dominant students tend to supply the answers. "When students sit in rows, says Sheila Morrison, who runs a traditional private school in Utopia, Ont., "the teacher can check all her students' work most effectively, and classroom noise and distractions are greatly reduced."

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Carol Milstone "Take back the class, one row at a time." National Post, (Canada) September 8, 2001.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Carol Milstone has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a regular contributor in education and psychology for the National Post.

Copyright © 2001 National Post


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