Observe always that everything is the result of a change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and to make new ones like them.

Marcus Aurelius

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teacher in possession of a large roomful of children must be in want of a carefully crafted seating plan. Secondary schools in particular have normalised the idea that children should sit in the seat where they will be least distracted and best able to learn. There are many excellent reasons to use seating plans: they’re a great way to learn students’ names, keep order and establish routines. These are all sound and it is not my intention to unpick them.

I do, however, want to consider the effects of seating plans on learning. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know I define learning as ‘the long-term retention and transfer of knowledge and skills’. Lots gets said about memory, far less about transfer. The idea is that new information acquired in a classroom ought to be applied elsewhere. There are a number of confusions about transfer, most notably that you can transfer ideas between domains. You can do this, but only if you’re sufficiently expert in a subject or if the domains are incredibly close. For instance, it’s trivially easy to transfer the knowledge and skill of making toast, to the domain of crumpet toasting. And it’s relatively straightforward for a teacher to transfer the knowledge and skill of poetry analysis to the domain of non-fiction writing. But being able to transfer the ability to analyse historical sources to the domain of mathematical equations is rare. Worthwhile transfer between even quite similar domains is much less likely for less knowledgeable students. I’m not dismissing transfer between domains entirely, but I’m far more interested in transfer between contexts.

Ideally, we want our students to go off into the world and flourish, taking with them all the fascinating stuff we’ve taught them. In practice it’s impossible to know whether this actually happens so we tend to settle for transfer from the context of the classroom to the context of the exam hall. This is harder than you might imagine. Memory is context dependent. We tie the acquisition of new ideas to prior knowledge in visual and emotional contexts.

In How We Learn, Benedict Carey talks about how he is only able to solve a mathematical proof using Pythagoras’ theorem in a particular context:

I remember it any time I sit alone in some classroom or conference room under dimmed fluorescent lights, like if I’ve arrived first for a meeting. Those cues bring back the memory of that night and the proof itself (although it takes some fuzzing to get the triangles in place).

The context in which we first encounter an idea creates contextual cues. They are the visual and autobiographical memory we hang ideas on to. Psychologists have run experiments which show playing particular genres of music or inducing particular emotional states and then testing participants in conditions which either share or don’t share those conditions demonstrates the power of context cues in increasing retention. This would be great if we could exactly recreate the conditions in which we learned when taking a test. Carey’s experience is a good example of a widely shared experience – we struggle to transfer what we know into different contexts where cues are absent.

But by varying the conditions in which we learn maybe we can break our dependence on context cues? Smith, Bjork and Glendale’s 1978 paper Environmental context and human memory, was probably the first attempt to explore how this might be done. They gave participants a lost of words to learn and had them study either in the same room twice or in two separate rooms (one a cluttered basement, the other a windowed office.) Three hours later, the students were bundled into a third ‘neutral room’ and asked to recall as many of the words as they could. Those who studied in the same room managed an average of 16 out of 40 whereas those who studied in two different rooms recalled 24 words. The experiment “showed strong recall improvements with variation of environmental contexts.” This has become known as the ‘variation effect’ and since then there are been many other studies which have replicated this findings and built of this research.

The implication for schools is clear: if we want students to perform at their best in the exam hall, we should vary the rooms in which they are taught. Ideally, every lesson would take place in a new room to prevent memories being tied to specific contexts. This would be both impractical and annoying. Maybe the best we could do is to timetable each lesson in a given week in a different classroom, but this would be only slightly less problematic. As an individual teacher it seems there’s little you can do with this information unless you can persuade the chap next door to swap with you now and again. Still tricky though.

One workable solution is to vary seating plans as much as possible. A few years ago I became aware of a very strange and as far as I know, unresearched phenomena. If I taught a lesson where students knew something in that chair, they would not necessarily know it in this chair. Simply asking students to move seats in the middle of a lesson was enough to disrupt their ability to recall and transfer. Memory can be more brittle and fragile than I would have thought possible. If a student spends a term or a year seating in the same seat every lesson then they will see the same things every lesson. They will become dependent on those strong visual cues. If learning is tied to these cues when the ties are severed, the learning seems to unravel.

So I started experimenting with moving students about and giving them a greater variety of sight lines and thus a greater and more unstable range of visual cues. (This might also factor into the discussion on classroom display.) And guess what? Their ability to transfer what they’d learned within the classroom improved. Now, I would, of course, hesitate to make a mountain out of this molehill, but it does seem worthy of further investigation.

My tentative advice is not to throw away your seating plans, but to have more of them. It might seem inefficient to have a different plan for each class each lesson, but if you’re prepared to put up with some short-term disruption for a long-term gain, the pay-off might be that they learn more.