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Schools are switching rows of desks for comfy conference tables

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Nathaniel Cruz (left) and Devonte Johnson (right) share a table with three other students in Emily Beard's sixth grade English Language Arts class at Middle School 821 in Brooklyn, New York. Some teachers complain that when students work in groups they are more likely to distract each other. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Sixth graders Erickson Diaz, Jeanette Lee, and Emerie Nunez (left-right) work collaboratively on a classroom exercise about gender stereotypes at Middle School 821 in Brooklyn, New York. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Sixth grader Erickson Diaz works privately for a moment on a group exercise as teacher Emily Beard walks around the classroom at Middle School 821 in Brooklyn, New York. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Adrian Sanchez, a sixth grader at Middle School 821 in Brooklyn, New York, works with his classmates on a group exercise. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

Anyone who’s been to school remembers the traditional classroom setup: tables and chairs arranged in rows, with students sitting at attention as the teacher lectures at the chalkboard.

Jaymee Gutierrez, a ninth grader in Brooklyn, has never sat in a classroom like that. “I’d feel all alone,” she said. “I want to sit with people. Otherwise I’d feel disconnected.”

Many schools are moving toward student-centered classrooms where students sit at small conference tables or at clusters of desks solving problems together.

Found mostly in elementary schools, cooperative learning divides classes into work groups in which each child is assigned a task, from note taker to timekeeper, and students learn that their group will be successful only if everyone contributes.

Meanwhile, teachers wander the room, ensuring that everyone participates equally.

Behavior that used to land kids in detention is now encouraged as students speak out in class to help each other complete their schoolwork. Quiet classrooms could be a thing of the past.

“A lot of us were trained in cooperative learning in the '80s and '90s. There has been more of a move toward it recently,” said Carolyn Snowbarger, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher-to-Teacher Initiative, which provides professional development to teachers across the country. In 2007, the program will train more than 4,000 instructors in 22 regions nationwide, with cooperative learning an integral part of the sessions.

Though this style of teaching is not new, it is on the rise in part, some educators say, because of the effect it has had on student test scores. Anne Sabatini, a professor specializing in teacher training and development at Teachers College, is not surprised that test scores have gone up.

“Cooperative learning is akin to the study groups college students hold all the time," she said. “It is absolutely a benefit. It gives students an opportunity to discuss knowledge with each other, problem solve while engaging in authentic activities and tasks that are relevant to real life, and learn from each other.”

Snowbarger, who taught eighth-grade English in Kansas before joining the Department of Education, used groups to help some of her immigrant students learn English and get to know their classmates.

“They worked in teams with assigned roles--timer, recorder and reporter,” she said. “This was the first time that the English language learners actively interacted with their peers.”

And those social benefits extend beyond the classroom, she added. “Businesses ask us to make sure students can work cooperatively, so we encourage strategies that will be helpful in the work force,” she said.

Target, Siemens, Motorola and Microsoft are just some of the big-name companies that have sponsored teacher training sessions to increase math, science and reading scores.

Siemens has been sponsoring competitions and professional development for teachers since 1998. The company will host a teacher training workshop in Chicago this summer. The Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology includes team awards in addition to individual ones.

“We think it’s important to have the team category to encourage students to work together on research to help solve a problem or make our lives better,” said Michael McCauley, a community relations manager with Siemens. “During college and the work force, students will be working on teams, so it’s very important to prepare them for these roles.”

This was the thinking behind cooperative learning when it was first introduced in the 1980s by David and Roger Johnson, professors at the University of Minnesota. According to a quote from Roger Johnson on the Web site of the university’s College of Education and Human Development: “Each group should leave each individual stronger. The ideal in cooperative learning is that they learn in a group and are able to perform it alone.”

Not all teachers are thrilled with the change. Some say they have less control over their classrooms and have a harder time gauging student progress.

“I’d much rather have kids in rows, with their focus in one direction,” said C.H. Walsh, a middle school in Brooklyn, N.Y., who has been teaching for 16 years. “You can keep track of kids’ focus by making eye contact. In groups, some are always going to have their backs to you.”

Traditional seating makes noticing daydreamers and unfocused kids easier to spot, she said. With less teacher-led instruction, it’s easier for students to tune out or ride the coattails of others. “It’s like watching a marching band. When they’re all in their spots and moving together, you can tell who’s out of step because there’s order.”

While some schools mandate specific seating arrangements, some leave it to the teacher to decide what’s best. Michael Newberry taught eighth-grade history and English in Arizona and was able to change the setup frequently depending on behavior and need.

“We sat in groups and in rows,” Newberry said. “It was less about the method and more about the immediate needs of the class. Cooperative learning was definitely a major part of class, but it couldn’t be what we did all the time.”

Steven Sparling, a literacy coach with New York City Department of Education, says if cooperative learning is used correctly, it can do great things for students and teachers. “If it’s done well, and kids see the purpose, it’s empowering for them,” he said. “It helps to further develop their social skills and they value each other.”

Jaymee, the ninth grader in Brooklyn, agrees that kids might help each other if someone doesn’t understand something.

“I think the purpose is that we’ll understand more if someone our own age explains it to us,” she said.

But she also sees it as a mixed blessing.

“I guess it depends who you’re seated with," she added. “If it’s kids who don’t work hard, then I’d be forced to pay attention to get my work done.”

E-mail: pvk2101@columbia.edu