September 4, 2013

Five things to think about as you build your Learning Environment – From Don on Edudemic

This article first appeared on Edudemic.

So it’s the beginning of school, and if you’re worth your salt (and you have access), you’ve probably already been in your classroom setting it up. What kind of inspirational posters are you pinning to the walls? How much scotch tape and staples and how many thumbtacks do you need? What resources do you want your students to absorb as they look around during a classroom discussion? What kind of atmosphere do you want to create? How do you want your students to feel when they walk into your room? If you share a room, can you do anything to make that room feel like the kind of space that inspires students? What kind of colors and what type of light? What mysterious corners can you create? What places invite your student in?

And, there’s not one perfect learning space for every single learner. If your school requires teachers to share classrooms, there are other limitations in play.

Whatever your situation, the more conscious you are of the impact your learning environment can have, the more you can influence the engagement, learning, and even relationships of – and with – your students.

As you design your spaces, there are numerous factors to consider. Here are five of the biggies.

1) Where’s your desk?

Student at the "Super Desk" - what was once the teacher's desk.
Student at the “Super Desk” – what was once the teacher’s desk. (image credit: Suzy Brooks)

When students walk into the room, is your desk a barricade between you and them? A teacher’s desk can represent power and control, and it’s position also plays a role. If you must have a desk (and there is a trend of teachers tossing their desks out completely), think about whether it divides you and your students. Can you push it against a wall so that you are more accessible, so that it becomes more of an outer boundary rather than an inner barricade? The existence, type, and position of your desk can shape the relationship you have with your students.

2) Where’s the front?

If your classroom has a front or center (and most classrooms do), what is there and what message does it send? Is there a big white board with your words all over it–instructions for behavior, for work, etc.? Is there another barrier between you and your students or a lot of “stuff” that your students can’t touch? When students walk in, are they entering from the back, the side, or the front? What does it feel like to enter in each of those situations? How do students arrange themselves relative to the “front?” What if you took away the front–what would happen?

3) What’s on your walls?

How you decorate your walls sends a message to your students about who owns the space. Is the space all yours? Are you willing to share ownership? Might you even consider passing ownership to them? After a week or so, the stuff on over-decorated walls becomes wallpaper, and research actually shows that too much clutter reduces students’ ability to focus and pay attention. I’ve talked to some teachers who start with nothing on the walls and allow the students decorate them as the year progresses. Other teachers use minimal decorations that are thoughtful, relevant and ever-changing to spark interest and curiosity.

4) Does your room change?

How much do you change and rearrange your room throughout the year, the week, the day? Who has the authority to switch it around? You’d be amazed at how much student choice has an impact on willingness to learn. Many of my colleagues at Hillbrook have noticed that shifting the classroom around from class to class often sparks interest and attention that a traditional, predictable classroom does not. Teachers and students also enjoy being able to shift the classroom around in the middle of a lesson to serve their needs for the work at hand. Think about how much your environment dictates your activities, as well as how the students’ work could command their environment.

5) What’s it like for your students?

Are students allowed to move around (studies show that students benefit from movement) or must they stay still? What are students allowed to do, and not do, in your classroom? Is your management style and space designed to keep students quiet and in their place, or does it give permission and ownership to the students? What choices do students have about where and how they work? Do you want your students to feel free, creative and enabled? Or, structured, restricted and rule-bound? Or, somewhere else on the spectrum? What do you want learning to look like in your classroom? Try to walk in your students’ shoes–what does it feel like for them?

Environments can impact behavior. The THINGS in our spaces can actually cause engagement, empower students, and even inspire creativity. Environment is no light thing.

Don Orth will be speaking more about designing learning spaces at the upcoming iPad Summits in Boston (November 13-15) and San Diego (February 3-5).