A Place for Learning: The Physical Environment of Classrooms
A teacher was supervising me at the time because she was enrolled in our program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which emphasized the development of student self-knowledge and ego strength, as well as trust and community in the classroom. We had put together a manual that contained more than 50 classroom lessons. She was working as a high school English teacher in a district in northern Appalachia that was suffering from economic hardship.
I received a phone call from her, who was upset and upset about something. “There are dozens of exercises that you and your colleagues developed, and they are not in the least bit interested. There is no sense of belonging in the community, and there is no sense of trust. I’m in desperate need of assistance.”
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STUDENTS TAKE OWNERSHIP
As a result, I paid a visit to the class. I found the location in an unfinished basement of an old school, with cement floors and walls, and poles running from ceiling to floor throughout the space. There were some similarities between it and an interrogation chamber. In this environment, our “humanistic exercises” came across as a bad joke.
I suggested that she forego the exercises and instead collaborate with the class to completely transform the physical setting. I was confident that she would have the support of a principal who is committed to transforming this school. As part of our plan, we would collect carpet remnants from local merchants, solicit paint donations from paint stores, and create wall decorations, either designed by students or donated by others.
They didn’t do much else for the next six weeks. Then, as I walked back to my seat across the warm, brightly-carpeted floor, I found myself in the middle of a wonderland of painted walls and poles, as well as a gallery filled with photographs, paintings, and textured wall hangings. The teacher informed me that, in contrast to our misplaced exercises, the process of doing this had built trust, community, and ego strength in the participants. She was finding that the students were far more motivated than she had anticipated. They were delighted to be in this environment that they had created.
There are at least two important lessons to be learned from this story.
The physical layout of a classroom has a significant impact on both student morale and learning outcomes.
Students’ participation in the process of creating their environment can help them feel more empowered, develop a sense of belonging, and increase their motivation.
THE CUSTODIAN’S FAVORITE ARRANGEMENT
Here’s another related story. One of my mentors at the University of Massachusetts completed his doctorate in classroom environments. He then took a temporary position as head custodian of a school to gain a better understanding of the physical environments of educational institutions. One of his most important conclusions was that classrooms were typically designed to better meet the needs of custodial staff than they were designed to meet the needs of students. As a high school teacher and as a university professor, this was reinforced for me on several occasions. Each day, I would arrange the chairs in a semicircle and return to find them arranged in rows on the following day.
A SHORT COURSE IN CLASSROOM ARRANGEMENT
In the world of education, it is common knowledge that different types of instruction necessitate different seating arrangements. Also obvious is that classrooms should be warm and inviting, creating environments that make students feel comfortable and at ease while in them. Unfortunately, over the years, I’ve been in a classroom after classroom where conventional wisdom appeared to be ignored, and it’s not a pretty picture. So, here’s a quick crash course.
If you arrange the seats in rows, students at the front of the class will be unable to see any of the other students in the class. Those in the back are mostly only able to see the tops of their classmates’ heads. If that is your method of establishing order and your primary approach to teaching is not interactive, then that will work for your situation. Given my professional objectives as a teacher, I would not even consider working in a school where desks were nailed to the floor in rows.
A room full of tables will be ideal for group work, but you’ll need to move the tables to either the back or sides if you want to bring students together for other purposes as well. I had small tables in my university classroom because that’s what I was given when I was assigned to the space. I set up the tables in a semicircle with three to four students at each table, some of whom sat with their backs to the table for the majority of the activities. A semicircle promotes interaction and allows all students to see and interact with one another. This is critical if you place a high value on relationships between students, the development of a sense of community, and the creation of a welcoming environment.
When I conducted a workshop that included significant student sharing, community building, and trust-building, I made sure to find a space with chairs, preferably with writing surfaces for taking notes. If that wasn’t an option, we rearranged the tables and set up chairs in the center of the room. Moveable chairs, with or without writing surfaces, allow for the greatest amount of flexibility in any type of teaching environment.
Students’ depression is exacerbated in classrooms with few windows and little outside light. At the other end of the spectrum, windows with insufficient room darkening make it difficult to use visual media.
Students spend a significant portion of their day in classrooms that are rarely comfortable and homelike. Rooms that do this will improve student morale and make students more satisfied with their surroundings. This necessitates having more than just butcher paper on the walls! It provides students with the opportunity to contribute to the creation of an inviting environment that encourages positive interaction. It also gives students a sense of empowerment in the process.
Moreover, many high school teachers do not have even a single classroom, as I am well aware of. Because of this, the best they can do is rearrange seating each time they enter a new classroom in the building. It is beneficial to have two or three student volunteers to help with this. It is also possible to enlist the assistance of other teachers who use the room in the process of making it more inviting.
MORE IDEAS, MORE RESOURCES
I’ve only scratched the surface of a complicated subject, and I intend to write a blog post later this summer about the design of schools and classrooms. Nonetheless, in the meantime, the following are some excellent resources for developing this concept further:
The Third Teacher, a collaborative work published by Abrams Books, is one of the best of the best.
When it comes to guiding options for arranging classrooms, the Classroom Design page of the Behavior Advisor website is an excellent resource.
While Classroom Desk Arrangement is a little more difficult to follow, it is also jam-packed with useful suggestions.
Kristi Smith’s 12 rules, which come from the University of North Carolina School of Education, are a quick and useful guide to the kinds of things you should be thinking about.
Although the book Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration by Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft is more broadly oriented, educators will find many innovative ideas for creating physical environments that encourage participant cooperation and creativity in the book.
WELL-BEING AND MOTIVATION
There are some general guidelines that I believe apply to all approaches and are as follows:
The physical environment of the classroom has an impact on student morale and learning.
The environment should be appropriate for your objectives, both in terms of human interaction and in terms of the instructional approach you will be using.
One important variable is the configuration of the seating.
Involving students in the design of the physical environment can improve the environment, increase the sense of community in the classroom, and give students a sense of accomplishment.
I’ll leave you with one more thought before I sign off. Those who work in education spend a significant portion of their time in environments that should feel more like a warm home rather than a cold, impersonal office building or warehouse. Think about how you can improve your sense of well-being and motivation, as well as how you can improve these qualities for your students.