How Does Your Classroom Environment Support Learning?

Every environment implies a set of values or beliefs about the people who design and use the space. For example tables arranged in rows rather than clustered in groups suggests the teacher believes children learn best in isolation from one another, and values individual work over group activities.

Thoughtfully designed environments influence the inhabitants in subtle ways. An environment may bore, may over stimulate, calm or agitate those in it. Spending large amounts of time in an environment deemed unpleasant will eventually exact a toll.


Classroom environments reflect the values and beliefs about children, families, the social construction of knowledge held by teachers.The layout of the physical space of the classroom needs to be welcoming, to foster encounters, communication, and relationships. The arrangement of furniture storage should encourage choices, problem solving, and discoveries in the process of learning.

Creating Connections and a Sense of Belonging
Children spend the majority of their waking hours away from their homes and families. They strive to establish relationships, to belong to groups. If we can make our classrooms welcoming, homelike, we build the connection between home and school as they develop new friendship and relationships in the wider community.

Consider:
Are there spaces in your classroom for people to gather, to get to know each other, to connect?
Does every person have a place /places to store their belongings and materials so they are accessible and organized?

Making The Most of Classroom Space
A good way to begin thinking about your classroom is to consider what you value about the spaces you have. Stand in the room by yourself and consider how the various spaces make you feel and the effect they have on your behaviour and thinking. Arrangements of spaces should encourage children to pursue their interests and questions, represent what is on their minds, build strong relationships and a love of learning.

Consider:
Are the spaces in your classroom flexible?
Can things be arranged and rearranged for specific purposes?
Are there spaces for different purposes – whole group, small groups, and individual work?
Is the space in your classroom arranged to allow children to move within the room, safely and smoothly? Can children access resources efficiently and quickly, avoiding ’traffic jams?’

Bringing the Outside In
Children use their senses to investigate the world and to learn. Whilst we include things like manipulatives, music, play-dough for our youngest students, we often forget to include the natural world in our rooms. There are many ways to incorporate natural light, fresh air, plants, water into your room, to bring the outside in, to stimulate the senses.

Consider:
Have you made the most of the natural light in your classroom?
Do/can you open the windows?
Is there evidence of the natural world in your classroom?
Are manipulatives arranged attractively? E.g. in clear plastic containers to emphasize shape, color, and allow easy access

Working spaces that fit the individual
Furniture should be selected that is the right size for the age group of children. It should have flexibly of function. Too often children find themselves working with the wrong size furniture. Adjustable tables are very good, so long as the chairs at your disposal also allow for students of varying sizes.

Each piece of furniture should have a clear purpose and be used regularly, otherwise it should be shipped out. Each child should have enough room to work so that their arms do not bang into one another. In the case of left-handers they should sit at the left hand corner of the table with their left arm having room to move. Left-handers may also need to sit at a different angle to their work and they need space to do this. I share this piece of advice as a life long ‘lefty.’ We need to be guided by the Goldilocks principle and make things “just right.”

Children with attention difficulties need extra consideration. A separate work place with minimal distraction visually and socially for specific tasks may be necessary. This should be seen as a requirement rather than a punishment and a variety of children may choose to work in this way at different times. Setting up such an area, provides flexibility when setting work tasks. Children should be encouraged to think about how they work best at different tasks and be praised for this reflection.

Consider:
Is there any unused or under used furniture in my classroom?
Are there spaces for quiet individual work?
Are there spaces for group work?
Is there a space for a whole class meeting area?
Leaving “traces” of Learning
Displaying documentation of learning pathways one of the ways we can scaffold the learning of our students.

Displays that document understandings with which students are currently grappling, remind the student of important teaching points. Positioning of such learning “tracks” is crucial to their use by students. Ideally they should be placed at eye level, like charts clustered easily referred to by students and teacher.

Student work displayed is best annotated explaining the process of the learning or understandings gained. In this way we can display a selection of student work to celebrate learning and to remind learners of new understandings gained.Displays are dynamic, changing to reflect the current learning focus of different curriculum areas.

When anyone walks into your classroom it should be immediately apparent what the learning focus is at that time. Still highlighting Easter displays in August adds new meaning to the term “static display!


Consider:
Are my displays current?
Are displays well presented?
Are the displays in our room utilized by learners and teachers?
Do displays scaffold learning?
Teaching organisational skills

As children develop, you should expect a greater degree of independence. This can be supported by the layout of the room and storage so that pupils can access learning resources independently. Resources such as manipulatives, a variety of writing papers and implements, materials for construction need to be accessible to students. Dictionaries and thesauruses should be readily accessible. A classroom library should display books in such a way that invites the children to easily make a selection.

These are such important life/organisational skills and are particularly pertinent for children with Special Needs. Having equipment accessible is important.
Easily accessible materials and supplies can eliminate delays, disruptions, and confusion as students prepare for activities. It also allows students to use their initiative. In poorly arranged classrooms, students spend a lot of time waiting — waiting in line, waiting for assistance and direction, waiting to begin. To eliminate most of this unproductive waiting, store frequently used items in a highly visible area.

Consider:
Are like resources housed together?
Are resources labelled so children know where to find them and where to return them?

In Conclusion …….
There is ample evidence that many classrooms are unhealthy places to be, especially in the winter. Ventilation is vital for all classrooms.
An uncluttered space, well placed furniture, organised materials, simple and clear displays, and carefully considered seating arrangements will all assist in keeping the environment clean and healthy. And most importantly they will enhance the teaching and learning of all those working within.

It’s no secret that a safe, clean, comfortable and attractive classroom can stimulate learning and help build a classroom community. But setting up the physical environment of your classrooms can be quite daunting, when faced with older buildings, large classes and insufficient storage space. You can make the most of your classroom environment by carefully considering your needs and the needs of your students.

Reggio Emilia educators stress the need for a classroom environment that informs and engages the child. They consider the physical environment to be ‘another teacher.’ in the sense that it can provoke curiosity in children, support learning, provide spaces for different types of work, reflects the learners within the room, includes something of nature and is aesthetically pleasing.It is said that in the most predictable environments, the most unpredictable things often occur.

We are advocating for all those young learners out there.
We urge you to consider the potential your classroom holds for making an even better contribution to the learning that takes place within the classroom walls.

Take another long look around your classroom…

* A special thank you to Vicki for working with me on this special posting. Her insights contributed greatly to what you have just read.

Alan Wright and Vicki Froomes
Education Consultants
ALVIC Educational Consultancy

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