Have you noticed when you stand in front of the class to begin teaching your students slouch down in their seats in a lackluster or defensive manner, assuming that another whole group lesson will be boring or too difficult? The design of the classroom space lets students know if it is teacher centered or student centered. Students can tell by the desk arrangement and the positioning of resources if there will be collaborative work, independent work, small group focus lessons or large group discussions.
If you want students to collaborate, give them an environment that encourages it. The individual elements of a classroom space work together to create an atmosphere that can either inspire students or stifle them. With that in mind, it’s easy to see what sort of negative effects a traditional classroom may have with its rigid design and structure. Active learning and true engagement require a far more flexible environment, one that gives students room to explore and succeed.
A learning environment that is conducive to students needs can help them develop both new knowledge and skills as well as performance, moral and civic character by experiencing the feelings of competence, belonging, security, friendliness, citizenship, cooperation, curiosity, creativity, and responsibility. We believe, as stated in the Academic Excellence Framework, that when teachers ENGAGE in intentionally planning a functional learning environment, they seek to improve learning as efficiently, effectively, and equitably as possible for ALL students, including those with differing abilities.
Here are five ways to make your classroom learning environment the third teacher; equal in importance as a parent or teacher. Make these distinct learning environments: focused learning environment, collaborative learning environment, and hands-on project-based learning environment.
- Design a flexible learning environment. Populate classrooms or “learning studios” with movable furniture and walls that can be reconfigured for different learning situations. Make your classroom space flexible, changing the seating arrangement based on whether students are working collaboratively, individually or having a group discussion or mini-lesson with the teacher. Outline your floor plan, room space to design a more functional space.
- Facilitate spontaneous collaboration. Convert walls into corner studios with whiteboard writable walls as a student working space. Position easels, tables, filing cabinets, and bookcases to create spaces and places for note taking, brainstorming, researching and experimenting. Move beyond using your interactive whiteboard as a glorified projector screen to using it as an active part of your students’ daily educational experience.
3. Create 21st Century Classroom Opportunities. Intentionally organize laptops, tablets and other technology resources for individual and group work. Give students choices for research, practice, and presentations in a technology space. Integrated into the curriculum, technology tools to powerfully extend learning. In today’s interconnected and technology-drive world, these tools can provide students and teachers with:
- Access to up-to-date, primary source material,
- Methods of collecting/recording data,
- Ways to collaborate with others around the world,
- Opportunities for expressing understanding
- Plan the environment based on your students’ needs. Foster learning tailored to the needs and wants of each student. Such environments offer the opportunity for students to “acquire and own” knowledge and skills in a personalized space, adapted to the student’s own learning styles and preferences. Provide comfortable seating and lighting for students who need an alternative to the typical classroom chairs and desks.
- Drum up donations to support your classroom makeover. Start a fund raising campaign at Indiegogo and Donors Choose. Write grants through NOVA for school furniture. Plan a drive-by at the local college during graduation week to collect furniture to recycle. Contact other organizations for reusable equipment, like The Reuse Network. Re-purpose materials you already have for 21st century functionality. Take a tour of classrooms at your school and use a T-chart to take notes on what you notice that makes the classroom space Teacher-Center or Student-Centered.
Think of an optimal learning environment as the support system that organizes the condition in which humans learn best. Each classroom space becomes a learning platform for authentic connections which ignites students’ thinking and learning. Greater interaction and communication between students and enhanced engagement, exploration and purposeful application of learning will take place. The learning spaces empower learners; teachers are facilitators, students are on the move. This type of learning environment provides the structures, tools, and communities that inspire students and educators to attain the knowledge and skills the 21st century demands of us all.