I’ll never forget the time I walked into a third grade classroom and discovered that the desks had been rearranged into a series of rows. The teacher had previously set up her room with five or six clusters of desks, each cluster functioning as a mini-community in and of itself. When I asked her why she made the switch, she said: “They’re not in second grade anymore.” I walked away sadly, mourning the fact that this teacher had – overnight – pushed these kids from first grade into college.
It is times like these that I ask myself: how exactly do such teachers understand the purpose of education? A classroom full of rows generates one image in my head: a factory assembly line. Should we really think of our students as receptacles on an assembly line, just waiting to be filled?
Environment matters. In addition to the profound effect that the environment has on the quality of student learning, it also reflects our attitudes as teachers. It informs the students how we view them, how we view ourselves, and how we view the entire endeavor of education.
So how should a typical classroom look?
1. It should be group centered. Avoid creating a situation where the teacher is speaking unilaterally at twenty individual students, who all happen to be in the room at the same time. Having a group of students in the room is not merely the price we pay for not having enough teachers to create a 1:1 teacher:student ratio. It is the ideal; it is how we create a community of learners.
Most students learn best when they experience learning in a group setting; alternate perspectives are shared, mutual responsibility is assumed, and social skills are honed. Of course, there is an entire set of skills that students need to master in order to maximize their group learning, but that too is one of the teacher’s responsibilities. Arranging the room in clusters or small circles instantly transforms the room from one of individual learning to one of community learning.
2. Students should be physically comfortable. Were you ever stuck in a lecture hall, when the room was hot, your chair felt like a medieval torture device, and the lights were dim? How did that work out? Always ask yourself the question: would I want to sit in this room for forty-five minutes? If your answer is: “I’d rather stand on line at the DMV for three hours,” it’s probably time for you to invest in the physical classroom environment. Lighting, temperature, decor, and comfort of furniture are all factors that need to be considered.
3. Encourage your students to take ownership over the room. Let them feel as though they are not walking into your room, but into their room — of course with you, as the teacher, serving a critical role in their classroom community. Get their input on certain decorative decisions. Hang up their artwork. Dedicate a corner of the room as a rotating exhibit, to be designed by a different student every week. Foster a sense of student-centered responsibility for the room, so that the students take pride in the cleanliness of the room.
When we build a learning environment that is actually conducive to learning, and not to assembly-line manufacturing, our students learn more and our students grow more. And isn’t that what it’s all about?