Simplifying our practice: The learning environment

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In a series of five articles, Adam Riches is looking at how we might simplify common classroom practice in order to make teaching and learning more effective. Part four looks at your physical classroom environment including desks, displays and clutter


Your physical classroom environment is something that you may overlook, but the layout, the displays, and the things you have in the room can all have an impact on the learning and the attitudes of students.

Creating the right physical learning environment for your style of teaching is so important. Moreover, the physical environment can contribute to the creation of a safe and welcoming space for the students to learn – and this makes a lot of difference when it comes to engagement.

There are of course limitations to what you may be able to do, but you want to create a classroom environment that allows you to deliver what you need for your teaching as simply as possible.

For example, you don’t want the students wasting time moving seats, or getting confused with complicated displays, or being unable to find equipment – these things often lead to more behavioural issues and can detract from learning.

When you walk into a classroom, you want to “feel” that it is a good space for learning. Children are no different to adults. If your classroom space is cramped and cluttered, messy and disorganised, you are sending a message to the students who enter, even if that message is unintentional.

But be warned: you can so easily spend way too much time on your physical classroom environment. So where do we start when it comes to protecting our workload but still making the most from our classroom space?



Simplifying our practice: Articles in this series

  1. Marking and feedback (October 2021). Click here.
  2. Instructions and expectations (October 2021). Click here.
  3. Self-efficacy (November 2021). Click here.
  4. The learning environment (November 2021. Click here.
  5. Lesson planning (December 2021). Click here.



The desks

One of the most important factors of classroom set up, unsurprisingly, is where the desks are placed in the room. There is a lot of debate about how best to lay out your desks (see my previous article for SecEd on the ever-present desk question!) and there will of course be limitations due to walls, pillars and whether you actually have your own classroom or you share it with someone else.

But if you can, experiment with different desk layouts. Experimenting with the layout of the room can be an effective way of managing behaviour and can help to boost engagement.

Setting the desks up differently can also allow a different dynamic in the lesson. The right layout for the type of lesson you are teaching and for your teaching style is really important. If you favour a more teacher-led style, you may wish to have all eyes on the front and seat the students in rows. If your subject, or your style, requires learners to work more collaboratively, then banks of desks will make more logistical sense.

In the article I link to above I consider some common approaches:

  • Two by Two: Easy group work, free movement for teacher, and good presence and visibility at the front of class. But pupils can distract each other, there is limited visual access to displays, and no space for tutorial time.
  • The Island: Excellent tutorial space, a central point of contact, and safe for pupils to question. But we do not have constant visual contact with the teacher, there is more difficulty with group work, and pupils need to move a lot.
  • Four by Four: Effective differentiation, group tasks take no rearranging, and easy support and access.
  • The Horseshoe: an open forum for questioning and lecturing, everyone engages with each other, and the teacher can reach everyone. But there is the potential for distractions and group work can be a difficulty.


The displays

One of the first things people think about when they talk about the classroom environment are the displays. What is on the wall can have a noticeable effect on the learning. Simple is certainly better, so don’t think you need to spend hours creating resources for displays.

Fisher et al (2014) found that students are less likely to stay focused in a highly decorated classroom. Indeed, the students who were taught in this kind of environment in this research got lower test scores than those taught in a more sparsely decorated room.

With that said, if you are making displays, there are a few considerations. The first thing is to have focal points. That means you don’t simply plaster your walls with random words, hang things from the ceiling and generally make the room look like a maze of paper.

Make your room a 360 degree experience, but group resources together. Key terms in one place, writing frames in another and example responses in another.

However, keep the cognitive load low by guiding students around the displays. Make them a resource that you refer to in your teaching and keep referring to them – this makes them memorable.

Use your room to guide your students through their exam – key words, vocabulary, phrases, concepts, graphs, pictures, models of work with annotations.

By effectively planning displays you are able to streamline ideas and concepts for learners and further support their understanding. Not only can this boost morale, displays can also act as an effective study skills bank, further exemplifying how to study and what to study. In turn, this may build more self-efficacy, leaving the teacher more time to focus on teaching as opposed to answering questions.


Clutter

Classrooms have a tendency to accumulate things. Things from students, from teachers, from many years ago, and quite often none of it is of value. If you keep things clutter-free, you make things simple.

A clutter-free space means a clutter-free mind – well that’s the idea. If you have surfaces you don’t use, get rid of them. Remove spare desks and random cupboards with the doors falling off. If it doesn’t have a function, get rid of it.

Thaler and Sunstein (2009) highlight that seemingly insignificant factors can have a massive impact on behaviours. Don’t leave dictionaries and workbooks on the windowsills and try to keep your space as clean as you can.

And Scott and Davenport (2015) highlight that unnecessary “stuff” can cause a lot of negative feelings – we want our classrooms to be safe learning spaces and minimising the impact of unnecessary elements can reduce the stress of both teachers and students leading to less anxiety and more productivity.

So, I know it’s hard, but once again it comes down to expectations. If you treat your room like a tip, the students will too and it will only exacerbate your stress.

Think about your room. Can you get around the obstacles? Can the students get round the obstacles? Is that desk at the front why every lesson starts with distraction (because little Billy insists on tripping over it, much to his cronies’ delight)?

Thom (2018) quite rightly states that “we may glow with joy as we look around our new sparse classroom walls and shelves and allow ourselves some internal massaging ... sustaining this new minimalist habit is challenging”.

There’s no doubt that a clear-out is refreshing, but for decluttering to truly impact your workload, it must be sustained. Don’t let the standard slip. Clawing it back can be hard work.

Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning, a Specialist Leader in Education and author of Teach Smarter (Routledge, 2020). Follow him on Twitter @TeacherMrRiches. Read his articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/seced-riches


Further information & resources

  • Fisher et al: Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children: When too much of a good thing may be bad, Psychological Science (25) May 2014: https://bit.ly/3qPjk7l
  • Scott & Davenport: The 10-minute Declutter: The stress-free habit of simplifying your home, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, May 2015.
  • SecEd Podcast: The secrets to quality first teaching (featuring Adam Riches), April 2021: https://bit.ly/2R5PIT8
  • Thaler & Sunstein: Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, Penguin, March 2009.
  • Thom: Slow Teaching, John Catt Educational, March 2018: https://bit.ly/3qPYfcE


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