Taking a risk with... your classroom


Continuing her series on risk-taking in your teaching, Nadine Pittam considers how we can push the boundaries with the structure and set up in your classroom

The learning environment influences both the educators and the learners. This is the truth, and it is irrefutable.

Our role as teachers is to ensure that this influence is productive. Sandra Horne Martin in Children and their Environments: Learning, Using and Designing Spaces (2005) writes: “Physical and spatial aspects of a learning environment communicate a symbolic message about what is excepted to happen in a particular place.

“The atmosphere is readily apparent when one enters the classroom and is reflected by subtle cues in the physical arrangement as well as by the style of teaching. The arrangement of classroom space can communicate expectations for behaviour that are reinforced by institutional policies.”

If our students walk into our classroom and it often looks different, and is as interactive as we can make it, which is to say it is arranged to support the learning which needs to take place, then the “symbolic message” we are conveying is that learning is at the heart in here.

Perhaps some of us are worried that too much change is a risk, and that giving control to our students about how the environment is arranged is risky. Some of us might think we are talking about control verses freedom: how much control we have verses how much freedom our students have. There are several responses to this: 

  1. If we present ourselves as being the ones in control, does that mean we want our students at best docile or at worst disengaged? Surely we want our students to have positive control of their own learning.

  2. Control and freedom are not incompatible. We can give freedom without relinquishing control.

  3. Finally, if what we are doing is giving our students an element of control over their own learning, where’s the danger in that? 

Much of this ideology, about giving the decisions (and the work) to the students, is the ethos behind Jim Smith’s fantastic Lazy Teacher’s Handbook. Too often we hold so tight to the questions, to the answers, to the solutions, to the resources, that we disempower our students. Perhaps we could take a risk by letting our students make some decisions.

Walls and displays

So often the walls of the classroom are something we loathe to spend time decorating, and yet they are a potential resource in themselves. Do you have pieces of paper, phone lists, charts, emails or whatever pinned up around your desk either at home or at school? I do. 

So why not give the students that same opportunity? If we see the walls as a place for work in progress we take a risk to let our students be in charge, albeit in a controlled manner. 

Mistake space

Dedicate part of your wall to displaying, celebrating, all the mistakes your students (and you?) have made and then learned from. You could display photocopied pages from books, printed pages from the SmartBoard, photocopied group work or copies of sections of rough drafts and finished versions. 

Unit tracker

If you are lucky enough to teach in the same classroom each time you teach a class, perhaps you could use the wall as a student-friendly version of the scheme you are working through.

I once took over the classroom of a teacher who had the lines of a table drawn on a whiteboard in permanent marker. The content of the table tracked the week’s learning. Every Monday he wrote details such as the objective, homework and the planned task outline. He also allocated a column for reflection and feedback.

Your walls don’t have to be updated on a weekly basis, you could break down the unit into a few sections and, using plenary time, get students to reflect on the learning as they work through it. 

Alongside this you could display any piece of work which demonstrates each learning objective especially well. The use of the wall in this way could be a resource for students to refer to as they progress through the unit. 

So if you are teaching a complicated subject, which demands your students build and build upon previous knowledge, a record of all the lessons would be an ideal resource for them to refer to.

Give the wall to the students

You do not have to decide what work goes on the display board, and you do not always have to spend hours gluing or stapling that work. Think about how you could hand over the freedom of creating that display board to the students. How could you give your students the freedom to use that wall for their own learning? What would they do with it if they could choose? In the very least, they could decide what goes on the board. If they still want their own work up there, you could help them generate a list of criteria for judging which pieces of work go up.

They may want to use the wall as a learning tool – perhaps they could use it to display a process, a flow-chart, a timeline, a family tree, a mind map...

But none of these things mean that you have to be the one to spend hours creating that oversized family tree or diagram. Cut out the bits of paper for people’s names, for example, provide string and adhesive or pins and then get the students to create the display as the lessons progress – perhaps those who finish a task first could be given the job of displaying the day’s objective.

At some point in the unit, might it be possible to offer time which you might normally set aside for a quiz or to recap or summarise, and instead of giving them something to write or questions to answer, ask them to record their ideas as something “displayable” that will help them in future. Or maybe they could present their learning as “concept maps”.

Tables or desks

Desks, we know, are best arranged to suit the activity in hand: rows, groups, circuit... And we know they are ideal as being something to lean on when students are writing. But what else? When you work at home, how often do you use a desk, and what do you use it for? 

If your students are using tablets then think about whether you need the desks at all. I know if I use my iPad I am rarely using it at my desk. Maybe you only need half the desks – sitting groups of four around one desk instead of around two. 

Furthermore, if there is a desk between you and your students is it playing the role of barrier? If you always leave your desks in the same position, ask yourself, do you always circulate the room in the same way, via the same route; and if so does that mean there are “dead zones” – areas in the room in which you rarely linger?

Giant notepads

You could set up the expectation that the students use a dry-wipe marker on the tops of the desks if they need to make notes (it comes off perfectly well with a wet-wipe, or even a squirt of water and a paper towel). Soon, students see the desk as a kind of giant notepad, always there to be used.

Perhaps you could be the one to write on the desks, before the lesson, with a task for the student who sits there? Or you could number, colour or label the seating positions to indicate what group you would like them to be a part of. You could give them an individual target or an indication of the role you would like them to play during the lesson.

Seating plan

Maybe you find that desks in the same layout works most of the time with your year 11 exam class. Maybe you have had this class for two years and you know them incredibly well, so you wonder about grouping them in order of ability? Is it possible to re-arrange your seating plan to suit their strengths and weaknesses now you are so close to exam time? 

Maybe you’d like to keep all those who struggle with section A of the exam in a row so you are able to see at a glance which students might struggle with which activities, or are able to give them targeted work.

Or maybe you would like to mix them up so you put a strong section A student with a strong section B student, and let them help one another. Maybe you can find a way of using the room to help facilitate some really effective peer-assessment, where the section A experts mark the section B experts’ work and vice-versa.


We need to look at risk differently. The risk isn’t in the moving of furniture or relinquishing control of what goes up on the walls. The risk is in being predictable. If the room always looks the same, the message we communicate is “business as usual – nothing exceptional is expected here”. We need to use what we can to influence the mood in our rooms – show our students that we expect extraordinary things.

  • Nadine Pittam is founder and director of the skills-based website of teaching ideas, www.spark-ed.co.uk

Taking a risk with...
This is the fourth in an on-going series of articles about taking small and calculated risks in the classroom. You can read the articles as they publish via www.sec-ed.co.uk/article-search/author/141
  • Horne Martin, S. et al. 2005. Children and their Environments: Learning, Using and Designing Spaces. Cambridge University Press.
  • Smith, J. 2010. The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook. Crown House Publishing.
Photo: iStock


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