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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Tips for Creating Wow-Worthy Learning Spaces

"The classroom environment can work for us or against us, which is why it is first, last, and always among pedagogical concerns." -- John Carroll

Does your classroom mirror the rectilinear seating arrangement popular in Sumerian classrooms, circa 2000 BCE? What other options are there? And what does the research on learning spaces tell us? Those questions are answered in the following paragraphs, and conclude with links to video walk-throughs of some of the most organized, inspiring, practical, and academics-enhancing K-12 classrooms you've ever seen.

The Basics

To rethink your student seating arrangement, select seating configurations with names like lasso, the robot, and the big x, or use Kaplan's floorplanner. Then think about classroom space fundamentals:

  • Flexibility: Students and the instructor should be able to easily transition to functional spaces, such as a class library, literacy center, computer area, stage, reading nook, etc.
  • Belonging: Learners should feel like the space is theirs. Put up pictures of kids and exemplary work. Put up posters that feature diverse faces.
  • Interaction: By turning their seats, students should be able to quickly work with a small group.
  • Attention: Show off valued materials. (Elementary school teacher Chris Weaver displays books by inserting them into cheap vinyl rain gutters attached to her walls.)
  • Neat: Supplies, tools, furniture, and books should be stored instead of left out (see Scholastic's Survival Guide and list of clutter busters, and Pinterest's DIY Classroom).
  • Concentration: Sound-absorbing materials and a mix of real and artificial light will help students focus. (Ask your administrator to buy Roxul Rockboard 80, Mineral Wool Board, or other cheap acoustic insulation. If a parent or administrator asks why, explain that noise can release excess cortisol, which impairs the prefrontal cortex's ability to store short-term memories.)

Also, your classroom walls are important learning real estate, spaces to fill with content-related murals, posters, banners, whiteboards, and bulletin boards.

Bulletin Boards: More than Pretty Wallpaper

My first classroom bulletin board featured a hundred hand-colored carp. Sadly, my tribute to oily freshwater fish had nothing to do with second grade curriculum. This would have displeased a high-strung principal I met last week -- he bragged about making an instructor tear down a bulletin board that didn't display standards-based content with clear visual communication. Bulletin boards today are expected to reinforce concepts, skills, rules, and routines, to present exemplary work, and to showcase students' photos and awards. The best of them are also decorative, alliterative and playful.

Consider creating a graphic organizer on a bulletin board in front of students while introducing a new concept. As the display grows more elaborate, students' conceptual knowledge will deepen. Later, you can refer students back to the display. Conversely, challenge students to collaboratively design a display that visually organizes their content understanding, using something like Heidi McDonald’s book report templates. But check to ensure that no misconceptions or misspellings have been posted.

To enhance eyeball appeal, Kim's Korner suggests making bulletin board borders with wide ribbons, hot-glued crayons, or laminated wrapping paper cut into strips. For further inspiration, see 50 Bulletin Boards curated by Terry Heick.

Like bulletin boards, the classroom door attracts attention. Give that door some design love, too.

Classroom Environments: What Does Research Say?

While their conclusions are not irrefutable, recent studies point to the classroom environment features that benefit students.

1. Do students in classrooms learn better than students in portables?

Perhaps not. No statistical difference in test scores was evident when those two groups were compared, according to Robin Stubbs Collins' dissertation.

2. Visually, what kinds of classrooms do kids prefer?

Three- and four-year-old girls prefer an environment with high visual stimulation, according to one study. Both boys and girls react positively to rooms with decorative circles and spheres, possibly because they break up the boxiness of most classrooms, hypothesizes Marilyn Read in her exploratory research.

3. Are heavily-decorated classrooms too distracting?

Maybe. Kindergarteners "in highly-decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed." Off-task behavior lasted ten percent longer in the heavily decorated class, reported Carnegie Mellon's Anna Fisher, Karrie Godwin, and Howard Seltman.

4. Do noise and light impact cognition?

Absolutely! According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, "Students in classrooms with more natural light progressed faster on math (20 percent) and reading (26 percent) tests in one year than those with the least amount."

Video Tours of Exemplary Classroom Environments

For our benefit, generous instructors (mostly elementary teachers) have posted videos of their classrooms on YouTube:

Elementary School Classroom Videos

Middle School Classroom Videos

High School Classroom Videos

Here's one last tip. During the opening minutes of my first class, I project a spectacular video of Ocean Beach. As they arrive, students sit spellbound as white water greets the earth and is reclaimed by the sea. Faces relax. They're ready to learn.

What classroom designs or organizational tips do you use in your classroom?

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Redesign Your Classroom Space

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