George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

A Place for Learning: The Physical Environment of Classrooms

I was supervising a teacher who was enrolled in our program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that focused on developing student self-knowledge, ego strength, trust and community in classrooms. We had created a manual with over 50 classroom lessons. She was teaching at a high school in an economically depressed district in northern Appalachia.

She called me in a state of frustration. "I've used dozens of the exercises you guys developed, and they're not the least bit interested. There's no sense of community, and the trust level is non-existent. I need help."

Students Take Ownership

So I visited the class. It was in the unfinished basement of an old school -- cement floors and walls, ceiling-to-floor poles throughout the room. It was more like an interrogation chamber than a classroom. Our "humanistic exercises" were a bad joke in this setting.

I suggested that she ditch the exercises and work with the class to totally change the physical environment. I knew she'd have support from a principal committed to transforming this school. The plan we developed was to piece together carpet remnants from local merchants, seek paint donations from paint shops, and come up with wall decorations, either student-designed or donated.

They spent six weeks doing little else. When I came back and walked to my seat across the warm, brightly-carpeted floor, I experienced a wonderland of painted walls and poles, and a gallery of photographs, paintings and textured wall hangings The teacher told me that the process of doing this had created trust, community and ego strength, unlike our misplaced exercises. She was finding the students far more motivated. They were happy to be in this place they'd created.

There are at least two lessons from this story.

  1. The physical structure of a classroom is a critical variable in affecting student morale and learning.
  2. Students' involvement in the process of creating their environment can empower them, develop community and increase motivation.

The Custodian’s Favorite Arrangement

Here's a related story. One of my mentors at U Mass did his doctorate in classroom environments. He then took a temporary job as head custodian of a school to get a better firsthand sense of the physical environments of schools. One of his primary conclusions was that classrooms were usually arranged to meet the needs of the custodial staff more than the needs of students. This was reinforced for me both as a high school teacher and university professor. I always arranged the chairs in a semicircle and always returned the next day to find the chairs placed in rows.

A Short Course in Classroom Arrangement

It's conventional wisdom that different types of instruction require different seating arrangements. It's also a no-brainer that classrooms should be inviting, environments that make students feel good to be there. Unfortunately, over the years I've visited classroom after classroom where conventional wisdom appeared to be disregarded. So here's a short course.

If you have seats in rows, students at the front can't see any of the students in the class. Those in the back mostly just see the heads of their fellow classmates. If that's your arrangement for establishing order and your primary approach to teaching is not interactive, that will work. Given my goals as a teacher, I wouldn't even consider a job at a school that had desks nailed to the floor in rows.

If you have a room filled with tables, that will be excellent for group work, but you'll need to move the tables to the back and sides when you want to bring students together for other purposes. I had small tables in my university classroom, because that's what I was given. I arranged the tables in a semicircle, with 3-4 students at each, some with their backs to the table for most activities. A semicircle encourages interaction and enables all students to see each other. This is important if you place a high value on relationships between students, building community and creating an open environment.

When I did a workshop that included significant student sharing, building community and increasing trust, I found a space with chairs, preferably ones with writing surfaces for note taking. If that wasn't possible, we moved the tables and used the center of the room for chairs. Moveable chairs, with or without writing surfaces, provide maximum flexibility for any kind of teaching.

Classrooms with minimal windows and minimal outside light increase student depression. At the other extreme, windows without adequate room darkeners make visual media difficult to use.

Students spend much of their day in classrooms that almost never feel warm and homelike. Rooms that do will improve student morale and make students happier to be there. This requires having more on the walls than butcher paper! It provides the opportunity for students to help create an inviting environment that supports positive interaction. And it empowers students in the process.

I'm also aware that many high school teachers don't have a single classroom. So the best they can do is to rearrange seating each time they enter the next classroom. Having two or three student volunteers to do this helps. It's also possible to get other teachers who use the room to cooperate in the process of making the room more inviting.

More Ideas, More Resources

I've just scratched the surface of a complex topic and plan to do a blog later this summer on the design of schools and classrooms. But in the meantime, here are some great resources for taking this idea farther:

  • One of the best is The Third Teacher, a collaborative work from Abrams Books.
  • The Classroom Design page of the Behavior Advisor site is a rich resource for guiding options on arranging classrooms.
  • Classroom Desk Arrangement, while a bit less easy to follow, is also filled with rich ideas.
  • For more general direction from the University of North Carolina School of Education, Kristi Smith's 12 rules are a quick, useful guide to things you need to think about.
  • Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft's Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration is more generally focused, but educators can find many creative ideas for physical environments that maximize participant cooperation and creativity.

Well-Being and Motivation

There are some general guidelines that I think cut across all approaches:

  1. Classroom physical environment affects morale and student learning.
  2. The environment should match your objectives, both in terms of human interaction and your instructional approach.
  3. The arrangement of seating is one major variable.
  4. Including students in creating the physical environment can enhance that environment, increase the feeling of classroom community, and give students a sense of empowerment.

I'll leave you with one more thought. If you're a teacher, you spend a good part of your life in places that should feel more like a warm home than a cold, impersonal office building or warehouse. So consider increasing your own sense of well-being and motivation as much as increasing these qualities for your students.

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SurfingSiren's picture

The blue color is a nice touch. Just remember, like the author stated, "A semicircle encourages interaction and enables all students to see each other." So, when you don't want interaction, don't have the tables in a collaborative group. : ) It is a huge distraction for students with attention/focus challenges, which is more common in today's classroom. Also, if tables are permanently in groups, many kids are contorting their bodies, or not even bothering, to see the focus area of instruction. Similarly, too much on the walls is a distraction as well.

betsyschaffer's picture

Mark! So great to see this! Having been in my classroom changing things up this week, it was a timely reminder. I went to a great retreat/conference this summer with the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, which was fabulous. It reminded me so much of our "Confluent/Humanistic/Affective days which have apparently come back around as "Social Emotional Learning." I was close to the oldest person there and keep thinking, "I was trained this way 30 plus years ago by the best" ;) Hope you are well!

Thomas Dave's picture

Its depends on types of class room learning students age. If there are children so we should try baby colors and interesting arts designs on class room walls regarding education basics of counting and maths formulas.
Because these children are our future in many ways, we will have to guide them as complete as possible.

JTP's picture

Now that laptops are everywhere in schools, I would put in a plug for surfaces where students can stand and use their devices. These stations could be anything from long countertops to desks with adjustable heights. The physical problems that result from seated use of computers are well-known, and it seems a shame to send the next generation off on the road to future postural and muscular-skeletal trouble. It may also be true that some groups of students collaborate better when they are in motion, and schools should allow them, within reason, to roam. I've heard that we all think better when we're walking...

Sue Long's picture

As the principal of an alternative school for at-risk students who were usually disenfranchised with the entire school system, it was important for me to insure they felt they had a place to belong. To this end we incorporated various ideas. We wanted the school to be theirs and to have responsibility for it.
The classrooms were painted very warm and inviting colors - and they were all different colors! The students were involved in painting and decorating. In one hallway, student handprints - which they autographed -- were used to decorate a long, blank wall. We had a committee of students who chose the posters to hang in common areas and were responsible for rotating them either weekly or monthly. Each year a committee of students helped determine new posters to be purchased.
Our school was located in a downtown store front which meant one wall of my office was composed of large glass windows. For various holidays, students designed and then painted those windows. Yes, my office was often in chaos with paints, brushes, and furniture pushed out of the way, but the students made the decisions and completed the work. Ownership!!!
At lunch time, students helped our "cafeteria lady" prepare the meals while others set up tables. After lunch, other students took care of the clean-up.
Along with the "fun" things they were able to do, they were also responsible for building maintenance. Yep, this included everything from dusting and vacuuming to cleaning the bathrooms. Once we began this plan, no more disasters! And the "old-timers" oriented the newbies as to procedures and expectations. They were proud of what they accomplished and some students would often volunteer for some of the less desirable jobs, even though we worked on a rotation system. (Some parents even responded with appreciation since their young people were now taking the lead at home!)
If there was damage done in the school, the students learned how to patch holes, prep walls, and paint. All these skills led to students being able to help with our local Habitat for Humanity.
Again, since we were located in the downtown area of our city, the students participated in weekly clean-up activities in our area. Local business people responded positively where they had originally been averse to having "those kids" in the business area. They would often stop and talk with the kids on our daily walks. In return, the kids learned how to talk to some of the movers and shakers in our community.
Where does all the time come from for these activities? You find the time. Be creative. These students learned communication skills, organization skills, decision making skills, as well as living skills, cooperation, and responsibility. Along the way, their behavior and academics improved immensely. Giving them responsibility for their school environment changed attitudes. The staff and I were very proud of our kids.

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

When I tour schools, the first thing I notice is the physical setup of classrooms, and here are three easy and inexpensive ways for physical space to promote deeper learning:

Movable furniture: frequently have students rearrange furniture in ways to best fit the learning objectives.
Idea walls: take the junk off the walls, paint them with idea paint, and make learning visible and vertical...and allow students to get up rather than sitting all day!
Get rid of cupboards and shelves full of stuff you don't use frequently and recapture that space.

Dynamic, nimble, adaptive spaces lead to dynamic, nimble, adaptive mindsets!

christy's picture

Good ideas except you used the word effects incorrectly; sorry, but as a language teacher that bothered me right away.

Evy Roy's picture
Evy Roy
Former Community and Social Media Intern at Edutopia

Christy, no need to be sorry. Those ones slipped right past us. :)

Proper edits have been made on the post.

Pauline Fice-Galea's picture

I, and many elementary Core French teachers in Ontario, find this article to be particularly significant and important. We are collectively experiencing, more and more, the taking away of Core French classrooms so regular classroom teachers can have space and so money does not have to be spent to clean classrooms. In my school, there are presently 3 classrooms that are closed and locked and I am required to move from classroom to classroom, carrying all of my teaching tools on a cart. The classrooms are closed because the school board saves money by not having custodians clean. It is also a custodian union issue.
It is difficult to set up the room physically for the way some of us teach. My physical teaching space is the opposite of a traditional classroom. I have an open space in the middle and all the desks are positioned in groups around the perimeter of the open space. I had a very difficult time this year trying to set up my teaching space. I would get my groups set up and then the homeroom teacher would switch it all up, and understandably so!

Classroom teachers are not always accommodating! They want to stay in their own rooms to do their preparation and planning. This can be extremely disruptive at times, especially when the homeroom teacher interrupts your space to talk to students, call them over to do a test or talk, when the French teacher is in the middle of a lesson!

There are so many reasons why we need our own classrooms and your article hit the nail on the head!


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