George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

The Magic of Doorways: Setting the Tone for a Successful Class

March 20, 2017 Updated March 17, 2017

Doorways, it seems, are powerful things.  They have the ability to change our mental state and behavior almost instantly.  Recent studies by psychologists confirm doorways have this ability, but why?  And how can you use this in your classroom?

Doorways to New Environments

Do you ever enter a room only to wonder why you came there in the first place?  Don’t worry.  It’s not a form of early dementia.  In fact, studies show it is remarkably common.

But why does this happen?  Several recent experiments seem to suggest the brain stores a compressed view of the room you’re in- a sort of mental map of your immediate surroundings.  While we think we live a life full of detail, our brains actually retain only a small portion of our environment at a time.  These chunks are compartmentalized.  So you’re in the living room and decide you want a book from your den.  Your living room, and the book you have tied in thought to that room are stored in this lightly detailed map.  When you enter the den, your brain switches to a new environmental map and the old one is pushed aside.  Unfortunately the old map is the one that held the information about the book you wanted and it’s gone, leaving you to stand in the den wondering why you are there in the first place.

There have even been studies that show a person can have their conversation partner replaced mid conversation and not know it due to a change in the environment.  Someone can be looking at a map with a stranger when a delivery man with a large object steps between them.  While that happens the first stranger is replaced by a second who darts away behind the box.  About half of the people realize they are talking to someone new.  The other half had a person replaced and didn’t know it.  Turns out the box and the interruption change the environment enough for the brain to start making a new map.  Details are lost.  Big details.

Why is this important to know in education?  Because your classroom has a door, and your students will form a mental map of your room that will grow stronger as time passes.  This can be a powerful realization, but more on that later.

New Behaviors in New Places

The moment we step into a library we quiet down.  We might enjoy a conversation in the lobby of a church, but become more subdued when we enter the chapel for the service.  You may act differently in your grandmother’s house than you do your own.  Each of these environments has that compartmentalized mental map- the one that can go ary when we enter a room for no apparent reason.

Despite this glitch, the function serves an important purpose.  It tells us, automatically, how to navigate a particular space physically and socially.  It can influence our emotional states and prevent us from having to constantly process common information.

We are learning that when we act different in different places, our mental maps are at play.  By shaping the expectations that come from an environment, we can shape the behavior and state of mind of those in it- like the classroom.

The Doorway: A Threshold to Learning

So back to education.  When students enter your doorway they are activating a mental map.  This map tells them what the room is like, who and what is in it, and how they feel inside.  You MUST shape this and reinforce the perception you want constantly.

Have a standard for what you expect the moment students enter the room.  What should they do?  How should they sound?  If they enter with an energy or behavior you do not want in your learning environment, remind them what you expect and ask them to step out of the class and reenter it.  I’ve seen teachers do this with entire classes if needed.

By shaping and reinforcing the mental map of your classroom, you can create the ideal learning environment and make it automatic- just like stepping into a library.  If you fail to reinforce this, however, you’ll be creating a map where students consider your classroom as a place to test limits, or a place where expectations are not firm.  You don’t want to let this happen.

Psychology is telling us that doors and new environments hold immense power over our minds.  If this is true, it means a quality learning environment is shaped in the very first instant of class.  A good learning environment begins at the door.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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