What Your Classroom Says About You, The Educator

Walking into a vacant classroom and having a look around (even without the students being there) can tell you a lot about the sort of learning that goes on in there. How the furniture is laid out, the posters and work samples on the wall, the artifacts and resources available all tell a story of what is valued and what is possible for the students assigned to that classroom.

I’m picturing a couple of classrooms (fictional but typical of some that I have seen)  in my head as I type. I’m not going to identify when, where or who – but one I’m thinking of had class desks in a haphazard array, with very little displays of anything on the walls. The teacher’s desk takes up a sizable portion of the corner of the room and is a dumping ground with mounds of worksheets, student workbooks and newsletters threatening to slew off onto the floor. The laptop trolley is left open with laptops stuck in on varying angles and power chargers dangling unattached. The philosophy espoused by the teacher is of student choice but in a very unstructured way – the kids determine the seating arrangements but personalisation is catered using a worksheet driven approach. There is freedom but very little responsibility. There is choice but no structure. Nothing on the walls indicate that nothing is important enough to showcase – or that the teacher doesn’t want to find the time to get any displays happening. Maybe, this teacher clocks out as soon as possible when the students leave so there is minimal time left to try and create an inviting environment. What sort of learning is possible in this space?

The next classroom has sections divided off for specific purposes. There aren’t designated seats for specific students to sit at but a central spot within the classroom is set aside for whole class instruction or for students to sprawl out for reading or doing partner activities. The room has different furniture options for the students to use – some low seats, cushions in a corner, some higher stools at a higher table. Your eyes are drawn to the various areas and there doesn’t seem to be a teacher’s desk either. This speaks to a different commitment to enabling student learning – it is apparent that not all children can be involved in the same activity as a whole class easily.

We had Lisa Burman speak to our staff on Thursday in our lead up to the start of the school year. Her focus in the morning session was on the strategic design of learning environments and she shared examples of classrooms where the teacher had re-designed the layout to reflect a changed approach to pedagogy. It certainly provoked a flurry of activity in the afternoon when teachers headed to set up their classrooms for the start of the 2013 school year. People were keen to “de-clutter” and “re-design their learning spaces” which meant that her message about the learning space being an accurate picture of a teacher’s approach to learning hit home. Some teachers who had already been strategically thinking in this way and had started their journey of re-examining what their learning space should be were visited by those who hadn’t thought too deeply about these things before. Others who looked at a space and only saw one picture of how the classroom could look asked others for their opinion and vision to break free of their own entrenched comfortable habits. Hopefully, no one was misguided enough to believe that the simple re-design of a classroom meant that their teaching practice would be transformed. But thinking consciously about this is an important step towards examining one’s own teaching practice.

I thought back to some of the teaching spaces I have inhabited over my career. I’ve taught in transportables, open space units, traditional single classrooms, a former library complete with an upstairs annexe and a brand new BER “21st century learning” building at my previous school. However, it is what is done within those classrooms that is most important – you will find more about that in an old blog post of mine from 2006 titled Classrooms. However, I think that when you know what learning should look like for your learners, then the learning space design will be shaped in the best way to make that happen.

My 2010 / 11 BER classroom being built.


8 Responses to “What Your Classroom Says About You, The Educator”

  • Hi Graham, It’s Lou here, so good to hear that people have been inspired to think differently about the learning space and totally agree with you that it’s what effective learning transpires in those spaces that we know has the greatest effect. I am thinking on the learning space design and student voice in the design story. Negotiating both the learning and learning space with students is a democratic opportunity to good to be missed. TfEL 2.1 just had to get that one in !Speaking of missing, I am thinking of WGS and the committed educators there often as I reflect on the edgy thinking and learning that is evolving and feel privileged to have been a part of the ongoing story at WGS. Have a fabulous beginning and as I have said people are so fortunate to have your expertise and passion to inspire them. cheers,Lou.

  • Hi Graham,

    I think that learning spaces, should be so inspiring. They should be welcoming and give the students a sense of belonging.

    My prac classroom last time was so bare. By the end of my prac I had all the kids work up on the wall, their names on the windows and photos of our lessons up on the door.

    I felt it gave the kids so much enjoyment to see their work and themselves up on the wall and in the room they spend so much time in. It drove my prac teacher a little crazy haha but she and I got on so well, I visit her class all the time and start to decorate again!



    • I definitely would agree that a bare classroom is not an inspiring place for students to want to spend time in. I think photography, of the students and of them at work, is a really powerful way to document and reinforce a sense of belonging and ownership of learning. I have also heard a train of thought when it comes to displaying kids work in that what is displayed can either be a gallery or a journey of learning. When I was back in a the classroom a few years back, my co-teacher and the teacher next door created a display based on our Inquiry on human impact on the environment. The display grew over the weeks of the unit and contained samples of the kids thinking, work and ideas along the way. This was more powerful as others could look through the display as a form of learning timeline – rather than just putting up 30 final reports or 30 pieces of dolphin art. Displays need to be purposeful – and not static. I hate the generic “motivational posters” and English component posters (that I don’t think kids actually refer to much anyway) and think that both the teacher and the students need a heavy dose of themselves in whatever adorns their classroom walls and windows.

  • This article is so on point with the idea that the classroom tells a story about the students, the teacher and the type of learning that is takes place inside of the room. Some teachers still have the mindset that the teacher is in control and students are passive learners to need to listen to lectures. These classes are generally set up with the teacher’s desk in the front and all of the students facing the teachers. Those classrooms where there are desks in smaller groups, tables scattered in different locations and materials strategically placed around the room seem to be classes where teachers have a more modern approach to learning. These seem to be the classes where students are engaged in peer learning, collaborative projects and individualized learning. Students seem to perform better when they are in these types of environment. I hope that this is the growing trend for classrooms. Good article.

    • Thanks for your comment – I will add in that classrooms do need to serve the learners who are part of that learning community. So doing a re-design without considering what the learners need is fraught with pitfalls. For example, I know of a quite complex class where the teacher has had to reign in her desires for an open, collaborative classroom because her students have struggled with the freedoms and found the choices for seating and activities to be quite overwhelming. She has gone back to a more whole class, teacher directed approach until she has built in the routines required for successful learning and the children have matured as a group to handle the choices that the classroom could potentially offer. Another teacher I know did a redesign and found that one area of her class was being shunned by her students and another was popular and over-populated by students wanting access, so this has forced her hand to evolve her original use of space.

      • I agree that the teacher must know the students in every way. Everything that is done should take this into consideration. There shouldn’t be any cookie cutter classrooms and teaching methods. This is the day where the individual needs of the students and the data must drive the instruction and activities inside of the classroom.

  • I agree that they layout of a classroom creates a certain learning environment. I attended private school and every class I had (except for math) was layed out in a circle. The students were facing and talking to each other, rather than the teacher. This allows the teacher to be more of a facilitator rather than a dictator. This form of teaching should be applied to every type of school. This becomes a discussion based class, where every student gets to participate and stay involved.

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