Environments Matter

When you see the word “classroom,” what images pop into your mind?

A quick Internet search for “classroom layout” brings up images that look stunningly similar:

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 12.31.03 PM

Notice how geometry (especially rectangular / polygonal shapes) rules. All the designs start with a basic rectangle, of course, due to our factory system of education’s focus on uniformity and control.

A few show creative clustering and more organic pathways through the space. But education, like the old chestnut about nature, seems to abhor emptiness: A rare few leave any space uncluttered by physical objects.

Chances are your mental images of “classroom” looked something like these:

Even this book on classroom design, which may contain more thoughtful examples inside, chooses a throwback style as its cover model:


All that’s missing are the inkwells and slates.

What do these designs say about learning to the student who passes through their doors?

First, that learning is orderly and linear and logical. That all students learn the same way. When we put students into rows and other convenient (for adults) setups, we let them know that they are interchangeable parts in a machine. And they soon find out that the machine is ill-equipped to deal with any “divergent” customers.

If this setup doesn’t work for you as a learner, you’ll soon be separated from the herd and put into a special enclosure with other divergents. There, they will do more of what wasn’t working in the first place, only more emphatically. Eventually you either outlast them or give up and drop out.

The next message is that there are no mysteries in education. Look at these rooms, and notice where the empty spaces are (if any). Notice also what is filling up the remainder of the space. Pay special attention to the vertical spaces.


Exhibit 1: Fairly typical early elementary setup.


Exhibit 2: A more decentralized design. I guess it’s Kindergarten. The kiddos would look like Hobbits amid the shelving, I would think. But I digress.

brooklyn classroom

Exhibit 3: An elementary classroom in Brooklyn, NY.

OK. What did you notice? What was the big idea you took away from each classroom? What do you think the teacher had in mind when setting up the classroom?

In my travels, working in classrooms in 37 states of the USA, I have heard from countless teachers on this subject. Often, they are under strict orders from their principals to get all those expensive learning aids up and onto the walls. Posting lists and charts and motivational sayings on every inch of flat space is an expectation in many buildings. I have heard very few discussions about whether or not they improve teaching and learning, however.

Put yourself in the place of the under-exercised, easily distracted third-grader of today. The poor child spends her or his days under a constant barrage of stimulation — light, color, sound, and motion, much of it designed purposefully to distract and engage the human brain. The classroom, rather than being a quiet place of inquiry and exploration, is yet another assault on the senses.

In at least one recent study, kindergarteners were measurably less on-task and scored lower on post-lesson tests when they experienced the lesson in a typically-decorated classroom.

Now consider what this type of classroom “decoration” says to children. One obvious message: “Nothing YOU produce will appear on these walls.” Any student creations will be ephemeral, destined for disposal, perhaps after a brief journey to the home for brief words of praise (or not). “You are not expected to make anything of value, or to contribute to your own education. You are a sponge. Follow orders. Soak up the knowledge. That is your only job.”

Note also that most of the empty space — such as the white/chalk board, flip chart, etc. — is reserved mostly for the teacher’s use. Sometimes children come up and write or draw in those spaces, but they are always under teacher control.

Of course, it can get even worse. What does this classroom say to you?

high school set up

Here, the designers are telling us that learning is all in the mind, leaving no trace when one student cadre exits and another enters. It is best attained in a featureless, sterile environment, free of distractions such as even bold colors. Again, it is linear and orderly and uniform. (Pay no attention to the strange mirror-walled room at the rear, or the crucifix. Those are red herrings here, but they do beg a few questions for another day.)

Contrast the above examples with this version of a classroom look:

thoughtful design

Notice how you feel as you look at this design.

Yes, that’s a luxuriously huge amount of space, but pay attention to the soothing color of the uncluttered walls, the natural light that supplements the fluorescents and isn’t blocked by prefab posters. Check out the flat spaces available for student use and display, and the easy-to-move, kid-friendly tables and chairs. The feel is open, yet there are smaller spaces to play individually or in small groups. There is no obvious center of attention, but one can be created anywhere it makes sense at the moment.

How much cooler would it be for students if you waited for the unit on rocks before you pulled out all your great graphics and hands-on materials? Which you then store away for next year and make space for whatever exploration is coming up (or that students have dreamed up – even better!).

Lastly, a few important things to remember as we set up our classrooms for students (and not for ourselves or our administrators):

  • Leave some space empty. It will fill up. Keep emptying it.
  • Use every bit of available natural light. If there are no built-in blinds, you may have to devise a movable baffle to block the light when using the projector.
  • Set up indirect, natural-color lighting in at least one place in the room.
  • Have students choregraph and practice mindful moving of furniture as needed.
  • Keep the walls spare, and use colors that promote focus and relaxation.
  • Provide room for student ongoing projects and display.
  • Design a sense of mystery, discovery, and invention into the space.
  • Have students choregraph and practice mindful moving of furniture as needed.

You are the inventor and designer of your learning environment. Make it work for every student, and watch them grow faster than you ever thought possible.


Mrs. Corbett’s classroom, Wilson Academy, Oklahoma City, OK

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Intrinsic Motivation Means Student Engagement

When students create art about things they are learning, we call that arts integration. This approach to teaching routinely works to engage ALL children in a classroom in learning, something that is clearly not true of the “drill and kill” methods that politicians prefer.

Students making choices

Students making choices

Suddenly, there are no students hiding out in the back of the room or with their heads down on their desks. Everyone is busy creating, making meaning through an art form. But why does it work so well? What is the magic elixir that fuels this creative engine and results in clearly increased student understanding?

Based on my 35 years of experience learning about arts integration by doing it, I contend that the secret is intrinsic motivation. That is, the desire to engage, the need to see the creative process through, that comes from inside each person.

This is very different from the “carrot and stick” approach that elected officials prefer. They prefer it because they don’t understand teaching and learning. They are products of the factory system of education, and they can’t see outside that set of literal boxes. So they propose financial incentives for teachers whose students score well on standardized tests, and punitive measures for those whose students struggle, ignoring environmental and cultural factors that make a lie of those test results.https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/ACT%20test%20scores%20by%20race.jpgWhat if your classroom has a high percentage of Asian Americans? You can expect to get that bonus. If you teach in New Orleans, in a 100% African American school (privatized so corporations can make a profit off of poverty), you can expect your evaluation will be in the tank, because your kids’ test scores are just not going to break into positive numbers.

Even when students are “succeeding” by these measures, the teacher must endure being told what to teach, how to teach it, and when to teach it. No wonder so many skilled and dedicated teachers are abandoning the field, and no wonder so many new teachers (more than a quarter of them) don’t last five years. (The link is to a study that purports to show things are not dire, but I think a 25% attrition rate is abysmal.)

Arts Integration Levels the Playing Field

Arts integration invites all students to creatively play with knowledge to build understanding about complex ideas. Students make use of whatever pre-existing knowledge they have and absorb new information in the process of creating meaning.

Students willingly engage, because play is the natural choice for learning. When animals play, they are practicing. They are learning to use their bodies and minds in ways that will help them survive. So it is with the human animal.

Daniel Pink, the brilliant thinker and writer, proposes in his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” that three factors make up intrinsic motivation. I propose that arts integration strategies, by their nature, provide these factors. An arts-integrated lesson becomes fertile ground for students to self-regulate their behavior, because they naturally want to play, with just enough guidance to keep them safe and directed towards learning.

The three factors are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Let’s look at how arts integration makes room for each in a lesson.

Motivation 3.0: Autonomy – Mastery – Purpose. Motivation 3.0 moves the focus from the 'reward-punishment' compliance approach of the 20th Century to an 'engagement' model that is better suited to workplaces of 21st century economies. Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose are over shown as overlapping elements of this model.Autonomy

When we talk about autonomy, we are talking about student choice. The arts can be an aid to learning when we use them as mnemonic devices (e.g. “The ABC Song”). But when students are shown how to create in an art form, they get to be in the driver’s seat, to make creative choices. They choose how to frame their idea, how to explore or explain it artistically, and how to build it so that it communicates to others.

The power of choice is in engaging every student, while challenging them to make their meaning clear through the art form at hand. They now have ownership over their understanding, and they have had a chance to choose how to demonstrate it.

For example, in a traditional music class, a student learns the tried-and-true ways of making melodies and harmonies, practicing skills in rote fashion in order to become a better instrumentalist. But in an arts-integrated lesson involving musical instruments, perhaps students construct their own out of found materials, learning which sounds are pleasing to them, and which ones their creations can make. Then they explore putting those sounds into a sequence and relationship that tells a story — all without worrying about “wrong” notes as defined by an arbitrary notation system.

But they do want to get better at using those instruments. They want to make their statement the best it can be. That in turn leads to the pursuit of…


We all naturally want to get better at things that are important to us. When it is suddenly important to craft a work of art so that it accurately and completely expresses an understanding we have come to, we want to make that expression the best we can make it.

Rather than practicing a skill first and putting it to use later, arts integration takes the opposite approach. Students learn how to create in an art form, and then they naturally start honing their skills, perfecting their ability to use the elements of the art to tell their own story.

Even more, they begin to notice and appreciate mastery in others. This is true in the classroom, where they note and celebrate each others’ successes. And it is true in the theater or gallery, where they see the work of professionals with new eyes. They now look with the eye of a choreographer, a composer, a sculptor, a playwright, an actor, a director.

But not just an artist’s eye! They also see now with the perspective of a mathematician, an historian, a scientist, a reporter, or an elected official. Arts-integrated challenges are real-world challenges that lead students to understand not only a complex idea about our world but also how an art form works at its essence, and how to use that art form to say something important.

Which brings up the idea of…


We all know that saying to a student, “You’ll need this in your later life,” is not going to fire them up to plunge into a skill-building session. There must be some discernible reason why we should care before we willingly engage in problem-solving.

Since we are asking students to take on a real-world role and solve a real-world problem through an artistic product, they see the purpose. They want to make meaning of all the information they’ve been exposed to, and the arts give them the tools to make a coherent whole out of those fragments of knowledge.

No one can absorb and remember all there is to know. Knowledge is the basis for understanding, but facts alone add up to nothing. When students see where the facts can take them, when they start to discern between important information and trivia, they are on the road to constructing deep understandings.

As you travel down the path of arts integration, here are three questions to ask yourself about your lesson plans, to both help you stay on the path and to bring your students along:

  • When do students make creative choices? (Autonomy)
  • How and when do students evolve their skills? (Mastery)
  • When and how do students discover why this is important? (Purpose)

If you keep these questions in mind as you plan, the magic will unfold.

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Once More, With Feeling

NMAEA Award 2014

The award on my office wall. I love it.

In November of 2014, the New Mexico Art Education Association bestowed on me a singular privilege and honor: the Max Coll and Catherine Joyce Coll Award for Arts Education.

The award stemmed from my participation in a group of dedicated rabble-rousers to support and eventually pass Rep. Max Coll’s Fine Arts Education Act. This law, passed by the New Mexico Legislature in 2003, has resulted in arts experiences for thousands of children who would otherwise have had no access to the arts.

early award face

A cool award from 2004 that I also love.

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Text from that early award.

When I accepted this generous award in Las Cruces last November, I made some remarks that people have since said were worth repeating. I decided to repeat them here.

The text below is adapted from my notes for that speech.

NMAEA Dinner

NMAEA Dinner, Las Cruces, November 2014

There have been reform movements in education, including ones that claimed to “get back to the basics.” But we have done nothing more than tweak a badly-designed, factory-inspired system. What no one noticed, in the rush to rule an industrialized world, was that the arts have always been the first, best teachers.

The arts engage, inspire, provoke, encourage, and connect us. They invite us to see things that are not at first obvious. The arts enlist all our intelligences, all our modalities, and all our experiences in the mission of making sense of the world.

When we give learning back to children by giving away the secret to playfully creating meaningful art, we are helping our children become healthy, aware, and empathetic citizens of the 21st century. We are restoring their birthrights: to participate fully in life, to fail and try again, to fail again and try again, to succeed, and — most importantly of all — to feel deeply.

Arts experiences are aesthetic ones. “Aesthetic” means “suffused with feeling, sensation, or emotion.” What is the opposite of aesthetic experiences? Anesthetic ones. The kind our children have every day, all day, in school.

Let’s stop deadening our children in the name of educating them. Let’s instead show them how to wear their feelings on their sleeves. Let them think as dancers, scientists, musicians, mathematicians, poets, painters, engineers, playwrights, historians, filmmakers, and — most importantly of all — as whole beings.

An artist is not a different type of person. Each one of us is our own, unique artist. Let’s help each child make that discovery, and let us return to teaching and learning from each other with beauty and grace.

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Transformational Teaching

This post on Edutopia beautifully summarizes some crucial truths about teaching and learning:
“Big Things Transformational Teachers Do”

What strikes me in the context of arts integration is that teaching artists and teachers who faithfully follow that approach to teaching meet every aspect of this author’s description of transformational teachers.

Where teaching artists most often struggle is in learning and practicing what the author calls “the science of teaching.” Sometimes they see that aspect as drudgery or as limiting their creativity. Those of us who have dived into the deep end of that pool, however, find that it amplifies and enriches our creative fires, freeing us up to take students to dizzying heights because we are not afraid of crashing.

That structure, that knowledge of developmental stages and differentiated approaches to student engagement, is a gift we give to ourselves. It allows us to consciously design our lessons as creative acts. Teachers share a crucial common trait with artists: we are storytellers. And every good story has a powerful beginning, compelling events, and a satisfying conclusion.

Teachers and teaching artists are on a converging course that will indeed transform education. If the politicians will get out of the way and let them do it.

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Arts Integration on a Bumper Sticker


The first large-scale Learning Expedition we mounted in our young charter school for ecology and the arts in 2005 was, “In the Shadow of the Hermit,” an investigation into the life of a fascinating local Las Vegas, New Mexico historical figure. The picture above is from Río Gallinas School’s culminating event, which incorporated theater, dance, puppetry, music, and visual art into an incredible expression of the depth of their learning in all subjects.

I was working this week with the Río Gallinas staff on plans for next year’s learning expeditions when one of the senior staff members posed me a question: If you had to sum up arts integration on a bumper sticker, how would you do it?

My first impulse was to think, “It’s too complex to go on a bumper sticker,” but I promised to mull it over. Then, later that morning we were exploring the characteristics of arts integration. JT, the teacher who posed the question, said, “I think you just answered my question.”

As we tried to remember the exact language I had used that crystallized arts integration for JT (after years of exposure and training, by the way), JT was able to identify where his epiphany came from. It was the realization that the art form is not a helper, but THE crucial tool through which the student constructs understanding and makes meaning.

This brought home to me how much the marginalization of the arts in schools has broken down their value in a vicious downward spiral. If even the most seasoned, skilled, and sympathetic classroom teacher in the building didn’t get the central place of the art form in the learning process we call arts integration, I almost despair of getting the idea across to a generation of teachers conditioned to find the arts jettisoned in the slightest of belt-tightening efforts.

Art is essential to human understanding.

Think about it: art is essential to humanity. Without a vessel to pour our understanding into, we might become Jeopardy champs, but our knowledge doesn’t come together into a consistent, coherent, meaningful world view. Without art, we lead bland, unquestioning, subsistence lives of spiritual poverty. Without art, we will never become citizens of a sustainable world.

Therefore, every school, everywhere, should immediately put down their calculators and number 2 pencils. They should throw away all drugs they are currently putting into our children to counteract the effects of a deadly-boring and counterproductive factory education. They should invest their capital into studios and theaters and galleries where students can create and share their solutions to real problems. They should make art a daily occurrence, as natural as breathing. We should be like those primal cultures who have no word for art because it is part of everything.

By devaluing art, we devalue all that is human. We throw away the most powerful tool for human understanding, connections, celebration, and problem-solving. We have to stop teaching children NOT to be creative.

Art is the solution to everything that ails not only education, but all the challenges to humanity. Why? Well, maybe the answer is that bumper sticker we were looking for:

Artists always find a way.

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Restoring Dance to the Center of Life

Powerful blog by a socially conscious dancer and activist. Subscribe!

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A Teacher Apologizes for Testing

Along the lines of the continuing thread in this blog about how destructive testing has become, here is a blog post about a 3rd grade teacher’s heartfelt letter of apology to her students for taking time away from learning in order to prepare for and administer tests.

Those of you who scroll down to the comments will note that the first comment beyond “nicely said” once again confused Common Core standards with standardized testing. There is a link, but teaching to the standards does not automatically imply using a standardized test to assess student learning.

Then there is the confusion between assessment (of or for learning) and evaluation (of a program, a strategy, or a method of teaching). Standardized tests are not good for either one, but they are separate things.

The good news: if teachers really do teach to the Common Core literacy standards, a lot fewer people will be confused by the smokescreen the Tea Party, the Flat-Earthers, and the politicos are throwing up.

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