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


About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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