What’s the Word on Building Learning Environments?

One of the great luxuries I have at my current workplace, is the freedom to “develop environment” with my colleagues and more importantly our Middle School and College students (admittedly with little/no budget :)).

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Historically, I have taught my classes in many … unique environments … including teaching Year 11/12 English in a staff room, a gym equipment room, a hot tin shed, a board room meeting space, a canteen (this was only a six-week stint which had “other” benefits – LOL) and under a tree for a year. I think they all had their special moments which we enjoyed together :).

There has been a lot of development and research based around the form and function of learning spaces for education and it is no surprise that in our modern, digitally rich contexts we need to experiment with the use of space. I think I was pretty lucky to have teachers in my Primary School who used space effectively, making it both aesthetically pleasing and functional but there was certainly no consultation with students on how the room should look / feel.

Secondary environments tend to be a different story – there has been little room for creative freedom; not because teachers don’t necessarily want to “own” a space, but because the general discourse in secondary timetabling accounts for teachers who move from classroom to classroom, multiple teachers who “visit” each “learning space” throughout the timetabled day and the growing trend toward lighter teacher loads (the part-time teacher).

A quick GOOGLE image search of “Classroom Environments” will reveal some amazing looking class spaces. They range from traditional desk-centric rooms with creativity directed to the windows and doors; to rooms/spaces which look as though they were designed by supermarket architects! What is ALSO interesting to note is the few learning spaces which represent secondary (Year/Grade 7-12) learning environments.

Whether intended or not, all learning spaces do sell a message about learning WITHIN that space to our students. Whether the educator is “influenced by the historical lab school movement of John Dewey, the innovative early childhood work of Maria Montessori, or more modern theorists such as Howard Gardner, one thing is certain: classroom environment has been a subject of teacher consciousness.”. The recent trend has been to focus on our digital environmental priorities and it would be great to re-strike the balance.

I am also learning the value of “building and CAPTURING memories” from outside the classroom environment that are “projected” back into our class-home. It’s not a foreign concept, we do it all the time in our own families; for the learning environment it is about trying to capture where we have been; camps, incursions, excursions, activities, “shared” moments, capturing “fun learning” on film to frame and display … not just for Parent Nights! I am also learning the value of having a stack of old cushions available to maximise the use of the outdoors – which students love.

Whilst most of us don’t have access to master architects; we do have some control over the shape and sensory elements of our classrooms; even if this requires some form of strategic alliance with those we share our classrooms with. These include; practical resourcing, choice of furnishing, consideration of “traffic” routes, maximising natural light, the “student’s stamp” (displayed production, evidence of visible learning (see earlier entry)), sensory considerations (e.g. access to music, multi-visuals, comfort, heating/cooling/ventilation, storage, ability for the environment to accommodate multiple “groupings”, aromatherapy (hey – why not?), use of all “levels” within the space… not just a floor plan?

Environmental considerations do not only focus on room aesthetics but on the functional operation of the classroom. A recent Washington study  (2011) focused on the role of basic resourcing (paper, pencils, room heating/cooling, ventilation, child-friendly furnishings, access to computers, musical instruments, art supplies) as a contributor to student (and teacher) mental health! The study concluded that use of space and availability of resource was a crucial factor in contributing to positive mental health in the classroom; this was defined by four components:

  • learning (e.g., attentiveness),
  • externalising problems (e.g., fights),
  • interpersonal behavior (e.g., forming friendships), and
  • internalising problems (e.g., anxiety and sadness).

I was particularly impressed with the following incidental remark;

“I think parents care a lot about their children’s mental health (their emotional and behavioral well-being) but we, as a society, don’t tend to focus on that as an important educational outcome nearly as much as we talk about and think about academic outcomes.”

A great challenge for us all.

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One comment on “What’s the Word on Building Learning Environments?

  1. Pingback: What Makes a GREAT Teacher? | The Teacher Lounge

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