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Work the Room: Creating a Learning Environment That Works for Your Students

Could you be working smarter in your day-to-day teaching? Teachers spend a tremendous amount of time and energy carefully crafting lesson plans and assessments. A key player in high-quality instruction often gets overlooked – the learning environment. How could adjusting the physical space of the classroom work to meet your learners’ needs? A student-centered environment prioritizes the individual needs of each student and gives them freedom and choice in their learning. Albert Einstein said, "I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn." What changes could you make today to create a classroom environment that works for you and your students?

Creating a Student-Centered Learning Environment

As a first-year teacher, I learned to create elaborate bulletin board displays that reflected my thematic units. Seasoned teachers imparted their wisdom for creating these displays, like using fabric instead of paper to cover bulletin boards because it doesn't wrinkle or fade and could be used year after year. I made the mistake of viewing my classroom as a teacher-centered environment. I was the one charged with transforming blank walls and worn, mismatched furniture into an inviting learning space. It was natural to think of the classroom as a reflection of my teaching content and who I was as a teacher. I spent time after school creating handmade decorations and displays and designed the classroom around my aesthetic preferences. Although I created a beautiful and functional learning space, I missed countless opportunities to optimize learning in my classroom.

A beautiful learning space should go beyond aesthetics. Creating a student-centered learning environment gives your students the power and agency to seek out new learning independently. Take advantage of the physical space and create systems that reflect your learners’ abilities and needs. Let your classroom be a living, breathing thing, and adjust the space, systems, and routines based on your observations. Is one group of students thriving in a collaborative project? What elements could be contributing to their success? Is there a problem area in your classroom, like a pencil sharpening station, conference area, or learning centers? How could the layout be adjusted to solve a recurring issue? Here are some key elements to consider when assessing your learning environment.

Flow

Picture an aerial view of your classroom on a typical day, and assess the overall flow of the activity. How do students move through the room? What are the most highly trafficked areas? Are there pinch points or neglected spaces? Can students come and go from essential areas with ease?

Taking a critical look at the functionality of your classroom layout will help you establish a healthy flow in which the classroom space is fully utilized without overly dense or crowded areas. Rearranging desks or tables have a huge impact on how students work within a space. Consider whether your seating arrangements provide opportunities for meaningful collaboration. Work to create an inviting entryway that welcomes students into the space.

Access

Are your students able to access materials for common tasks independently? Could you save the time you spend passing out materials by creating a designated writing center, accessible supply bins, or a paint bar? Whether you are a kindergarten teacher setting out learning centers, an art teacher preparing for a painting lesson, or a high school teacher collecting assignments, a significant amount of teacher time is spent managing the materials within the classroom. How could students take ownership over some of those procedures? Setting up the physical space for students to access and manage materials could save valuable instruction time and give your students a sense of ownership and agency.

Communication

What is your first line of communication with students regarding recurring assignments or instructions? Are your students constantly interrupting small group instruction or conferences to ask about a simple procedure? Posting process charts that deliver essential information or instructions can streamline your routines and allow you to focus your attention to individual needs. Creating an environment within which students can solve their own problems will help promote independence and contribute to confidence.

Solutions

When creating a student-centered environment, it important to take time to observe, reflect, and adapt, constantly seeking solutions that will address the individual interests and needs of your students. Take a fresh look at your classroom, and ask yourself if it is working for you and your students.  Does the classroom environment reflect your students and adapt to their changing curiosities and habits? Could it be more efficient, or tailored to their abilities? Could a teacher-created display be traded for a student work showcase? Could an unused corner be transformed into a reading nook, library, or learning center? Does the physical space foster independence and choice? Employing your classroom environment to your advantage can deepen students’ learning while allowing you to focus on what’s most important.

Written by Danielle Dravenstadt

Danielle is an artist and art educator in Alexandria, VA. She specializes in student-centered learning, arts integration, and contemporary best practices.