Focusing on the Classroom Environment

I love my classroom. I love that it’s my place. I love that it’s where I keep my books and pictures of my family. I love that I am able to educate my students in room C218 at James Clemens High School. I know that I am not the only teacher who feels this sense of ownership over their classroom. Think back to your first year of teaching…when you were finally escorted through the door and someone said, “This is your classroom.” Wow…that’s a good feeling. You look around and just imagine where you’re going to put some posters, perhaps how you’re going to decorate a bulletin board, and just how are you going to arrange the desks/tables? It can be a bit overwhelming…but it’s a good overwhelming for most.

The classroom, for many teachers, is their sanctuary. It is, of course, a place to teach and instruct. But it is also a place to grade, to decompress, to have a quick snack during one’s off period or block. Now, I certainly don’t believe this fondness for an approximately 20’ by 20’ square is misguided, but I want to ask one question of your classroom:

Is it also a sanctuary for learning?

Ok…maybe that’s laying it on a little too thick. Sorry. Let’s try this again:

Does your classroom provide a proper environment for learning? Could it be better?

What does your classroom look like? Think about the stuff on the walls. Think about the arrangement of desks and/or tables. Are these aspects (and others) of the classroom arranged in a way that possibly impede or enhance learning? I know many of us are unable to physically be in our classrooms right now, but I would encourage you (when you can) to go and sit in one of your students’ chairs. Look around the room. What do you see? It is a nice exercise in empathy. Teachers are incredibly busy and sometimes we lose the perspective of the students sitting in our classroom. When we get away from what it feels like, sounds like, looks like, to be a student in our classroom, we may be losing the efficiency and effectiveness of instruction. 

Consider your students. Consider their attention in your classroom. What aspects may be splitting their attention in class? Humans are only able to cognitively focus on one event at a time. The idea of being able to cognitively multitask is an illusion. Don’t believe me? See if you can figure out who killed Lord Smithe:

As the video demonstrates (hopefully), if you aren’t cognitively engaged with a certain aspect of your surroundings, you are very likely to miss that information. If students (or anyone, for that matter) are attentive to anything other than instruction, there’s a great chance they will not learn from that instruction. I believe many teachers understand this concept when it comes to cell phones in class. Unless the cell phone is explicitly being used for an activity in class, cell phones only serve to draw attention away from the lesson. I know I have observed the pull of the vibrating phone on the desk. Usually, not only does the cell phone’s owner check to see what notification they’ve received, but it also stimulates others in class to do the same…just in case, I guess.

But, I’m not sure teachers use the same logic of split-attention with cell phone usage to regulate other important aspects of the physical classroom. Think about posters you may have on the walls and projects displayed around the room. Are they necessary for what you are teaching this lesson or even this unit of study? If not, I would at least ask you to consider shelving these possible distractors just as you’d ask students to put away their cell phones during instruction. Don’t get me wrong, motivational quotes are nice to have around and a poster of one’s favorite painting might look lovely against cinder block walls, but that doesn’t make them appropriate for a learning environment. 

Another aspect of the classroom to consider is the seating arrangement. Where are the students sitting? Which way are they facing in their seats? Are their views obstructed from instruction? If a group of students are seated at a table and have their backs turned to the lesson, their ability to attend to that information is compromised and they may be a distraction to others attempting to pay attention.  

Instruction mostly calls for attention from one or two senses: audition and vision. I want to make it as easy as possible for my students to attend to instruction, removing as many barriers that may get in the way. I guess that’s what this all boils down to for me. Instructing students in an environment that is conducive for learning as possible. But it doesn’t end there. These same basic principles of attention are a reality 24 hours a day…wherever they are learning. So, I discuss how these ideas should shape their studying at home or in the library or on the bus or during lunch…you get the idea. The bigger picture isn’t just to create an environment of focus in my classroom, it is to tell my students why learners should create this sort of learning environment and then assist them with developing healthy study habits that mirror what we’re modeling in class all of the time. 

Before I go, I want to make a few points of what I’m not saying with this post:

  1. I’m not saying make your room as barren as possible. All I’m saying is consider what’s on the walls and the attention they may take from your students. I mean, you’re not putting them on the wall for students to ignore, right? Try to make those posters and displays as instructional as possible. 
  2. I’m not saying cell phones are bad or even that technology is bad. When used appropriately, they can certainly elevate instruction…but, like just about every aspect of the classroom, they can be misused and hinder learning.
  3. I’m not saying collaborative work is bad or that students should face the front of the room, listening to the teacher talk 100% of the time (although, lecture isn’t bad). A learner’s focus should be wherever the knowledge is being dispensed, whether that be a teacher at the front of the room, a group member, a text, et cetera. 

What other physical aspects of the classroom environment can either assist with or impede learning?

Don’t agree with something I’ve written? Write a rebuttal to this post. Go here.

Feature Image by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

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