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Teaching space

Teaching strategies

Teaching space: A guide for classroom practitioners and managers

Teaching space – the physical layout of the learning environment (usually in terms of how the space can be designed to maximise learning, safety, class dynamic etc.).

Teacher assistant standing in front a group of students doing a learning activity.

Teachers have always known that the learning environment plays a big role in the learning process. An unsafe, uncomfortable and disorganised environment can impede learning.i On the other hand, a safe, visually appealing and comfortable environment is much more conducive to learning. Aware of this, most teachers and school managers go to great lengths to design and decorate their classrooms. There’s more to it than aesthetics however – the physical space also lays the foundation for developing a positive classroom atmosphere. It is the precursor to engagement, motivation, pride, community spirit, a feeling of safety and security, positive social exploration and a sense of belonging. It also lays the foundation for the education program and signals to both students and parents that you are organised, planned, in control, confident and professional. When students step into your room, they should know where they are – a place of learning. This helps students to mentally transition from the playground and to prepare themselves for the learning to come.

When students step into your room, they should know where they are – a place of learning. This helps students to mentally transition from the playground and to prepare themselves for the learning to come.

The first step in designing a learning space is to consider the basic layout of the room. Where furniture is placed has an impact on student behaviour, which in turn impacts the time spent learning. There are 3 main layout types that teachers can choose from when working with individual or 2-person desks (as well as a seemingly never-ending number of variations and combinations):

  1. the horseshoe layout
  2. the group layout
  3. rows.

We’ll now look at each of these layouts in turn.

The horseshoe layout

The horseshoe layout is best for class discussions, pair work, worked examples and board work; it is a favourite of those who teach older adolescents and adults. For larger classes, straight rows can be arranged inside the horseshoe. An advantage of this layout is that every student faces the teacher while still allowing for some peer interaction. Classes using this arrangement often begin with board work or worked examples, followed by individual or pair work during which the teacher circulates from student to student.

The group layout

The group layout is also popular and often necessary when space is an issue. There are various ways that desks can be arranged to form clusters. A typical layout for individual desks is 4 quarters and one top desk accommodating 4 or 5 students (not every desk needs a student). Teachers place these clusters in various positions (and angles) and are careful about who sits where.

While the advantage of this layout is that it’s conducive to group work; this is also the biggest problem – students can easily interact with each other. However, overly social students can be spaced out and placed in strategic locations such as near the teacher’s desk. A big disadvantage of this method is that very few students face the board directly; about 50% are on an angle of some kind and 25% have their backs to the wall. A way around this is to teach from different locations in the class.

Rows

Rows are considered more traditional and somewhat militaristic. However, this arrangement has several important advantages. Firstly, it is the most effective layout for challenging classes filled with students who tend to display a high level of off-task and attention-seeking behaviour. This is because students all face the same direction and have the least amount of eye contact with their peers. Many teachers use this layout permanently (or at least for the first few weeks of class until they are satisfied that students are capable of working in groups without behavioural problems).

Rows are commonly broken into pairs to add an element of collegiality. Sometimes data is used to pair students who have similar learning needs. Where students sit (front, middle, side or back) can be rotated every month or so. Rows are best broken with access gaps every 3-5 desks. For group activities, students can easily turn 180 degrees.

Hint: regardless of the layout you choose, ensure that you have easy access to each student so you can provide one-on-one support. Some students will move their desk in an attempt to isolate and barricade themselves into an inaccessible corner – be firm on enforcing your layout by having students maintain the original position of each desk throughout the lesson.

Once the layout has been carefully chosen, other considerations can be addressed to finalise the design of the physical space:

  • The physical safety and comfort of learners. This includes lighting, reducing reflection from outside and from screens, air flow, air temperature, the seating plan and the position of other furniture such as the teacher’s desk. Don’t hesitate to speak with your manager about making changes and upgrades.
  • The needs of people with disabilities and disorders (such as sufficient space to enter and exit the room). You may need to ask children with hearing or sight issues to sit toward the front and to make sure their allocated seat faces the front.
  • Hanging or displaying students’ work around the room. This tells students that their teacher is proud of their accomplishments. It helps students to build confidence and self-esteem, it promotes a sense of belonging and community and it generally makes for a more pleasant work environment. Display work that publicises successes (such as work produced by students who have engaged in very challenging long-term tasks or projects that were completed to a high degree of excellence). Work that demonstrates educational goals being met should be displayed and referred to as a reminder of what can be achieved (and a nod to the teacher’s high expectations).
  • Hanging educational materials around the room along with props and interesting objects (such as a world globe). This helps to immerse students in their learning and further signifies that this is a safe learning space – not a playground. Social stories, posters, a list of metacognitive skills, artwork, maps, collages, books and poems can all be easily displayed. When learners take a break and their eyes wander around the room, they read posters that remind them of spelling rules or historical events. A language class could be decorated with images and posters from the relevant country: cultural celebrations, flags, historical events, street signs, images of shops and food. These items all provide appropriate information and context.
  • Having a space available for displaying reward systems, community/class messages and information, reminders, the class schedule and other important information.
  • Ensuring that students can see a clock which keeps an accurate time.
  • Checking that all IT equipment is in perfect working order. Request regular servicing and upgrades. Ask for the latest technologies and devices – in the worst-case scenario, the answer is no – in the best-case scenario, you might get a new smartboard and a class set of tablets! Remember the old saying ‘you don’t get if you don’t ask’. Your manager doesn’t know what you need unless you tell them.
  • Bringing some of the outdoors inside. Pot plants that can be nurtured by students into large plants helps to build responsibility and a sense of routine. A large tree branch can be used to hang things related to a subject or topic.

However, creating a warm, inviting and safe environment requires more than just physical items. What you say and do, how strategies and techniques are implemented, and your level of professionalism all play a key role:

  • Ensure that students feel safe to actively participate in each activity. Encourage learners to ask questions and to seek assistance. Be warm, open and accessible, while at the same time firm, fair and systematic.
  • Encourage students to tackle challenging activities and to embrace failure as a normal part of the learning process.
  • Teach metacognitive skills such as planning, organising, process learning, chunking, predicting and summarising.
  • Teach coping strategies such as mental scripting, looking at the whole picture and seeking assistance.
  • Set high academic expectations for all students – use SMART educational goals.
  • Set high behavioural standards for all students that are fair, based on clear expectations, that have natural consequences and a systematic approach.
  • Accept only respectful interactions whether between students and adults, students and students or adults and adults.
  • Consider students from diverse backgrounds, cultures, religions, abilities, life experiences, career aspirations, language skills and disabilities. Cultural activities can enhance a sense of belonging.
  • Consider both extroverts and introverts.
  • Lead the way – be calm, respectful, and professional at all times, have a warm and caring attitude, build rapport, show interest, be organised and prepared. Take pride in your work.
  • Model and explain to students how professionals go about their work – they are calm, strategic, data- driven, systematic, research-based, respectful, diligent and organised.
  • Remember that you are a professional and that teaching is your profession. Your students are your clients. Irrespective of what others do, dress professionally and maintain a high standard of body hygiene, only use your phone outside of class hours, refrain from eating and drinking during class time (other than water), show your students how to eat healthy by eating healthy yourself, and use professional language at all times.
  • Give students a sense of control by giving them choices wherever possible.
  • Consider how you use the nooks and corners of the room and any other available spaces. Take advantage of any available spaces (such as by having a reward corner, a silent corner, a play corner, a library or a resource area).

Hint: the classroom is your workplace; you are the boss and you have a duty of care to those under your supervision. When you first arrive, survey the room for hazards. Then conduct a quick risk assessment by taking the time to think about the planned activities and how someone could get injured or something could get damaged. Manage any hazards by eliminating hazards or minimising the risk.

If you’ve studied education before, you will undoubtedly have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s hierarchy (as far as teachers are concerned) shows that certain conditions must be met for learning to effectively occur. If students are stressed – learning suffers.ii Similarly if students feel isolated, learning also suffers. This should seem obvious, but it can easily be forgotten by busy teachers concentrating on the lessons ahead. A child from a neglectful household, worried about whether there will be anything to eat for dinner, is less likely to be engrossed in an activity regardless of how fantastic and well prepared it may be. That person is more concerned with their physiological needs – the base layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. School students first need the basic necessities of life – food, clean water, clothing, physical safety and shelter. School breakfast programs and pastoral care strategies help to meet these needs.

Under Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, 4 key levels need to be met before students can really excel as far as learning is concerned:

  1. physiological needs
  2. safety needs
  3. love and belonging needs
  4. self-esteem needs.

Meeting all 4 of these need levels is a necessary precursor to intrinsic self-motivation, self-directed independent learning and full engagement. Both teaching spaces and teachers can help students to meet these needs. Physiological and safety needs are the most important levels and they form the foundation of a person’s physical and psychological wellbeing. Next is connectedness to others, called love and belonging in Maslow’s model, which involves positive relationships with others such as friends, caregivers and teachers.

Finally, we need a sense of worth or esteem. This includes a sense of freedom, respect, recognition and self-confidence. Once all 4 of these levels have been met, students are in the best position to maximise their learning potential. Teachers can use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by doing what they can to ensure that all 4 levels are satisfied. It can also help you to understand the root causes of many behavioural issues.

Foot notes:

  1. Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., Barrett, L. (2015). The impact of classroom design on pupils' learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis. Building and Environment, 89, 118-133. doi: 10.1016/j.buildenv.2015.02.013.
  2. Maslow, A (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper.

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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