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