Creating Learning Environments in the Classroom and Beyond

Even without a major overhaul, administrators and teachers can customize learning spaces to fit their school’s unique instructional vision.

Sue Ann Highland, PhD By Sue Ann Highland, PhD
November 1, 2023

Learning environments can impact a classroom so much that it can be tempting to think they can help teachers fix any challenge. But they’re just a tool. A learning environment can make students more eager to come to class, but it will not create engagement on its own. A learning environment can seamlessly integrate technology into a classroom, but a teacher still has to put that technology to effective use. Just like technology, learning environments are tools that can support teaching and learning in a variety of ways.

During the pandemic, many teachers saw the wild variety of places in which students felt comfortable learning. Many students, like my children, set up their workspace at a desk or the kitchen table, then never sat there throughout the school closures. They were on the floor, outside, sitting on their beds—one of my children was even in the hot tub for classes sometimes. We may not be able to put hot tubs in every class, but we can give students more ownership in choosing the kinds of spaces they want to learn in by making their environments more flexible.

Of course, the learning spaces we create also have to be flexible to meet the needs of future students. We don’t know how education will change in the next 20 years, but we do know that school and district budgets won’t support yearly classroom makeovers along the way, so classrooms need to be designed to meet a variety of future needs.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you design spaces that will support instruction, enable student agency, and weather change in the years to come.

Designing to Suit Your Purpose

There is no wrong way to set up a classroom. Some people may have strong ideas about what a classroom should or shouldn’t look like, but different schools have different needs, and the design of those classrooms should fit those needs rather than some preconceived idea of what a classroom should be.

If you had to dig a 50-foot trench, you wouldn’t use a hand tool. You would look at the job you were trying to accomplish and work back from there to decide that you needed a trenching shovel or a trench digger. Similarly, to decide what your learning environment should look like, begin with your instructional vision. What does teaching and learning look like in your school? What do you want to see in your classrooms? Are you a STEAM school or a career and technical education building? What strategies are you using? The answers to those questions will narrow down your options and, perhaps, highlight some ideas you hadn’t considered.

Next, look to the Six Essential Design Elements®, which include:
  • Choice;
  • Comfort;
  • Versatility;
  • Connection;
  • Stimulation; and
  • Technology.

How can you get all of those in, and what will they look like in your school?

Then decide what ratios you want in your classroom. Most classrooms will have formal areas with hard writing surfaces or desks and chairs. These days, most classrooms will also have informal areas where students might work individually or in pairs in a more relaxed setting, with furniture such as bean bag chairs, soft seating, or wobble stools that have not traditionally been associated with classrooms.

If your school features a lot of direct instruction, you probably won’t be putting many bean bag chairs in your classrooms. If your school emphasizes collaboration, combo desks might not be a good fit. If you’re encouraging active learning, static furniture might hold you back, while more flexible options will allow your teachers to reconfigure the classroom to meet the needs of each day. Students are active so if the environment is static, the two clash.

How Administrators Can Help Create Learning Spaces

Just as schools approach teaching and learning in a variety of ways, teachers within a school will have different approaches. Administrators can ensure that they have appropriate learning spaces by creating spaces together that support the instructional intent. That doesn’t mean teachers should receive a budget to go out and buy new furniture every year, but they could be encouraged to buy fidgets, additional art supplies, or a weighted blanket for a chill-out corner in the classroom.

A learning environment is also more than just furniture. It includes the teachers and the support they have in the school, among other things. Is there a smiling attendance clerk welcoming them to school as they arrive each day? Administrators can further support teachers by providing them a relaxing space to recharge in. Teachers are part of the learning environment, and if they’re stressed they won’t be as effective. They may even pass some of that stress along to their students. Instead of looking at the teacher’s lounge as a place to get away from students, administrators can look at them as an opportunity to remind teachers that they are appreciated, cared for, and supported every time they step into the room.

Ways Teachers Can Adapt Their Classrooms

Even without the ability to buy furniture, teachers can adapt their classrooms to be more functional learning spaces. When setting up their classrooms, teachers can think about what units they will be covering and what activities they will ask students to do. They can ask themselves questions such as:
  • How can I arrange furniture to give students an opportunity to step away for partner work?
  • How will students engage in collaborative discussions in this room?
  • Do they have space for individual work?
  • Can I carve out a space for students to take a break if they need it?

Beyond the physical arrangement of the classroom, teachers can improve their classroom environment by asking themselves if they greet their students every morning to make sure it’s a friendly and welcoming space to come into every day. A friendly hand on the shoulder and some eye contact can go a long way toward letting students know they are cared for, and that is more important to creating an environment conducive to learning than any piece of furniture in the classroom.

Designing Spaces Beyond the Classroom

The spaces outside of the classroom also have an impact on learning. Students need downtime throughout the day to let their brains relax and recharge after the hard work of learning. Adults might want quiet time for that, but many children recharge by being social with one another. School leaders should look for opportunities to create relaxing spaces for students to hang out in places like the lunchroom, media center, or even a hallway. Maybe the library can become a place where students feel comfortable having an informal conversation with a teacher. Perhaps the cafeteria could have a coffee shop-like feel, with soft lighting and earth tones on the walls so that students want to chill out together after they eat.

And there’s also the outdoors. Are there places on campus that would make for a good outdoor classroom or chill spot? There are always places where students naturally come together to work on homework or play games. Are there opportunities to extend those spaces?

For schools that have smaller budgets, making the most of these public or accessible areas is a great way to get the most bang for your buck. If you can tweak a hallway by adding a chill-out area or put in a space where students can relax at the back of the cafeteria or library, it will reach more of them than if it’s behind a classroom door.

This is also a great way to gain support for your vision if you’d like to see broader change to your school’s learning spaces. If key decision-makers have questions about the ROI of updating spaces, seeing students collaborating in a redesigned media center or learning self-regulation in a chill-out space in a quiet hallway corner will make them a lot more likely to understand why bean bags—or whatever matches your instructional vision—might belong in a classroom.

However you set your spaces up, make sure everyone understands why they are designed the way they are. Flexible furniture may be the right tool for a collaborative learning environment, but if the teacher in the room doesn’t know what they can do with it, they won’t get the most out of it. Without clear communication, a chill-out space might become a corner to send students to for punishment, or a space they can’t choose to go to.

Learning spaces aren’t just defined by the furniture in them or their other physical characteristics. They are defined by the way educators show up for their students within them, by the way they support students and carve out safe space to take risks and persevere through failure to find success. Learning spaces are defined by teachers and students and the relationships they build. A well-designed learning environment simply gives them an appropriate space to do it in.

Dr. Sue Ann Highland is the national education strategist for School Specialty. She can be reached at [email protected].

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