Whatever theory of learning you aspire to (learning styles, multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction, etc.) the research about our 21st Century learners is overwhelming and convincing in terms of the need for schools to attend to the strengths, preferences, and individual needs of students, and part of that attention must be dedicated to the environment in which students learn. Those of us working with students with learning disabilities have known this for a long time. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills advocates that learning environments be designed to assure communication and collaboration, creativity and innovation, as well as critical thinking and problem solving (www.21stcenturyskills.org). We must assure that the flow in the classroom allows for student interactions, access to technologies, tools and resources and supports group and individual work. Admittedly there are limitations in the current design of our schools that may be barriers to that perfect classroom design, but teachers of students with learning disabilities know all about barriers—and I know you will not let the industrial design of our buildings keep you from jumping into the 21st century. The easiest place to begin as a classroom teacher, when looking to improve or enhance learning, is with the physical environment of the classroom. Attention to classroom design that meets the needs of learners enhances classroom culture, tone, and efficacy and increases ownership, motivation, and enjoyment. This is especially true for our students who learn differently. You will be amazed at the results.
If your district subscribes to a learning styles or multiple intelligences profile you can begin there to get to know your learners. Often, well-written individualized educational plans (IEPs) will assist as well. Ultimately, the best way to find out about the environment that will best assist your learners is to ask them. Involve your students in setting the classroom up for success. Ask them what kinds of learning areas they need. Research related to at-risk learners tells us that they tend to be global (big picture) learners who prefer/require choice in learning, opportunities for working with peers, structure and variety in instructional approaches, breaks, and informal (comfortable) learning environments. These students who learn differently also require hands-on activities to process information, require soft music in the background, and require mobility while learning. They have varied sociological preferences of learning alone, or with an authority figure present, and are often motivated only if they are interested in the subject (Honigsfeld and Dunn, 2009). Based on what we know from the research about at-risk learners, a simple questionnaire can be designed to assist with your classroom renovation. Understanding the research, however, can provide you with guidelines for setting up the classroom to begin the year. Modifications can be made as you all live and work together in the environment.
Knowing what we do about students who learn differently it is apparent that teachers of students from preschool age through age 21 need to consider centers when arranging their classrooms. Even in high school settings where teachers share rooms, students can be taught to quickly transform their classroom upon entering into their particular learning space. This two-minute exercise daily of having students get the classroom into ‘learning mode’ for the group goes a long way in terms of showing students that we care, and showing students that we want to set them up for success—motivation to learn in these classrooms quickly raises to the next level!
Flexible classroom environments help the teacher to assure that behavioral issues are minimized, appropriate social interactions are maximized, and the work area is suitable for students to do their best learning. We must consider areas where students can learn and concentrate alone, with a peer, in a small group. The use of manipulative requires space, and areas for projects to be completed must be included. There needs to be computer, reading, and listening areas as well as presentation areas. Classrooms need quiet spaces for those who need it, and areas where students can have music in the background if that is their preference. We must consider our learners who require movement and consider ways to vary lighting to permit students access to what enables them to be most successful.
Parent organizations can be helpful in providing the materials that assist teachers in being creative in their classrooms. Teachers in my buildings have used car sunshields as study carrels, beach chairs (that are low to the ground and fold up, to provide informal seating that can easily be put aside when not in use), pillows, cushions, and small carpet squares from area carpet stores. They have moved bookcases from against the wall into the classroom in a perpendicular design to provide cozy areas in which students work well. They offer varied lighting by using desk lamps in certain areas of the room, and use dimmer switches when available or only light half of the room. Even our middle and high school teachers are requesting rugs to provide an informal area in our classrooms. We have added recliners to our school libraries, and permit food (responsibly) and listening to music while studying and have made our school libraries the hubs of activity in our secondary schools—as they should be. Just thinking outside the box with regard to classroom design is helpful. Our teachers have noticed that their desk and materials take up nearly one-third of the classroom learning space, and by revamping their workspace; they have created room for students who need to move, and for areas for use of hands-on materials or games requiring whole body movement for learning.
Think about a classroom designed to meet the needs of your learners. Envision it! Once the environmental needs of your students are met, behavior improves, achievement is enhanced, and attitude about school improves. A website I share with my teachers permits experimentation with design before you actually move anything in your classroom (http://classroom.4teachers.org/). Try it out. Think outside the box—or better yet, let your students design some options. Letting the students design their own classroom would provide you with great insight as to their individual environmental needs. Attention to the environment is key to teaching and learning. As we get inundated with the daily requirements put upon us we sometimes forget this key element. Become a designer! Create the feng-shui that your classroom needs! You and your learners will benefit.
Dunn, R. , & Honigsfeld, A.(2009). Differentiated instruction for at-risk youth: What to do and how to do it. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Lois R. Favre, Ed. D. is Assistant Superintendent for the Lakeland Central School District in Westchester County, New York. She is a national and international presenter and writer on leadership, differentiation, inclusion, co-teaching, and special education topics. She serves on the Executive Board of Directors of the International Learning Styles Network, and as an Associate Editor for Insights on Learning Disabilities.