Achieving the Optimal Classroom – What is an effective learning environment?
When I was a teacher there was nothing that I loved more than organising my learning environment. I would spend hours researching ideas and thinking what was going to go where in my classroom. I spent hundreds of pounds buying resources and materials to make the learning environment an amazing space for learning. It felt like home to me and to the children. However, having an effective learning environment is more than what a classroom looks like. It is what it feels like and how it is used as well.
Let’s start with the physical learning environment. My learning environments were always child centred. I planned everything with the children’s best interests in mind. There are essential things that need to be considered but the first focus is to make sure that the classroom is safe. Ensure that fire exits are clear and there are no hazards which could cause accident or injury. After you have set up your classroom, walk through your space and conduct a risk assessment so that you can identify any risks. Ones to look out for are blind cords and fire risk materials. Every school should have a designated Health and Safety Coordinator who should check your environment regularly which is really useful.
Once you know who your class will be, assess whether they need any specific spaces, for example, children with additional needs may need their own learning areas.
What I always did first was draw a plan of my classroom. Make sure to draw the exact shape of the room with any recesses and include any display boards, doors/exits, interactive whiteboards, plug sockets and cupboards. Next make a list of any furniture you have. I always drew the areas/tables in pencil so I could rub them out if I changed my mind. Remember, this is only a plan. I have often started to move furniture and realised things would be better arranged in a different way, so keep reflecting throughout the whole process.
Consider where you would like your tables to go and how to arrange them. Will they face the interactive whiteboard? Working walls? They might be in 4s to enable cooperative learning or in rows so you can see all the children’s faces. There may be arrangements you need to comply with because of the Coronavirus, so make sure you check with your headteacher. Also, think about where your natural light is coming from and where your heating is!
All schools have their own policies and expectations for display and learning environments, so make sure you refer to them when planning your classroom. At my last school we had hessian backing on all of our displays. I am a big fan of the natural look, enhanced with the children’s learning, specific titles, artefacts and resources. In every classroom you would find specific areas and displays: a reading area, safe place and the same display titles/walls, for example phonics/reading, our behaviour management system, topic, english and maths working walls.
Think about the needs of your year group. Early Years classrooms will need specific zones with specific resources and, dependent on your ethos, they may or may not include the following:
*Writing and Maths is everywhere, but its sometimes nice to have a writing table with resources or a maths area so children know where to find specific things if they need them.
In Year 1, it is good practise to continue to have some of the same provision as in Early Years, at the beginning of the year at least. A finger gym is essential as the children are still developing and refining their fine motor control. A topic area with key texts, artefacts, small world and key inquiry questions is another great zone to create. Soften areas with fabric and lighting. Add cushions to your reading area. Get creative!
Working walls should display current teaching and learning and be a reference point for the children. Providing specific resources that children might need to access independently to demonstrate their understanding is vital.
I have been in many different classrooms and, in the best, the learning stands out from the high quality display and environment before I even looked at what was happening in the classroom. Make your topics come alive and showcase the amazing learning that you achieve!
There has been a lot of debate recently about the use and purpose of display in the classroom and corridor. Some displays look amazing with lots of bright and colourful things to catch your eye but what is the essential reason for display? Is it distraction or learning? Displays are part of your teaching tools – they will help your learners by being the third teacher (you are the first and peers the second)! You do not want to overload your children’s brains.
Everything in my classroom had a purpose, a reason for being there, and displays were included. For me, less is definitely more but not so that it is dull or unproductive. I planned my displays as well. I always had a ‘Learning Journey’ display to showcase the learning including photographs and quotes from the children. Consider what you need to display. Look at the National Curriculum for guidance, for example what specific knowledge and vocabulary do Year 3 children need to use in relation to shape? Which sound are you focusing on in phonics? Which strategy for addition in maths? Which topical vocabulary in history? What needs to stand out to everyone?
Teacher’s Pet have some amazing resources that will help you to create your incredible learning environment and they are developing new ones all the time so make sure you visit the website regularly.
When visiting any school, I always got an immediate feeling or sense of what the culture and climate for learning was like. It sometimes hard to describe the feeling but you can just see it in everything – from the way children and adults interact to the consistency of display. From the attitudes of the children inside and outside of the classroom to the way the learning in books. Every part of a school is a learning environment as every interaction, every observation is a learning moment. Children need to feel safe and important, valued and respected. They are the reason we all work so hard; to make a difference in their lives and research has shown that getting the conditions for learning right (which includes relationships and the learning environment) has a MASSIVE impact on outcomes.
Be inspired! Be motivated! Get creating!