Do you know what my biggest pet peeve is in my classroom?
A student with nothing to do.
Nothing ruffles my feathers more than seeing a student doing nothing (or goofing around) because they are not engaged in a learning experience during instructional time. I think this bothers me so much because I know that I have designed my classroom to be a never-ending learning environment. (Note: I fully support the need for brain breaks, recess and the research behind the importance of them- this article refers to the use of instructional time.)
So how can teachers design this type of learning environment?
When we think learning environment, we typically think about the learning space. I can tell you with confidence that classroom decor is only a small part of this. I’m not sure that anything (except maybe testing season) gives me more anxiety than looking at Instagram stories of the wonderfully artistic teachers who post pictures and videos of their classroom design.
I’ve tried to replicate these beautifully decorated classrooms, and no matter how much money I spend or how much time I take, I can’t make my classroom look (and stay) “Insta-worthy”. We can easily fall into a comparison trap.
But it is important to remember that even if our class doesn’t look like it was professionally decorated, it is the instructional design that helps students learn. Decor can be lovely. But it will never take the place of solid instructional design and effective teaching.
How to Create a Positive Learning Environment
1. Students should be safe
It goes without saying that a classroom should be set up so that students can move throughout the day without getting injured. However, we should think about emotional safety, too. Some students, especially ones with unpredictable home lives, thrive on routine.
They need a place to call their own, a place to keep belongings, and a consistent classroom set-up with routines of where to go to find materials. Classroom culture plays a big part in this emotional safety- it is important to build classroom community so that ALL students feel welcome and included in the class. The people do that, not the decor.
2. Students should be able to identify zones
Every classroom needs specific zones designed for different purposes. I like to have a direct instruction zone, an independent work zone (this is pretty much anywhere students can do their best work), a collaboration zone, small group zone, and a class meeting zone. These are different from learning stations such a reading corner or a science spot.
As we move throughout our day, I find that it is helpful for students to match their location to the type of learning they’re doing. If we’re learning a new math concept, we are in our seats doing “whole body listening” towards the instruction. When students work on something by themselves, they scatter to a comfortable place.
If we need to have a heart-to-heart conversation, solve problems, or meet as a class, we go to our class meeting location. I do not have an exceptionally large classroom, so all of these zones overlap. However, I find that when students are in the classroom zone that matches each type of learning, their learning behavior matches.
3. Students should have visual cues
Visual cues and resources are important for students. I frequently add to word walls, math walls, anchor chart displays, etc. And even more frequently, I say, “Check your resources – I’ll bet you can find that answer on the math wall!” or “Where can you look to find that information?”
Training the students to use the walls helps them take responsibility for their learning. I can tell who learns these skills well at standardized testing time. When all of the posters come down, I see students looking up in the direction of our visual cues. Even when they’re not there, they trigger memories that help students retrieve what they need.
On the flip side of this, overstimulation is real. Many of our students need visual cues for routines. We don’t want so much decor that students have trouble visually discriminating clues that can help them succeed. Just like we have zones for learning, it is helpful to have zones for visual resources.
Designing Ongoing Learning Experiences
Let’s go back to those idle students. When I first started teaching, I knew that if students had free time, behavior problems would crop up. So, I made sure that I always had a “next step” just in case a lesson went more quickly then I anticipated. I now know more about problem behaviors and the reasons behind them, but the original idea holds: if the instructional design is weak, even students with impeccable learning behaviors will check out.
The trick to making sure learning doesn’t stop is to build an expectation of empowerment. Let students know that it is their responsibility to take advantage of every moment while they’re in class, and you will be there to guide them if they forget. They should not wait for a teacher to provide an activity, but instead, they should seek knowledge at every opportunity.
This does not come naturally for many students, especially if they’ve never been in a classroom that offers choice. It also takes a lot of self-discipline, which also comes with practice. But with consistent routine and expectations of how to make good learning choices, students will grow.
Here are a few tips to help make sure the learning doesn’t stop, even when you’re not leading it:
1. Provided a consistent routine for early finishers.
And we’re not just talking busy work. I have a choice board or learning menu for each subject area. This changes with our theme or unit so that the activities stay fresh and engaging.
All students have this choice board, but some use it more than others. This is the default activity for students to work on if they find themselves with free time. Some educators call these “anchor activities“. (Find a great article on anchor activities here.)
2. Practice and reward desired behaviors.
It takes time for students to remember that they should never just “sit there” in my classroom. I typically notice this idle behavior during transition times. After introducing learning options like this, it pays, in the long run, to give provide a little extra “down” time during a transition time.
This gives you an opportunity to catch students taking advantage of the choices. Praise them noticeably (either verbally or with a silent incentive) so that the students who are not choosing to spend their time wisely will change their behavior.
After class begins, reflect back as a whole group, and have students who received the reward explain why they earned it. This serves as a blatant reminder to those that didn’t get the message earlier.
3. Make sure students have an organized way to keep track of their extra materials.
Since students have varying amounts of time to complete these “in between” activities, they need to be able to start and stop quickly to cut down on it being a detriment to instructional time due to a long clean up. Teach students the routine so that when it is time to transition, they can move quickly and be ready for the next step. This also cuts down on the time it takes for students to begin these in between activities.
4. Choose General Activities that don’t take a lot of prep…
… and yet, still stimulate students’ brains. Start slowly by providing one or two choices, and add choices as the year progresses. Here are some ideas:
- Free choice reading or writing
- Directed topic reading (provide a basket of books related to the topics you’re learning)
- Makerspace time: Provide a mini-makerspace in your classroom where students can work through the design process on their own.
- Wonder Wall Research Time: Students can explore and post about a topic of their choice.
- Create an instructional video: Students love to pretend to be “you-tubers” on a topic you’re learning about. As they create, it helps them retain.
- Create, create, create: provide ideas for students to create a product to show their learning. Students could create a piece of visual art, a playlist, a song, a sketchnote, a digital poster, etc. to demonstrate knowledge.
Spending time planning your learning environment, both physical and learning-wise, can reap huge benefits as your year progresses. Not only will you see a decrease in problem behaviors, but you will notice that students become advocates for their own learning, increasing engagement and empowerment at the same time.
Dyan is a third grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.