While my kids were little, I volunteered in their Montessori school, and later on became a teacher there as well. One of Montessori’s first rules of engaging children in education is making sure the classroom is inviting and the materials the students need are readily available. This prepared environment encourages students to explore areas that interest them and learn the love of learning from an early age. Many Montessori teachers spend a large portion of their time arranging the environment to create that love and interest in learning.
Of course, here at GCC, we are not working at the elementary level or with children. The adult learner certainly has different needs than a child. But at what age does the physical environment stop being important in encouraging the love and interest in learning? I would like to argue that even as adults working with adult learners, we still are greatly affected by the space around us.
As a Geographer, I am always concerned with the spatial layout of things. We design cities with space in mind; we design airports for the best flow of traffic and comfort of passengers; we design the layout of retail stores to attract shoppers to make more purchases; we hire interior designers to make our homes inviting and useful, and we even design websites to be useful and to draw readers in. The best designed spaces are the ones that have the engagement of their users.
How we can make our classrooms more conducive to the educational process in the fifteen minutes between classes depends on what kind of tone you want set in your environment:
- Do students need to see the board or screen? Is there anything obstructing that view? What about the side walls, is there anything they need to see there? Often desks or tables that are pushed all the way to the side walls of the room are obstructed by items on the instructor desk (like the computer monitor).
- Do you stand behind a podium or in one place, or do you move around the room during class? Is there anything obstructing your movement in the classroom? Are you tied to the instructor PC to advance slides? Desks or tables arranged in rows tend to work best for standing in one place, and arranging them in groups provides more space for walking around.
- Do you like students to be quiet and listening to your lectures, or do you have them interacting with each other during class? Again, the row arrangement makes for a quiet/listening class, while group arrangement allows for small group discussions and interaction.
- Do you use handouts or other materials frequently? Is there anything that gets in the way of distributing things to students? Could there be a centrally located holding area for these materials? Is there an empty front table (because of course many students don’t sit right in front) that can be used for these materials?
- How do you manage on test day? Are you concerned about cheating? Can table groupings work in this situation? Is there a way to separate them out enough for that day?
- Are there permanent materials on the walls (charts, maps, etc.)? What kind of shape are they in? Are they located where students can see them?
I know, we generally only have fifteen minutes to get into a classroom, set up for the day, conference with students, etc. How possibly can we be responsible for preparing an environment, too? I usually employ the help of my students. This benefits the entire classroom environment by engaging the students in creating their space. It also supports the idea of teamwork – we all are contributing to our class. Also, students are moving around a little before class starts – hopefully that gets the cobwebs out of their heads to get started on the right foot.
The other concern with this is that we should really be returning the classroom to its original condition when we leave. I always try to meet the person in the room after me to see what he/she wants before I rearrange and then have to move things back. Often, the person after me is open to the changes I’ve made because the flow of energy in the room works better for their classes too.
We plan and arrange space in cities, airports, retail environments, and even websites. A classroom environment is no different – arranging the space to meet your teaching style and the students needs can make a big difference in student engagement and retention.