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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Classroom Environment Is a Key Element for Student Success

First appeared on Blogcritics.

class 2 If you are an adult, what do you remember about your classrooms? In my memory I can think of big windows that let in bright light and through which I could see blue sky and treetops. I also recall in some rooms, when the sun could become a distraction, that teachers pulled the shades in order to block it. The key fact about those rooms was that they had big windows and most of the time they let in bright, natural light.

It turns out that this was a good thing for me and my classmates. A new study found in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, an annual publication from Princeton University, notes that students exposed to more natural light do better in school. In addition the study authors noted "For students to learn to their full potential, the classroom environment must be of minimum structural quality and contain cues signaling that all students are valued learners."

This makes a great deal of sense. For example, the study notes that in science classrooms it is not enough to have photographs of male scientists, but a wide range of male and female ones of various ethnicities. It is important to “boost the achievement” of all groups and not alienate certain students by displays that are not inclusive of “groups who traditionally face educational barriers.”

Besides concerns about lighting, ideal classroom conditions would obviously include temperature of the room, arrangement of teacher and student desks and chairs, and the way a classroom is painted and decorated. If we think back to our own days in school, we can recall those classrooms that were warm and inviting and those that were austere and uncomfortable. The best classrooms that I have been in are those that feature generous amounts of student work. They are also painted in colors that are not too dark, making the rooms seem bigger and more airy.

class 3In Kindergarten classrooms we can often find the most colorful and warm atmospheres for students. Everything from color coordinated tables and chairs to the copious amounts of children’s work hanging from every available space on the walls (and even laundry lines strung across the room) contributes to a friendly and successful environment. Children can see their past successes hanging there along with the alphabet, numerals, calendars, and reading posters. This kind of room utilizes every inch of space to provide a positive learning area.

Unfortunately, sometimes this is not the case as students move up the educational ladder. I recall the bare walls and boards in my high school classrooms. Once in a while an inspired teacher put up subject related items, but for the most part there was a rather bleak atmosphere that did nothing to enhance the academic climate.

class 4If we look back at the old fashioned idea of a classroom, we find what I had in my New York City public high school. Desks were fastened to the floor, still had holes in them for inkwells, and the teacher usually stood in the front of the room to lecture. In that truly antiquated setting, there was a definite sense of stasis, and the idea of aligning desks differently was physically impossible. Many of us faced the same things growing up, and maybe we can say that we got through okay, but is “okay” what we want for our children?


As for the arrangement of desks, in this era of Common Core State Standards, the move is toward more student-centered classrooms and to leave the days of lecturing behind. I like walking into classrooms that have desks arranged to maximize potential for group work, for meaningful interaction, and to let the flow of discourse be more natural and effective. This is not to say that the frontal teaching mode is always negative – it still seems to work well for test taking – but that is why it is essential for desks to be mobile in order for teachers and students to arrange the configuration to best suit the needs of the moment.

Sometimes educators can feel as if everything is out of their control. We have curriculum guides, CCSS, and standardized and state assessments that must be given, but one of the things definitely within the teacher’s power is the way the classroom looks. He or she might not be able to dictate the color of the walls, but how the classroom looks and feels can be coordinated by that teacher. Sometimes it is exciting to include students in implementing ideas when decorating, and teachers shouldn’t be surprised that kids have great ideas about how they want their classrooms to look.

class1Take note of the way spaces look in doctors’ offices, shopping malls, food stores, and restaurants. The lighting, arrangement of furniture, and configuration of displays directly affects the way you feel about going to these places. In my children’s dentist office there are walls painted with cartoon characters, bubblegum machines (with toys not gum in them), and their favorite TV shows playing on screens above the dentist chairs. My kids are not afraid to go to the dentist, proving the power of environment.

This study corroborates what most of us probably knew all along – setting correlates with success. It is true in schools and in other places as well. At this time there is no excuse for a drab classroom atmosphere. It is up to educators to brighten up their spaces and make them relevant to the subject matter they teach with the goal being to highlight student achievement and maximize their learning potential. In classrooms everywhere the attitude should be – let in the light, brighten the colors, and make every space reflective of an attitude promoting success.

  Photo credits: wikipedia, worldof stock.com, mashable.co, conval.edu   

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