Do Students Really Care What Your Classroom Looks Like?

August. It’s like a setting straight out of a National Geographic TV special where elusive, mysterious mammals have been spotted frantically gathering food and materials for themselves and their young in preparation for winter. The camera crew (and Bear Grylls?) hover nearby documenting the entire process for viewers. The viewers are most likely sitting placidly in their comfortable lazyboy chairs, mindlessly munching popcorn and watching intently as the mammals on screen urgently reap their harvest. Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 1.18.04 PMIt’s a similar scene repeated year after year as teachers everywhere prepare for a new school year. The viewers in this scenario are students at home unaware of what is taking place but will be watching intently when the show finally airs on the first day of school. The frenzy of classroom set up has begun!

I have been enthralled lately with perusing (scouring really) Instagram and Pintrest for classroom pictures and am fascinated how teachers are setting up their rooms. There is an abundance of pictures and ready-made materials available for Elementary classrooms with every theme imaginable from animal prints to polka dots to Minions. Classroom decorating seems to be a viable and thriving business. I started a file that is quickly burgeoning with snapshots of collaboration areas, desk arrangements and organization ideas. Should be simple then right? I teach Grade 8. Which means teenagers. Which means no “cutesy” bulletin boards and colourful polka dotted decorated writing centres. There is actually relatively little posted online for middle school classrooms. I wondered why that is.

Do students really care what your classroom looks like? Does classroom design affect student learning?

An article in the journal Building and the Environment, suggests that classroom design could affect a student’s progress either positively or negatively by up to 25% over the course of a school year. These findings were based on a study in Blackpool, England conducted between 2011 and 2012 with 751 students and 34 classrooms. Another study conducted at 4 different Universities in the United States by a workplace research group found that there were 12 key areas to classroom design and teaching practice that when combined led to the most opportune environment for students. These keys are:

  • creating areas for collaboration,
  • focus,
  • active involvement,
  • opportunity to engage,
  • repeated exposure to material through multiple means,
  • in-class feedback,
  • real-life scenarios,
  • ability to engage ways of learning best physical movement,
  • stimulation,
  • feeling comfortable to participate and the creation of an enriching experience.

Students and faculty in the University based classroom study both self-reported an increase in student engagement and the ability to achieve a higher grade as well as the motivation to attend class.   University Classroom Set Up Study Findings

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 12.51.01 PMHow do I envision my classroom? I want to create an environment that incorporates middle school pillars and philosophy of education that concentrates on building community, developing connections and allows for the creation of relevant, reality based, hands on learning opportunities. The crafting of a classroom that prompts students to feel stimulated and where both teachers and students can work more productively and creatively is similar to staging a home for sale where the staging is so incredible it makes people want to envision themselves living there. Your classroom design sets a tone immediately. It can either read sterile, bland, boring or exciting, invigorating and welcoming.

Standard desks can only be placed in so many different configurations and aren’t always the most conducive for large group work. Students love to socialize, so why not capitalize on that by creating areas that are conducive for collaboration, team building and developing relationships? These areas allow for students to freely gather not just during class time but also both before and after school.

The mantra, “Build it and they will come” truly applies to middle school students in my opinion. I lucked out last year when I found a used leather couch on line for cheap and two comfortable oval shaped chairs that kids can just sink into. Using the couch and chairs, I set up a living room type space complete with coffee table (really, two cushioned boxes pushed together that could be used as extra seating) and a side table with cozy reading lamp. I normally arrive at school early each morning to read, mark and get ready for the day while listening to music. It wasn’t long before students started to show up, hesitating at the open door way at first. I would welcome them in with a wave and a “Come on in, you’re always welcome to hang out in here”.

Once students began to realize my door was always open, they began to come to see my classroom as a safe and comfortable environment. They can drift in and out early in the morning before school starts whether or not they are in my actual class or not. Some will come to say hi, to chat with their friends, listen to music or ask for assistance with a problem. It is rare to see the couch and chairs empty and not being used. The sitting area quickly became incorporated into circle time during my Leadership class. Students would grab extra chairs and benches placing them around the couch in a circle until all 30 of us would fit comfortably. It became known as a sacred place where what is said during the circle stays in the circle. Many great discussions about humanity and what it means to be human took place around the couch. Global, local, school based and personal issues were discussed respectfully. I was no longer the teacher standing at the front of the room. I had transitioned to being another member of the circle, a part of the team with no more and no less to say than the others. The living area of my classroom became just that. Living.  A space where ideas flowed freely, students could spread out, standing was as perfectly acceptable as sitting and movement was encouraged.

Developing this kind of welcoming atmosphere is essential to me. This year, I am adding a small round table (complete with extension piece) that I found online as well as an additional oval chair for extra seating and a group friendly location for completing work. I had to replace my “coffee table” with a real wooden one because it was used so well last year as extra seating it ended up collapsing by the end of June and had to be thrown out. A set of speakers (lent to me by an amazing colleague) sits nearby and students know they can plug their phones in and play music as well during appropriate times of the day.

I never asked my students if they liked my room because it had a living space for them to sit and hang out. I know that I’m really lucky to have a room large enough to accommodate one. I don’t have any hard scientific data to show that having one actually increased my student’s abilities to succeed in my class at school. I believe though that by creating an environment where students can look forward to going, as much I look forward to going and sitting in Starbucks first thing in the morning then that is definitely a step in the right direction and one I wish to continue.

This year, I am going to ask my students how they would like their classroom to look. What else can be added to enrich their learning environment (on a shoe string teacher budget)? Which is their preferred placement of desks for maximum collaboration and learning potential? I will keep you posted on their responses.

Classrooms should always be evolving, living, breathing spaces. Welcoming, invigorating to the senses, creative and inspiring places where both students and teachers wish to be.  What would you like to see in a middle school classroom?  We would love to hear from you and welcome your thoughts and opinions.

Meet the Author

I feel so lucky that I get to live out my dream and teach Grade 8 Humanities and Leadership in Langley, British Columbia. I'm a co-creator of The Magic Classroom, a Digital Literacy Coach as well as a presenter for both my local School District 35 and AMLE 2015 (American Middle Level Education) in Columbus Ohio. My favourite things to do are laugh, read, celebrate “Aha” moments and eat. Not necessarily in that order.