One of the more difficult skills for new teachers is a clear sense of what is happening in the classroom at all times. It is no fault of their own, it takes time to not only master the content they are expected to teach but also how to simultaneously check for understanding and engagement. In this chapter, we will explore how the physical layout of your classroom factors into student engagement and look at strategies to help you better recognize what is happening in your classroom at all times.
By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:
- Describe how the physical learning environment influences student learning.
- Circulate the room and scan for off-task behavior.
Viewed broadly, classrooms may seem to be arranged in similar ways, but there are actually important alternative arrangements to consider. Variations exist because of grade level, the subjects taught, the teacher’s philosophy of education, and of course the size of the room and the furniture available. The “best” arrangement depends on what your students need and on the kind of teaching that you prefer and feel able to provide (Boyner, 2003; Nations & Boyett, 2002). Whatever the arrangement that you choose, it should help students to focus on learning tasks as much as possible and minimize the chances of distractions.
Listen to two HS teachers discuss how desk placement plays a role in classroom management
Displays and wall space
All classrooms have walls, of course, and how you fill them can affect the mood or feeling of a classroom. Ample displays make a room interesting and can be used to reinforce curriculum goals and display (and hence publicly recognize) students’ work. But too many displays can also make a room seem “busy” or distracting as well as physically smaller. They can also be more work to maintain. If you are starting a new school year, then, a good strategy is to decorate some of the walls or bulletin board space, but not to fill it all immediately. Leaving some space open leaves flexibility to respond to ideas and curriculum needs that emerge after the year is underway. The same advice applies especially to displays that are high maintenance, such as aquariums, pets, and plants. These can serve wonderfully as learning aids, but do not have to be in place on the first day of school. Another option to consider is how you might use wall space to engage students during class. Consider how Lisa Wheeler uses vertical spaces to activate student thinking during class (bonus: Mrs. Wheeler also shares tips on how to assign students to groups).
Check out the Effective Room Arrangement: Elementary or Effective Room Arrangement: Middle & High School packets by the Iris Center. These resources do a great job of summarizing what researchers have found about how the physical learning environment impacts learning. There are also case studies included which offer a great opportunity to think about your future classroom.
Unique spatial arrangements
The best room arrangement sometimes depends on the grade level or subject area of the class. Some subjects and grade levels lend themselves especially well to small group interaction, in which case you might prefer not to seat students in rows, but instead around small-group tables or work areas. The latter arrangement is sometimes preferred by elementary teachers but is also useful in high schools wherever students need lots of counter space, as in some shops or art courses, or where they need to interact, as in English as a Second Language course (McCafferty, Jacobs, & Iddings, 2006). The key issue in deciding between tables and rows, however, is not grade level or subject as such, but the amount of small group interaction you want to encourage, compared to the amount of whole-group instruction. As a rule, tables make working with peers easier while rows make listening to the teacher more likely and group work slightly more awkward physically.
Listen to Kevin Stoller discuss ideas to make learning environments more positive spaces to interact, collaborate, and work together. See Stoller’s book: Creating Better Learning Environments
Ironically, some teachers also experience challenges with room arrangement because they do not have a classroom of their own and must move each day among other teachers’ rooms. “Floating” is especially likely for specialized teachers (e.g., music teachers in elementary schools who move from class to class) and in schools that have an overall shortage of classrooms. Floating can sometimes be annoying to the teacher, though it also has advantages, such as not having to take responsibility for how other teachers’ rooms are arranged. If you find yourself floating, it helps to consider a few key strategies, such as:
- consider using a permanent cart to move crucial supplies from room to room
- make sure that every one of your rooms has an overhead projector (do not count on using chalkboards or computers in other teachers’ rooms)
- talk to the other teachers about having at least one shelf or corner in each room designated for your exclusive use
- Ensure frequently used materials are easily accessible
- Provide a sense of order and organization
- Plan pathways to minimize congestion and distraction
- Students should have a clear view of instructional presentations
- Align instruction with room layout
- Consider how well you will be able to gain access to every student
Doug Lemov (2015) uses the term ‘Radar’ to refer to a teacher’s ability to see the class as it really is. Two skills that Lemov encourages teachers to develop are the ability to scan for off-task behavior and break the plane. By consciously scanning the room we can look to prevent behavioral issues before they become issues. Also, scanning allows us to read the class to see if they are following along, which fits nicely with our efforts to check for understanding (more on that to come). Moving away from the front of the room also helps prevent behavioral issues from building, especially if we make it a regular routine, not just when things are getting out of hand.
Note in the example below, how Ms. Sentel uses proximity control correctly to redirect a student’s attention, but in the non-example her implementation of the strategy falls short.
- Scan: Be seen looking at all parts of the room, especially the “hot spots”.
- Move: Circulate through the desks, pause along the perimeter, and scan.
- Break the plane early and often
- Stand at the corners
- Move away from students who are speaking
- Move toward students who are off-task
Watch how this teacher moves around the classroom and continually scans to catch potential off-task behavior before it becomes an issue.
The layout of your classroom could help or hinder your learning experience depending on the way you desire students to interact. Likewise, your ability to scan and move about the room will send a message to students about their behavior. Combined, a layout that supports the type of student engagement and your active monitoring of student behavior will help you establish a positive learning environment.
Summarize Key Understandings
|Establishing a Positive Learning Environment Component||Yes||No||Working On It|
|I have designed the classroom floor plan to allow for ease of movement for Active Supervision.|
|I continually monitor all areas of the room by moving and interacting frequently and strategically.|
|I continually monitor all areas of the room by scanning and interacting frequently and strategically.|
Effective teachers maintain the expectations for student behavior in various ways in their classrooms. One factor that contributes to student behavior is the positioning of the teacher during learning. To understand how your positioning influences student behavior, record a classroom session and track how you scan and move about the room.
As you watch the video, note how you scan and move about the room and correct students. Use the questions below to guide your observation and to help you organize/track what you notice.
- How did you use scanning and moving about the room to help maintain behavioral expectations? Why was this important?
- What do you notice about the layout of the classroom?
- How did the classroom layout assist or hinder you in monitoring behavior?
- How did the classroom layout support or hinder student learning?
- How does the layout align with the Principles of Effective Classroom Layout described in the textbook?
References & Attribution
Attribution: “Classroom Layout” section was adapted in part from Educational Psychology by Kelvin Seifert, licensed CC BY 3.0. Download for free at http://firstname.lastname@example.org
Lemov, D. (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0: 62 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
McCafferty, S., Jacobs, G., & Iddings, S. (Eds.). (2006). Cooperative learning and second language teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Nations, S. & Boyett, S. (2002). So much stuff, so little space: Creating and managing the learner-centered classroom. Gainesville, FL: Maupin House.