At the beginning of each school year, my Pinterest feed fills up with tons of pictures that fall under the heading of “Classroom Inspiration”. Teacher friends will send pictures of their freshly decorated rooms to each other with questions about where to put the book corner. Ikea experiences a massive spike in sales of those giant canopy leaves and Officeworks sell out of laminating pockets.
Thousands of teachers begin creating themes for their rooms. Jungle theme. Space theme. Harry Potter theme. Garden theme. The list goes on. Sometimes I wonder if some teachers might have been better suited to being window dressers.
*Edit: I had included pictures here of a website sharing pictures of different classroom themes submitted by teachers from their own rooms. I decided to remove the picture to be more respectful of colleagues.*
Similar to classroom themes, many teachers will spend days and days before the students arrive setting up every aspect of the classroom, plastering their walls, floors and ceiling with posters and decorations. I’ve been there, and I’ve dragged my mum with me.
There was a time when I thought this was a cute idea, a nice thing to do for students by teachers who were willing to spend their time, money and energy creating an amazing-looking space ready for day one. I myself must have spent hundreds of dollars and hours on my classroom in my first year, spending my nights laminating and my weekends at Ikea or scouring Pinterest for ways to make it look more “enchanting” (I remember this being the word I wanted to describe my first ever classroom for my preps).
But every year I chuck out a bit more stuff. Every year I find more things I made or bought that were never looked at or used. Every year I notice the way the kids don’t notice it all. Every year I’ve learned more about how kids learn best, and surprise, surprise, hand-painted Hogwarts Express mural across an entire wall, little owls hanging from the ceiling above every table, with pencils carved into wand shapes aren’t on the list, no matter how magical or enchanting they may be.
THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER
So what does the classroom need in it? After listening to Will Richardson’s presentation ‘Old School to Bold School’, I was challenged to list the things I believe contribute most powerfully to student learning. He shared a list of responses he’d heard over and over again from teachers. You can read this below. Most likely if you were asked to write a list yours would look similar to this because we know these are the things that matter.
As I started to consider how I might set up my new room this year, I was reminded of this presentation and the things that matter most in learning environment.
Einstein famously said “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Obviously, this is not only about the physical environment, but we cannot deny that the physical environment has a huge impact on the way students act and interact in their school day. So, if we believe the role of the teacher to be to create the conditions for learning, or to model how to learn best, we must ask ourselves…
How do classroom themes or decorations contribute to learning?
How can I ensure that all aspects of the classroom contribute to learning?
What are our classrooms if not spaces for learning?
Teachers should curate their space and resources extremely carefully so that the room works in harmony with how we know students learn best. This should be our only focus.
Would you decorate your kitchen with mermaids, shells, blue crepe paper hanging from the ceiling and deck chairs and expect to cook better? No? Then it is unlikely that decorating your classroom with an ‘Under the Sea’ theme will make your students learn better.
Take steps in setting up your room that will directly facilitate student learning, for example:
- ensure there is a mix of individual reflection areas and table banks for group work
- ensure an attractive, easy-to-access, visible display of a variety of texts for students to browse and choose from
- put resources and equipment (like stationery or games) within reach of the students that use it, rather than locking it away in a cupboard (to only be bestowed with the teacher’s permission).
Some teachers will argue that decorating the space makes it more fun or inviting. That might be so, but is there the risk that the purpose of the classroom space is lost in amongst all the shells and vines? When a student walks into a room that is themed or extremely decorated for the first time, they might be wowed and feel like they are in a fun classroom, and that’s great. But what happens when the fun wears off and there’s just a lot of clutter, a lot of teacher-owned items and not a lot of items or space where students feel true connection and control? How can they take ownership in a space so clearly owned by another?
Kath Murdoch, in The Power of Inquiry (2015), say that ‘setting the room up before the students arrive actually deprives them of an important opportunity to develop a sense of shared ownership of, and commitment to, their environment’.
I remember how one of my university tutors, Narelle Lemon, was talking to my uni class about setting up classroom communities. As we listened, horrified, she explained how at the start of each year, she would welcome her new class into an empty classroom with bare walls, the chairs stacked in the corner and the tables all pushed up against the wall.
At the time I was speechless with disbelief. Now I’m completely on board.
I really believe that an important part of classrooms is student ownership in the space and culture. This requires the (oftentimes challenging) feat of teachers loosening their grip and giving some measure of control to students over the space they work in. So another question comes to mind…
What is the balance between creating an inviting space and letting students have ownership?
This question has been on my mind for a few years now and I’ve been dipping my toes in, slowly relinquishing more and more control to my students over their learning space. Unsurprisingly, the ground hasn’t yet fallen out from under me.
At the beginning of the 2017 school year, I will be diving in and experimenting with setting up (almost) nothing at all in my classroom and working with the grade to collectively and carefully make decisions about our space. Watch this space for a follow-up post to see how this goes, both pedagogically and logistically.
‘Creating an inviting classroom means reflecting comfort and productivity throughout the daily routine’ (Fountas and Pinnell, 2001. p89). Considering that, I think some of the keys to creating an inviting and practical space will be:
- Guiding students to create areas that are important to how the class will work, e.g. a classroom library or meeting space on the floor.
- Having good quality furnishings and items (throw away the dirty old floor rugs and the sad looking cushions) that students can choose from to set up and furbish.
- Making sure that students have the resources and freedom to own the space aesthetically, to add their personal touch (for example, last year one of my students brought in some little cupcake cushions that adorned our book corner and made it cheery, another time a lamp was brought in for a dark corner).
- Creating zones or different areas for different purposes. Read more about ways you can do this here.
This post is not to discourage teachers from the effort they put in or discredit that work. I think most people agree that teachers give their heart and souls to their job, and sometimes this looks like dreaming up and creating a beautiful classroom space for their students to walk into on the first day. But is this the best way to expend our effort? Think back to that earlier list. These are the things that truly make a difference to student learning, so it’s time to re-direct that effort towards the things that make the most difference, the things that really matter.
Fountas, I. & Pinnell, G. (2001). Guiding readers and writers (1st ed., p. 89). Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
Murdoch, K. (2015). The Power of Inquiry (1st ed., p. 33). Northcote: Seastar Education.
Richardson, W. (2016). Old School to Bold School. Presentation, Bastow Institute.