How the physical environment affects the effectiveness of what we teach


We spend years of our lives improving and perfecting the way we plan lessons. We stay late up in bed at night reading books, blogs and articles on how student learning can be improved. But few of us consider the way a classroom can affect the way students learn. 


Outside of the classroom, businesses are focusing on the impact of working environments. Walk through any major city and you’ll see high-tech shared office spaces appearing. The days of a single office spaces for every business are dying away. Even the world’s major corporations are moving into shared office environments and working from home. 


The way we work is changing, especially for our students who have grown up acquiring knowledge and interacting in new ways. Many schools, however, haven’t adapted.  Though we use iPads, interactive whiteboards and even AI-powered learning apps in schools, the physical structure of a classroom has changed little in the past century. Why do we have classrooms designed for Victorian students when the learners of today are digital natives? Even the interactive whiteboard is starting to feel prehistoric in an age of virtual reality headsets and Alexa home assistants.

Creating a classroom that inspires students 

Different businesses require different office spaces that reflect the work that goes on inside them. Likewise, classrooms need to be created to reflect students and the learning that happens inside the physical four walls. Classrooms should always be attractive, inviting environments that children want to spend time in. But how can they be optimised to facilitate high-level learning?


Flexible seating arrangements, flexible minds  

Most classrooms in the UK are arranged in rectangular clusters, with tables of six or eight students arranged according to ability. Some, rather old-school schools, have tables nailed to the floor in rows facing the teacher.  Neither, however, are fully optimised for student learning. Separate tables are good for student collaboration but encourage tribalism. Front facing individual desks, on the other hand, assert a negative power structure and discourage collaboration. 


Ultimately, the best classroom environment is one where different types of work can happen simultaneously. And one that really aligns with what students want. When designing a classroom space, students should always have some form of involvement. After all, they are the ones there
to learn. 

In a study undertaken in Sweden by free-school organisation Vittra, students didn’t want table and chairs at all. Allowing students to explore all possible opportunities and taking into account the opinions of students aged six to sixteen, it found that students sought an environment where they could sit against a wall with their laptops.  
Not only does this approach allow students to focus on individual learning, but information can also easily be shared with other students either by sharing their screen or through cloud-based platforms. 
Initial reactions suggest that arranging classrooms without tables and chairs wouldn’t work. Even the most tech-savvy teachers will have doubts. Vittra, however, listened to its students. It rearranged its classrooms to reflect what students really want. Little wonder that Sweden’s education system is amongst the best on the planet. 

Conformity — the dreaded blocker


Many teachers may look at this story from Sweden and want to implement similar changes in their classrooms. However, it’s not always as simple as walking into school on a Monday morning and throwing all of the furniture in the skip. Not every student may be able to have access to a laptop either. Even for well-equipped schools, teachers claiming that furniture should be taken out of a classroom will be greeted with deep puddles of doubt.


This isn’t just about arranging classrooms. With Ofsted and an ever-increasing number of exams to take into account, even the slightest semblance of creativity can be pushed under the surface. Conformity more often than not wins out. Why risk a poor Ofsted result for the sake of a few desks?


Strong, adaptive teachers and leadership teams are essential to create the schools of the future. No two schools are the same, but the ones that provide environments that are most conducive to learning will be those that ask students which environments work for them and organise learning spaces to match. 

Is the classroom the best environment for learning?


In a 2016 investigation in The Atlantic, the publication asked high-level educators in the US what the perfect learning environment looks like. Most of the responses were what you’d expect. Fresh air, good lighting, inspiring artwork on the walls. Michael Horn, the co-founder of the Clayton Institute, however, suggested something radically different:


“In the future, we won’t have “classrooms.” The enemy of the future of the classroom has arguably been that phrase: “the future of the classroom.” It locks us into a model of believing students will be sorted by age and sit in a room together with one teacher in the front.” 


Horn believes that it is critical for schools to rearrange in order to “align with the principles of student agency, flexibility and choice that are at the core new learning models.”  


Perhaps there’s an even more radical future on the horizon than the one Horn suggests? With the rapid development of technology, it is possible that schools as a physical space may cease to exist. Though this seems highly unlikely, especially as students perform best when they’re in an environment that facilitates peer collaboration, it is a distant possibility. 

Ultimately, however, home-based learning facilitated through technology is not conducive to learning for most pupils. This is especially the case for students living in poverty, who may not have access to the right technology to readily and actively engage. Even if every child was given a VR headset, however, individual learning in this way doesn’t allow students to develop the soft skills needed for a successful career post-education. 

 Unless something drastic happens in the next few years, schools themselves will and should be around for a long time to come. Though our students are digital natives, learning from online sources every day, the complete abandonment of physical learning environments is not suited to their full and fruitful development.   

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