Learn how to ensure your classroom is the right environment for your students, with these tips from Kate McCallam.

Love it or loathe it, as we start this new school year, you’ve probably spent the latter part of your summer holiday on the Great Interior Design Challenge that is your classroom. Whether you favour the traditional palette of bright, primary colours or you’ve joined the revolution and gone for muted, neutral tones and swathes of hessian, you probably know what you like and have designed it that way. But, did you know that the way you design your classroom has a significant impact on pupils’ learning? Before you get busy with that staple gun again, it’s worth considering the research that provides evidence about what works and what doesn’t.

A study entitled ‘Clever Classrooms’ by Professor Barrett of the University of Salford1 found that, ‘there is clear evidence that the physical characteristics of primary schools do impact on pupils’ learning progress in reading, writing and mathematics. This impact is quite large, scaling at explaining 16% of the variation in the overall progress over a year of the 3,766 pupils included in the study.’ 1

Professor Barrett’s paper is an interesting read that I really recommend, but he has helpfully produced a ‘Top Ten Tips’ summary for time-poor teachers considering classroom design. You can see the detailed points here but these are the ten tips mentioned in brief:

  1. Maximise daylight
  2. Ensure adequate ventilation
  3. Control the temperature
  4. Choose the right level flexibility
  5. Engender ownership
  6.  Manage the visual complexity
  7. Use colour carefully
  8. Attack on all fronts!
  9. Don’t assume a ‘Good’ school means a ‘Good’ classroom
  10. Remember to see the classroom as a teaching tool 2

I think, given Covid restrictions in the past 12 months, we can safely say that we’ve all well and truly done Tip 2 – if nothing else, our classrooms have been extremely well ventilated! However, there have been many restrictions put on regarding how we use our spaces and hopefully now with restrictions lifting, we will be able to have more flexibility with our classroom layouts.

Voice, choice, agency

Although all tips are equally important, I am going to  look at how we might implement ‘Tip 5: Engendering Ownership’, as this is something I really focused on at the beginning of the last school year, having learnt a lot about it from a summer course I undertook on the PYP (Primary Years Programme). Much of the PYP centres around Voice, Choice and Agency and there is a particular focus on Learning Environments. You don’t need to be in a PYP school to recognise and leverage the positives in this pedagogical approach, and so I took what I’d learnt on that course, together with the findings of Clever Classrooms, and went from there.

Something the PYP promotes is the co-construction of learning spaces and classroom culture with the students:

‘Teachers co-construct learning spaces with students, providing voice, choice and a sense of ownership. This supports wellbeing, a sense of familiarity and belonging, and pleasure in inhabiting those spaces, for teachers and students alike.’” 3

So in terms of the ‘co-construct’, the first thing I did was just less. I deliberately left areas blank, was mindful of colour and took into account the 20-50% of clear wall space that Professor Barrett advocates. There are some teachers out there who hate displays and challenge their effectiveness in supporting learning, so having the proof that 50% blank wall space works will no doubt be music to their ears and we should take heed. As primary school teachers, we tend to want to engage and excite with our rooms, but if we take a step back and think about the spaces in which we like to learn as adults, I’d bet 9/10 of them favour a more minimalist and open environment, so it makes sense to apply this to the learning environments of our children while still keeping them child-friendly.

First week back

I dedicated quite a bit of time in the first week back explaining to my Year 6 class that their opinion mattered and that together we would create a learning environment that suited us all. They were pretty excited and brimming with ideas. Yes, I couldn’t quite get on board with the disco ball or find the money to finance the mini fridge they were after, but there were lots of ideas we were able to agree on as a class.

Here are some of their suggestions that we agreed on and implemented in our collaborative classroom:

  • Cinnamon air freshener – (Marks and Spencer – they loved this and very helpful throughout the year for accidental smells!)
  • History timeline so they could see what came when (this is good idea to link to prior learning)
  • Treat Box (a positive attribute decided on each week. Vote anonymously for person most displaying attribute. Prize for winner) They loved this.
  •  A cactus called Spike!
  • House Posters of Prominent People – we have Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans and willing members of  he class designed a poster of a famous person from their House with a little biog on them for our House Points board. Ragner Lothbrok, William the Conquerer, Julius Caesar and King Alfred took pride of place.
  • “Welcome” sign for the classroom door
  • Uplifting quotes
  • Worry box/jar/questions
  • Post-its in-trays so don’t have to write on hands to remember things – they do have planners but I get the appeal and use of a mini post-it.

This initial list might not seem like a lot, but it was a really powerful exercise and did much at the beginning of the school year to identify us as a class. From this point, we were able to consider class rules and routines.

The posters and signage were great way of pupils using their IT skills for a purpose and getting creative. Even something as simple as asking them to design classroom banners for Google Classroom is a positive step in encouraging ownership and collaboration.

The PYP approach very much encourages celebrating diversity and individual identity, and I asked the children to complete two tasks at the beginning of the year with this in mind:

  1. My language and heritage portrait
  2. How my brain works

The former gave me valuable insights into their cultural reference points and expertise and enabled us to share and celebrate diversity within our class. The latter started them off on a meta-cognition exercise that would help
me to get to know them as learners too and therefore be able to adapt lessons and activities accordingly.

Classroom poster: "Welcome to 6M. We work hard and play hard."

Class poster designed by one of Kate's students (using Canva).

Continuity

What you should do is to keep on reflecting upon your classroom environment throughout the school year and adapt and change your space accordingly.

I have to admit that I did not do this as fully as I had intended to at the beginning of the year. We were restricted a lot in terms of moving about the classroom space, and as you will know, at the start of the Spring Term, the UK went into another lockdown and remote learning returned.

Here are some of the other class ideas that I either was unable to do due to Covid or I didn’t end up getting round to:

  • Artwork on walls
  • Class mascot (teddy)
  • Pet – snake, lizard, dragon, goldfish, guinea pigs, fish
  • ‘Show and Tell’ each week – (they had the option to do this on our Google Classroom but they weren’t allowed to bring things in)
  • Bunting
  • Creations table – interesting objects/artefacts/ creations from home (not allowed to do and space was issue)
  • Artwork representing school dispositions
  • Big rainbow on wall or at entrance

The nemesis of any primary school teacher is time. It is so hard to fit everything in, but based on the research, what I learnt from PYP and my own experience with the children in my class, I think it is well-worth making that time. I would highly recommend starting your school year by introducing a collaborative learning environment, then I would suggest revisiting it every half term if you can (or every term if that’s easier). Design your room together, be proud of it together and make sure it reflects everyone in it.

References

  1. University of Salford (2015) ‘Clever Classrooms’. Available at: https://www.cleverclassroomsdesign.co.uk/_files/ugd/902e4a_6aa724a74ba04b46b716e528b92ad7fc.pdf
  2. Grantnells, ‘Top 10 ways to innovate the primary school classroom’. Available at: https://d7d3e509-a9ca-48ba-90a9-4167b5689991.filesusr.com/ugd/902e4a_99474e46727047219bfaff719f57f5aa.pdf
  3. Making the PYP Happen: Implementing Agency (course)

Author

  • Kate McCallam

    Kate is assistant head at the British Section of the Lycée International in Paris. She is also a published writer and a proud trustee of Arvon, the UK’s leading creative writing charity. Kate also provides writing training and workshops.
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