In this August 2012 article from BrainPickings.org titled, How Children Learn: Portraits of Classrooms around the World, one gets a glimpse of how learning environments are structured across the globe.  The photos shared in this article are just a fraction of the photos that can be found in the full book, however, one will notice a common characteristic in the design of the classrooms. For the most part, students are lined up in rows, sitting at desks, all of which are facing the front of the room, which is presumably where the teacher stands.

This has been the dominant and default design of classrooms for generations. For a number or reasons, this set up has been adopted as the most effective way to engage people in a learning process.  But is it?

One of the fascinating things about peace pedagogy is that it challenges us as educators to think differently about how we view learning space and what will foster an environment that is conducive to building community and cultivating peaceable relationships between the students and one another, between the students and the teacher, and between the students and the knowledge.

In the book, The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Design to Transform Teaching and Learning, three design firms teamed up with prominent educators and consulted with students of all ages on how to think creatively about designing better learning environments.

Read chapter 2 of the book, which starts with a quote from the famous developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget. “The principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not just repeating what other generations have done – men who are creative, inventive, and discoverers.”

“A tour of today’s schools across the United States, Great Britain, and in fact most of the developed world would find little evidence of Piaget’s philosophy in action. Creativity is ghettoized, restricted to a single period or a couple of shabby rooms. The tools and tactics that encourage the creative thinking that is now, more than ever, so critical to success in higher education and the world at large have yet to be integrated into the standard curriculum or overall design of our schools (OWP/P Architects, VS Furtinure & Bruce Mau Design, 55).”

Reflection Question: What are the two essential design elements and choices you can make in a classroom or learning environment that can foster a sense of community?

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26 thoughts on “3.5

  1. Moving around the desks or chairs so that students can see each other (rather than just the back of the classmates’ heads facing the teacher at the front of the room) can be a good start to creating a positive learning environment that fosters community. This way students can learn from each other and see/hear all of the reactions and responses to the learning experience better. They may also feel more accountable to each other if they can see each other — in other words, they may begin to feel that they want to impress or support of help educate their peers, rather than the experience being all about themselves and the teacher. I think community accountability is an interesting concept for a classroom. We think about this concept for communities like neighborhoods or congregations or families or colleagues, but rarely in classrooms, which is unfortunate because it is obviously a value that is prominent in other parts of the world/communities that children will exist within as adults. This design could be in a circle or semi-circle or standing up and moving around from station to station, etc.

  2. This article made me think of my tiny classroom that my school provided for health. Lets start with the fact that the classroom looked like it was made for ten people at the max! Also I didn’t have a internet connection in my classroom. My classroom was isolated from the rest of the classrooms in the building and I didn’t have any window. It was extremely dreadful and gloomy. I love the idea of circle tables because it would allow the students to communicate and interact with each other. Trust me, with the limited space I had, I had know choice but to go with the strict individual desk that were lined up in row. I always try to beatify my classroom. Colors, picture, signs, award walls, and more are always great, its a breath of fresh air! I’m extremely excited about the new school building we are moving into this fall. Windows, space, and technology is represented in every part of the new building. These three things make for positive learning environment. Unlike my classroom, the gymnasium is a huge space. There are pictures and banners hanging that represent the school history. Physical education requires plenty of teamwork and group activities. The circle model and cooperative learning groups are two great practices that make up a community in the education.

  3. A school’s library is intended to be the junction where disciplines cross; where students have opportunity to interact emotionally and intellectually with physical and electronic resources and technology to creatively access, digest, utilize and craft new information . A flexible learning space where learners peacefully interact alone, in small study or project groups, in full classes, or with multiple classes of different disciplines.. So how do you get largely disengaged youth to buy-in…to own real estate in this community and become willing, participating citizens?

    One of the ways we do it is to make them feel that it’s THEIRS. The media commons is available to them 9 hours a day…before school, at lunch, throughout the academic day, and afterschool. From the beginning of the school year, we send the message that the library program and its staff are there to support them. We have been known to track down obscure information (how about an interview with an original soul train dancer) and create special resource guides to help with assignments (i.e “Today (Current Events)” with rss feeds to the top 20 news sources). Each month we post their 10 most popular book choices and top 10 patrons on our “Teens Do Read” website (which also includes our student written book reviews and highlights student writers). We constantly seek and implement their recommendations on programs and resources and host afterschool movies and monthly open mics at lunch. They can (and do) contact me for help with projects and papers by email, on the library website and in person (they know even if I’m working in the office, the door is always open to them). They, also, know we keep construction paper, highlights, pens, calculators, markers, and other materials they may need to finish their special projects.

    Another way we build community is to unite the disciplines. We understand that learning is interdisciplinary. So from our resource orientations to book displays and resource guides to our special events, we seek to bridge the divide. When YA author, Padma Venkatramen, visited to share her new book, Island’s End, I invited not just English classes but, also, social justice and earth science. (Her novel dealt with social uprising, cultural infringement, impending tsunami). Together the classes listened to excerpts from the book and discussed the author’s background in oceanography, photography and how she incorporated those skills to practice her passion – writing. We, also, hosted Hugh Keesing, a musicologist, who shared his Vietnam War knowledge through primary source photographs and newspaper clipping and the folk music of the era. In attendance were world history, English, and JROTC classes. The students will forever remember the information shared.

    Social justice poet, Audre Lorde once wrote,“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

    Wilson is home to students from over 70 different cultures. That in mind, we, also, unify our community by demystifying and celebrating the various cultures which make-up its diversity. Two years ago, we established a multicultural coming of age YA fiction collection. The monographs there tell the stories of adolescents from many different cultures as they face an issue that leads to their ultimate maturation. These stories may be set in America or in the protagonist’s home land. Through themed non-fiction displays and programs, we provide other opportunities for students to grow familiar with a classmate’s culture. While recognizing Chinese New Year (for example) we prominently displayed books on China’s culture, geography, history, literature, historic leaders. We included an online multimedia resource guide on Chinese New Year, that includes their calendar, look at dragons, superstitions, music, mangas and more. Another example, as cultures are not always ethnic, we collaborated with the students’ Gay Straight Alliance to produce the 1st Pride Day replete with visiting nonprofit organizations, resource displays by our and the DC public libraries, and an open mic which included performance by the Capital Gay Men’s Choir. Powerful.

    Oops, I think I gave three examples but I just get so excited about this topic.

  4. This article made me think of something I had not thought of before: what the physical space of my classroom would look like. What I took away from the article is the importance of getting away from the strict row-like classroom and maybe constructing the classroom in the shape of a U or arranging desks on opposite sides of the classroom facing each other. In other words, I hadn’t realized the impact that the setup of a classroom can have on student performance and participation. I can see how having the desks arranged in a more creative way would foster a better sense of community and cooperative learning than just having the desks in rows facing the front of the classroom. The article also talked about multiple intelligences. This made me think about applying to all students’ learning senses. As a student myself, I noticed that while I was a visual learner, some of my classmates learned better through auditory or kinesthetic methods of learning. Appealing to all of these senses, a student can either acquire knowledge the way they learn best, or they will find that the weaker of the three learning senses becomes stronger because information can be reinforced by the other two.

  5. For me, it is a little different for I have a classroom and a gymnasium. In the classroom it usually depends on the topic of the day, most of the time it is round table type or circle. In the gymnasium we usually warm up together, group work. The best way I feel and see my students learning is in cooperative learning groups or flexible groups.

  6. For me, the two essential design elements that foster a sense of community are displayed learning and having a variety of settings for teaching/learning.

    Displaying work from all content areas, created by the teacher and students, using a variety of methods, and representative of skills throughout the learning process is important to me. Teacher/whole-class work, such as anchor charts or graphic organizers mapping students’ thoughts during a whole-class activity, gives students something to look back on if they are stuck during independent times. Independent/small-group work, such as final drafts or results of an experiment, illustrates what students have learned and how their skills are developing. Both teacher/student work helps students feel supported, builds self-esteem, and develops mutual respect for peers, which is critical to creating a classroom community.

    A variety of settings for teaching/learning looks like the teacher/students creating different formats and using different spaces for teaching/learning. For example, students may work at group tables; sit on the carpet; move between Literacy Work Stations; work independently, with a partner, or in small groups; etc. Teachers may be in the front of the class, walking around the room, sitting on the carpet to listen into partner discussions, pulling small groups of students; holding conferences with individual students, etc. By using a variety of settings, students are able to learn in multiple ways, make more choices, and feel better supported and accepted in their classroom community.

  7. What I took away from this article is that I can control aspects of the classroom environment like seating arrangement and what I choose to decorate the room with — inspirational slogans, artifacts related to my content area — graphic design, anything that might be a starting point for guiding students or might spark students’ interest. I still clearly remember some of the artifacts in the classrooms of my youth — My high school physics teacher had a poster with a cut out supermodel that said “PHYSICS MADE ME BEAUTIFUL”, and my 10th grade literature teacher had a mural of album art covers from rock bands from the 60s and 70s. What this had to do with literature I still couldn’t tell you, but it did work to create an atmosphere of creativity.

  8. Like Adam, I use two classrooms. In one of them, I share equally and in the other I’m at the mercy of the hosting teacher for shelf and wall space, but she’s been good about sharing.

    What I think is most essential in design that other students in this class haven’t focused on is to have extra floor space and wall space that can be used for interactive activities. When I teach, I need wall space for students to make murals or make collaborative posters. I need floor space for them to mingle and find partners, act out skits, etc. In world history, I often use a floor map.

    My one classroom is much more cramped than the other and I find it much harder to teach in the cramped one.

    Wilson High School was renovated with $110 million a couple of years ago and the classrooms are beautiful. They have hardwood floors and big windows that let in a lot of light. Individual chairs and desks can easily be moved into clusters, circles, etc.

    Students also have a gathering place called the atrium with a glass roof.

    It’s a pleasure to teach in such a beautiful physical space. I think the students appreciate it as well.

  9. One essential aspect of classroom design in my opinion is creating a flexible environment. I think that circles are the best for discussion based classes. I also have in my own experiences in the classroom had many teachers decide to group desks into small clusters where students can work collaboratively. I think that it’s important to change things around in the classroom based on lesson plans, units, course themes and group dynamics. That way students and teachers learn to work together in different ways, and students with various learning needs can be accommodated.

    Another important design element is having a well-lit and colorful room where students feel welcome and comfortable. Posters, pictures, murals, plants, lamps, book shelves, music and rugs are all things that can be imcorporated. Obviously exact things depend on the subject area, and the age and number of students. One classroom of mine in high school didn’t use the florescent lights, but had lamps all throughout the room to keep it well-lit and unique. It was a humanities class that used different texts, poems, art, and creative writing. I can remember it was always nice to go into that room because it set the environment a part from other classes and made everyone welcome into the class.

  10. One of my goals is to work with conflict/post-conflict groups. A really important aspect would be choosing neutral space for individuals. This is difficult in places where territoriality remains an issue. When I researched in Derry/Londonderry I was very clear that certain parts of the town “belonged” to Protestants or Catholics. There did not appear to be neutral spaces were both groups gathered. Similarly, in Skopje, Macedonia the southern side of the city is predominantly Macedonia and the northern side is Albanian. Choosing a neutral space in these contexts is very difficult. Often the practitioners have to select a retreat center, campground, or somewhere outside of the city or town.

    As others have said, I would also like to have a space where seating and movement is flexible. This would allow for seats to be placed in a circle, in small groups, etc. Also, there would be space for participants to leave the group space for self-reflection or meditation if possible.

  11. Two design elements are crucial to me: (1) having a wall of fame or a wall with student work/thoughts/brainstorms and (2) structuring the classroom in open rectangle. First, the wall of fame/posting student work creates an environment where students feel both empowered and are central to the learning experience. I love cute posters and quotes, yet they are not necessarily reflections of a student’s ideology, needs or current focus. Consequently, bringing to the forefront a students current ideologies is crucial to creating a learning environment that is not the banking method.

    Secondly, I find an open rectangle to be a great classroom setting because it creates openness, while not forcing vulnerability or an onslaught of personal stories. It is a happy balance of structure and learning, but also one that creates community.

  12. Richard Cambridge Two essential design elements in a classroom or learning environment that can foster a sense of community are:

    circular or group/team seating arrangements; and

    wall space sufficient for comment work to be displayed.

  13. When designing my classroom, I would like the desks to be arranged in a circle, much like they are in our own class. This design is obviously more conducive for class discussions since it’s easier to talk and engage one another when everyone can be seen. I would like for each individual student to have his/her own desk so that desks can be moved around for group activities, etc. As far as other classroom design elements, I think it it always important to display exceptional work so long as everyone in the class has something that can be displayed. I also like Adam’s idea of letting the students contribute something to the classroom design. I feel like that is a great way to make the classroom feel special and homelike for students.

  14. Much of this article reminds me of my experience in the Primary Multiage Classroom (PMAC) where I did my student teaching (which I talk about in the next module). The first thing it brings to mind is the learning space and freeing teachers from the traditional desk at the front of the classroom. PMAC housed first, second and third grade students in a classroom that was double the size and double the students as a regular classroom and had two teachers working together as a team on everything. The setting was so freeing in that students sometimes worked together at tables, sometimes on the floor and sometimes in a more traditional desk set-up. The teachers acted more as models and support and allowed the students to choose their own learning environments and work together not only with students of their same grade but of other grades as well. In this way the students were sometimes the teachers and mentors which created a great sense of community. Once students reached third grade they couldn’t wait to show the new students how things were done and the younger students quickly learned to get along with everyone. This community branched out to the playground and after school and soon students were becoming friends with other students of varying ages that helped them build even stronger communities with other students once they ‘graduated’.

    The other example that this article brought to mind from PMAC was the freedom to allow students to perform in ways that they want. It reminds me of one of my students who was very high energy and chose to do her math work with her group on the floor. She would listen, roll to the other side of the room, roll back and then contribute her ideas or write down her answer. She had transferred into our classroom during second grade after being rather unsuccessful in a more traditional classroom and her parents were amazed at the difference this bit of freedom allowed her to learn. While this is more of an individual example, this reminded me of the idea of a more personalized education from the article about Howard Gardner and multiple intelligences. I believe that allowing students to use their strengths will create community by allowing students to be individually free to choose ways in which to find success and also by exemplifying to others that not everyone learns in the same ways and that is ok.

  15. Number one is a flexible space that can have the seating arranged in many different ways as well as having the room orientated in different directions, not always to the front with the teacher standing center. Also you can combine subject specific spaces into one larger space like they did in the Caymen Island’s High School with the art and science labs. This may not always be possible, but we can work to incorporate small amounts of a complimentary subject into any learning space.

  16. Daniel Knoll – After learning about multiple intelligences in our previous lessons and other classrooms, and after watching Ken Robinson’s TED talk, the first element of a classroom design that fosters community is a classroom that enables students to creatively engage in material in their own way. By utilizing different intelligences through lessons, students will have opportunities to excel because they are stronger with that form of intelligence, and students have a chance to improve on an area they may not be as strong. By diversifying lessons, each student in the class has an opportunity to been seen as valuable, and students are more engaged in the lesson when given the chance to help other students. Working together fosters community.

    I also love the idea of a “wall of fame” where students accomplishments are put on display for the class to see. This wall can help demonstrate progress throughout the class as the year progress, and gives students an opportunity to share in the collective accomplishments of the class. I’d also like to incorporate Sarah’s concept of having students add notes to the wall when they think a particular student did well that day. To further community and tie in a previous aspect of this module, the class could work together to create a group agreement outlining how one has their work end up on the wall, and what kinds of things students should write about their classmates when adding notes. This might help reduce the number of “evil notes” that end up on the wall.

  17. I think that there are several “most important” essential design elements, but I will try to pick two of them. First and foremost is that students must be visible in all aspects of the classroom. I think this goes beyond displaying student work in a meaningful way, although that’s a big part of what I’m talking about. In addition to posted student work, I like as many of our classroom signs and posters – about expectations, norms, procedures, etc. to be student created. Students have “jobs” that they are responsible for every day – from passing out papers to taking attendance to updating our website, students are much more invested in their learning if they are taking an active role and that active role can be seen by others.

    The other design element that I would choose is that the classroom must be designed in a way that compliments the purpose of the class. While I completely agree with much of the thoughts on collaborative learning, I also think that another skill students need is to be able to work independently. Sometimes students need to be able to work with one other person; I feel as though this idea of collaborative learning has become such a buzz word that the fact that the desks in my room happen to be in pairs one day instead of groups sends up a red flag. I design lessons that require a variety of different group settings and my classroom is very flexible in accommodating this. My students know that their seats will change on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis and they are getting used to making that transition often.

  18. One of the most important design elements to me is the display of student work. As the chapter mentioned, the display of work on the walls is a way to track progress visually. But for me, the display is more about giving students a sense of ownership over their classroom and their learning environment. By decorating with their work, they feel that they contributed to this environment, and they may feel more responsible for the work that takes place in that room. Most people decorate their refrigerator with pictures, notes, special papers..why not decorate the classroom with such? It helps to visually create a sense of community and an ownership of the space.

    I am also a fan of incorporating nature into the classroom. My favorite classrooms that I recall growing up were the ones with live plants, and usually a fish tank or animal cage. Students were responsible for cleaning cages, feeding animals, and observing the animals behavior. This also creates a sense of community by giving students responsibilities and tasks to contribute to the overall learning environment.

  19. First I want to say that I loved the photography series of kids around the world in their classrooms. Such diversity and great, intense gazes.

    The design change I would most like to see in schools isn’t something teachers could easily influence, but which should be required when schools are being built or renovated. As the article emphasizes, creativity shouldn’t be ghettoized; no particular aspect of a school should be. My schools were all heavily sports-centered, and I imagine that students interested in theater, band, pottery, or debate could sense that their activity wasn’t as valued by the administration. The personal preferences of staff and administrators shouldn’t dictate what school activity or subject is showered with the most resources.

    Also, a simpler design element would be the elimination of hulking desks that students can effectively hide behind. Sitting in an open circle or around shared tables could allow students to be more in tune with their classmates.

  20. In my classroom I have a large board labeled “ACCOLADES.” At the end of each class, students can write a post-it note to one of their classmates they feel did well that day and leave it on the board. The messages are brief and sometimes cryptic, but they are written in good spirits with good intentions (um, if they’re not – I take them down and add them to the collection of evil notes I have lining my kitchen cabinets).

    I also love quotes. Good, meaty, relevant, echoing through the ages quotes. I have them posted everywhere. “Where there is no struggle, there is no progress” – Frederick Douglass, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” – Eleanor Roosevelt, “Our experiences should give us perspective, not definition” – Yolanda Young. I reference them often at opportune times. I want my students to be aware of the fact that there is only one story: that of being human. Someone else somewhere in time has felt what they are feeling and made it through. We are all of the same community – working through our human story.

    • Hi, Sarah. I am a quote man myself. One that I really like to use and reference throughout a class or a workshop is the following:

      “The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.” -William James

  21. I love this TED talk by Mr. Robinson! I think the most important thing iterated in both readings is the importance of individual choice. Students should be able to influence what they study based on their interests and should also be able to design their own class rooms. Learning how to conform is much less important than it used to be. At the National Book Festival today, Thomas Friedman said that employers today are looking for creativity and the ability to adapt.

    In an elementary classroom, I think its important to have comfortable/”home-y” areas for free reading. It encourages students to get out of their desks and relax in their classroom. My second grade teacher used to have an inflatable pool and a tent in her classroom as fun places to hang out. I loved it!

    I also think have plants or a class pet is great for fostering community. Its livelihood is dependent on how well the class as a whole cares for it.

    • Hi, Emily. Your response reminded me of an article I read recently about a school in Sweden that has been designed in such a way to foster the kind of comfortable/”home-y” areas you are talking about.


      Here is an excerpt:

      “There’s a whole new classroom model and it’s a sight to behold. The newest school system in Sweden look more like the hallways of Google or Pixar and less like a brick-and-mortar school you’d typically see.

      “There are collaboration zones, houses-within-houses, and a slew of other features that are designed to foster “curiosity and creativity.” That’s according to Vittra, which runs 30 schools in Sweden. Their most recent school, Telefonplan School (see photos below) in Stockholm, could very well be the school of the future.

      “Architect Rosan Bosch designed the school to encourage both independent and collaborative work such as group projects and PBL. Even the furniture is meant to get students learning. Bosch says each piece is meant to “aid students in engaging” while working.”

  22. Over the course of the week, I utilize two classrooms. The first is my own, which I share with a co-teacher. This is the one we are allowed to take ownership of. I fill it with several key elements. The most essential are groups of desks for students to work together, and open-spaced stations for other activities, including games, computers, and a quiet reading area.

    I try to keep the room entertaining for students, by displaying my own personal mementos, but also by allowing them to put up anything of interest to them, including sports paraphernalia and other items. Their work is displayed in a central location, and they seem to feel comfortable in the room. Curiously, when given the option, several of them will work independently in various parts of the room, but continue collaboration as a whole class, talking throughout the room.

    My other classroom is a shared classroom with just the “bare essentials.” There are 27 student desks, a projector that I bring in, and a few spaces on the wall the I have commandeered. The space is shared by two other teachers for day-school and another for night school.

    I make an effort each day to get to the room prior to my students so I can get the atmosphere of the room set-up to where we will all be most comfortable. This year, I have tried a variety of ways to set the class up, finally settling on two large groups of desks facing each other, separating the room in two. The desks are close enough for collaboration, but spaced out enough where students can move around the room as they need to.

    Student work for all classes is posted and celebrated, and students seem comfortable in this environment as well. We have used a variety of formats for instruction, and this setup is suitable for most needs.

    There is one very curious thing I’ve noticed. Though it may seem counterintuitive, I like having more student desks than I need in the classroom. There’s always an open chair, always room for one more if needed. To me, this symbolizes an open classroom, but to the students it seems to mean they can move if they need to – there’s an escape within the classroom if they just need something different.

    So, for me, the two (or three) key elements are: (1) Collaborative space with close desks, (2) Student work and interests on walls, and (3) open space that can be used for whatever needs arise.

    • Two design elements and choices that have fostered a sense of community in my classroom are the circle model and the cooperative learning groups.
      The circle model is used for reading and analyzing text to ensure that all students can be seen and hopefully will be encouraged to be active participants. The circle mode is also use for discussions such as Socratic seminars.
      The cooperative learning group is used for activities such as chunking the text and dramatic presentations. I

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