Classroom Environment – Part 1

A few weeks ago, in our Teachers Are Like Gardeners post, I mentioned that at Inquiry By Design we believe the classroom culture that gives students the best chance of germinating, sprouting, and thriving is built around the three concepts of apprenticeship, conversation, and environment.

Let’s unpack this working backwards and starting with environment. Classroom environment can be a slippery and unwieldy concept that includes philosophical, intellectual, social, and physical elements. What do we really mean by this broad, umbrella word?

Ideally we want to create an environment that is both safe and stimulating, but it shouldn’t stop there. Students spend much of their day in classrooms that rarely feel warm or inviting, and yet we know that physical environment affects moral, learning, and productivity. In his book Open Mind, Whole Mind, Bob Samples discusses the direct correlation between the number of senses activated and the amount and locations of brain activity. In the typical setting of lecture and textbooks, only two of the 19 senses are involved. However, Samples argues that “If we want education to be powerful, we need to provide input that involves all 19 senses” (p. 13). Much of that input comes from the physical and social environment, which are two sides of the same coin.

Physical Environment

It’s not really about creating bulletin board masterpieces, but rather asking what does this space say about what we do and value here? Seating speaks the loudest. Desks arranged in rows facing all one direction, says, “There is not an expectation that you will interact with one another. Everything of value and importance will happen up front.” Then we are frustrated when we try to lead a discussion and no one has anything to say.

Prior to a recent classroom observation, the teacher told me, “I tried moving the desks out of rows and into groups but they talked all the time, so I moved them back.”

“What were they talking about?” I asked.

“I don’t know — everything.”

During the observation, when asked to turn and talk in groups of three about a text-based question, observers’ data showed that one hundred percent of student conversation was not only on topic but productive, in that students were generating new ideas, challenging one another’s thinking and grounding their conversation in the text. Imagine a classroom design that invites this kind of interaction as the norm.

Read about student centered classroom design, seating, and physical environment in these excellent Edutopia articles by Mark Phillips and Kayla Delzer.

Social Environment

When we conduct professional development workshops using student texts, we ask teachers at the end of the day to reflect on which learning activities most aided their understanding of the text and prepared them to write about it. Without exception the majority of teachers report that the many opportunities for small- and whole-group discussion were the most beneficial in creating meaning.

And yet… in an informal research project conducted by one of my colleagues, faculty members tracked three students for a week. One of the many revealing discoveries was that approximately 82 percent of these students’ class time was spent listening to teachers talk. The rest was spent in transitions, off-task side conversations, and note taking.

Mike Schmoker, in his 2011 book Focus, advises,

“If we want all kids to learn and enjoy that learning, we simply can’t lecture for long, uninterrupted periods of time. Every few minutes, we should let students process the new learning by

  • Reviewing their notes and adding any new insights and connections,
  • Summarizing their learning in the last segment of lecture, or
  • Pairing up to compare or contrast notes, perceptions and connections.”

For more information on social environment, read an excerpt from the excellent book Content-Area Conversations by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Carol Rothenberg. Also, review our series from May 2015 on Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue.

What are your tips, ideas and questions about creating a safe and stimulating classroom environment? Leave us a comment and join us in two weeks to talk about the philosophical and intellectual elements of classroom environment.


Check out the other posts in this series!

Classroom Environment – Part 1
Classroom Environment – Part 2
Classroom Environment – Part 3
Classroom Environment – Part 4