Hack your classroom: flexible physical learning environments

Flexible learning environments have a physical component — and effect

responsive physical learning environments
CC BY 2.0: “Old school desk” by flickr user SandtoGlass, cropped. Original image here: https://www.flickr.com/ photos/ericabreetoe/ 7371020342/

Do you recognize the object at left?

Does it look like a comfortable learning environment for a student? Does it look like the type of learning environment a student would choose for themselves?

OF COURSE NOT, and because you are all such passionate and committed educators, you started shaking your heads the minute the image loaded. You’ve worked hard at banishing these ancient things from your rooms.

But here are some ways educators can make their physical classroom settings more flexible and responsive to student learning needs.

What does this mean for incorporating change into your classroom?

Classrooms can be transformed into flexible physical learning environments through changes to 3 things: seating, schedule and student spangle. Yes, spangle. Bear with me.

1. Seating

When you picture middle grades students learning, do you picture something like:

or this?

Not all things that look like seats really are (see our terrible ancient desk example at the start of this entry) aaaaand, as many students will tell you, things that don’t necessarily look like seats are actually very comfortable. Libraries tend to do this well. For instance:

And also:

3 fresh ways to flip your classroom
The iLab space at Winooski Middle School, Winooski, Vermont.

The iLab space at Winooski Middle School has been expressly designed to look, feel and operate very differently from a conventional classroom space. From windows looking directly onto the library, to a central collaborative couch-space and vibrant wall and chair colors, a huge amount of thought has gone into how real students use and learn with technology.

The Nerdy Teacher took photos of his classroom and marked them up with Skitch and Evernote, to show how students were using — and not using different portions of the space. He used the photos to identify physical barriers between him and his students, and brainstorm ways to eliminate them and use the space more invitingly. He went and sat in some of the student desks so he’d know what his students were looking at.

But getting up and moving around isn’t just for students…

Middle school is not a building (or even a collection of buildings)

Redefine the physical boundaries of what you consider school; encourage students to attend off-campus events that further their learning goals. Have a student who’s interested in both documentary film-making and the environment? Have them contact the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center about filming their next panel discussion on water quality. See how many museum experts would like to be interviewed about their areas of specialty (spoiler: all of them do). See if VCAM, the local community access media channel, has any camera operation classes or video editing equipment (spoiler: they’ve got both). Mobile devices can be helpful in this regard, as the ability for students to carry internet access around with them makes the entire world — not just school — more rife with learning opportunities. “We’re just unimaginably more connected to the world around us,” says Lilly, a student at Burlington High School (BHS), of the students’ experience with iPads. “The school becomes not just what’s inside these four walls at BHS, but what the entire community can offer us.”

Or just go outside

Sometimes outside is part of your community, like for students at Richmond Elementary School, studying the maple syruping process:

Or finding inspiration in nature:

Teachers, too, can benefit from a change of scenery:

2. Schedule

Look, you can’t runaround single-handedly changing the time the school bell rings (without occasioning a major school board brou-ha-ha) but what can you control about your students’ schedule? Know when to say when.


Get up! Move around! Shake that classroom to the ground

Brain breaks. Students really need them and let’s be honest, you do too. Just standing up and shaking it all out or even just standing up can reset the whole tone of an activity or a class discussion. But really, why just stand when you can dance:

But what about the learning, you ask? Have students be the learning!

Flipped classroom = learning availability outside of school hours

Encourage students to embrace their own personal peak hours of learning by making flipping your classroom and making lesson resources available online. Online is a 24/7 space, so a student who might not be at their best at 2:30 in the afternoon might head home, nap and bounce right back after dinner. Or after three episodes of America’s Next Top Model.

Respect students’ other commitments

Vermont educator Alex Shevrin wrote an incredible post about equity issues in offering extra credit, and the point she’s making holds true for this idea of schedule flexibility as well. Not every student will be able to find hours outside of the school day for work, so what does it look like to accommodate their learning times within that day? This student from Edmunds Middle School makes some great points about being able to take home a school-issued Chromebook and how it changes the after-school landscape:

3. Student SPANGLE.

Here’s the issue with those mass-produced learning objectives posters: they’re made by adults. Now, when your students’ attention spans wander (I know, I know, they hang on your every word as an educator but bear with me) and they look around the classroom, what do they see? Do they see representations of themselves? Do they see themselves and their peers as creators of their own learning and destiny? Do they see student work? At Winooski High School, students see this:

Then they see the finished products — giant personalized mind-maps — all over the walls. At The Cabot School, in Cabot, VT, students in one science classroom see this blackboard wall covered with their own research notes and ideas:

Students at Edmunds Middle School see (and make) this:


But let’s not burn all the desks just yet

After all, where would the Rube Goldberg machines sit?

Want to read more about flexible physical learning environments?

What’s one thing you’d like to change about your current physical teaching environment?

Audrey Homan

Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and producer of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time writes tiny video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

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