A student's classroom environment serves as more than just a backdrop to their learning. Many modern theorists, inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, consider the environment to act as a “third teacher” to the learner. The “first teacher” includes the adults that contribute to the child’s learning. The “second teacher” includes the child’s peers. The “third teacher” includes the space in which one learns. With this approach in mind, it is important to put careful thought into the intentional design of a student learning space.
A learning space needs to meet the needs of the students. To maximize its positive impact on learners, the space must be welcoming, flexible, content rich, and organized. Although these learning space characteristics might seem intuitive, consider the traditional classroom environment; teacher-selected posters lining the painted cement block walls, hard chairs and desks arranged in rows facing the front of the room, a teacher desk at the front of the room facing the student desks, and a bare linoleum floor.
This industrial design allows for easy cleaning and one-way delivery of information from the teacher to the students. The physical space in a traditional classroom does NOT, however, create a sense of belonging, provide opportunities for deep learning, support collaboration, or offer flexibility and responsiveness to changing student needs.
Today’s learners need to be competent collaborators, deep thinkers, and curious about their world. The classroom space should support the development of these skills by allowing students to be comfortable, confident, and inquisitive.
Before any human can rise to the challenge of learning a new skill, their basic needs must be met. One of these needs is to feel a sense of belonging. Feeling welcome and safe in a space is critical for a learner’s social emotional well-being. Upon entering a class, students should see themselves reflected in the design of the space. This can include posters/pictures of children that reflect the diversity of the students in the class. Students can also bring in photographs of their family to hang in their classroom, increasing the feeling of security and comfort. Teachers do not need to purchase decor for their bulletin boards or to line the walls. Instead, this space can be filled with student works of art or selected assignments. The classroom should be a celebration of student learning and embrace the kids’ ideas. Allowing students a voice in how the space is designed promotes a sense of partnership in their education.
In creating a welcoming space, don’t forget the power of natural lighting. The overhead fluorescent lighting found in most schools can contribute to agitation, headaches, and even hyperactivity. Natural lighting can have a measurable positive impact on student learning. One study found that students in naturally lit classrooms performed 15% higher on math and reading tests than those students in classrooms with fluorescent lights (Nicklas and Bailey, 1997).
Although natural lighting is ideal, it isn’t always a possibility. Another, and more practical, tip for classroom lighting is to offer various options. Rather than simply having the binary option of on or off, classrooms can have a variety of lighting choices that can meet the needs of different times of day. Having some lamps on in cozy nooks can create a calm atmosphere for students to engage in quiet reading. Brighter lights, however, might be necessary for collaborative group work or whole-class discussions. Having options in lighting allows teachers the ability to respond to the needs of the students as they change.
The ideal classroom is designed with flexibility in mind. Teachers and learners need to be able to move furniture to help create the best learning environment for a designated task or lesson. For example, if a teacher is sharing information with students, their chairs should be facing the teacher and they should have an accessible writing surface for note taking. After information is shared, students will most likely have the opportunity to collaborate with each other in order to apply their newly gained knowledge. Seating should be mobile enough that students can move their chairs into a small collaborative circle, with a common area to document information (such as a whiteboard or easel).
It is very important to keep flexibility in mind when choosing classroom furniture. Most classrooms are not large enough to house separate areas for each of these tasks, so consider choosing furniture that serves multiple functions. Students need to have spaces in which to talk, listen, read, and write. Some people refer to these types of spaces as “caves and commons”. Caves are small little retreats where students can quietly and independently read, work, or think. Commons are more vibrant areas that allow students to collaborate with each other for small group work or have whole-class discussions.
The classroom environment should reflect the rich learning being done by the students. This does not mean that the teacher needs to purchase elegant artwork or create intricate bulletin boards. One of the best ways to display rich content is to offer the opportunity for students to make their own learning visible. An example of this could be with a co-created anchor chart.
Anchor charts are frequently created by teachers to illustrate a concept they are working on, such as the distributive property of multiplication. Students can contribute to this creation by adding their own definition ideas, pictures, and example equations. This anchor chart is a perfect way to demonstrate students' deep learning while reminding the class that their ideas have value and add to the learning of all. Anchor charts can remain on the walls throughout the school year, serving as a reference tool when needed.
It is also helpful to use the environment to make the learning objectives clear to everyone in the room. “I can” statements or goals related to the day’s learning can be visible in a consistent space, reminding everyone the purpose of today’s lesson.
Wonder Walls, or spaces designed to support student inquiry is an ideal way to use wall space in a manner that responds to and supports student learning. As students think of “wondering questions” that are not easily addressed at the moment, they add their question to the shared class list. When time permits, students can search for answers and share their new found knowledge.
Other ideas to consider when designing a content-rich environment is to reserve space for student work. Teachers should never feel like they need to have every inch of their classroom decorated before the first day of school. Save space for learners to make the environment theirs by posting pieces they are most proud of.
We all know that a cluttered environment can increase anxiety and distractedness. The same rule applies to the classroom. It is tempting to display every little gifted knick knack or cute decorations found at Target’s Dollar Spot in the classroom. Sadly, this kind of clutter can have a negative impact on student learning. Two key pieces in keeping a classroom organized are storage and the use of color.
Students should have access to everyday items that are needed for learning. These items should be stored in accessible and labeled locations. Looking for a new pencil or an additional piece of paper among a messy space is distracting and wastes valuable time. Items that are used less often can be tucked away in a labeled container that doesn’t need to be visible to all students.
The use of color can play a huge role in creating a supportive learning environment. When possible, it is great to color code materials. Color coding is a proven strategy for keeping kids organized. In fact, it is considered a high-impact strategy for learners with ADHD and executive functioning issues. Color can also set the mood in a classroom. It is recommended to use cool colors as they create a sense of calmness, but include some warm colors as accents for some extra excitement and cheerfulness. If painting the classroom isn’t allowed, colors can be used in furnitures, fixtures, and decor. It’s also important to remember that simple color themes are best. Using too many colors can create a chaotic feeling that can take away from focused learning.
The days of industrialized classrooms with chairs and desks arranged “graveyard style” are thankfully in the past. If we want students to graduate from school with critical thinking skills and the ability to collaborate with others, we need to make changes to our standard ways of designing educational spaces. The “environment as the third teacher” approach requires us to be very purposeful and deliberate when making decisions about learning spaces. By offering environments that are welcoming, flexible, content-rich, and organized, we are supporting students in their learning process before they even walk into the classroom.
Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority. (n.d.). THE ENVIRONMENT AS THE ‘THIRD TEACHER.’ National Quality Standard. https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2018-04/QA3_TheEnvironmentAsTheThirdTeacher.pdf
Brown, Madeline F., "The Third Teacher: An analysis of aesthetic and intentionality of space in the classroom" (2020). Senior Honors Projects, 2020-current. 32. https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/honors202029/32
Carter, M. (n.d.). Making Your Environment “The Third Teacher.” Exchange, The Early Leaders’ Magazine. https://www.cps.edu/globalassets/cps-pages/sites/equity/tools/margie-carter-making-your-environment-the-third-teacher.pdf
Lautenbach, C. (2023, March 21). Education space, the “third teacher” - school news network: A window into your public schools. School News Network | A Window into Your Public Schools. https://www.schoolnewsnetwork.org/2023/03/13/education-space-the-third-teacher/
Nicklas, M.G.; Bailey, G.B. (1997). “Daylighting in Schools.” Strategic Planning for Energy and the Environment; Vol. 17, No. 2; pp. 41–61.
Student Achievement Division: Ontario Schools. (n.d.). The Third Teacher Designing the Learning Environment for Mathematics and Literacy, K to 8. Capacity Building Series. http://edugains.ca/resourcesLNS/Monographs/CapacityBuildingSeries/CBS_ThirdTeacher.pdf