Reflecting on the Physical Environment (aka the “Other Teacher”)May 25, 2022 May 25, 2022
While some schools have already said, “See you next year!” to their students, many others are still in the midst of preparing for this bittersweet moment. But regardless of where you are now, whether it’s in your last few days or weeks, or you have already begun cleaning your classroom, the end of the year is the perfect opportunity for every educator to stop and reflect. And while many educators already embrace this important practice, it’s not uncommon to forget to think about one key instructional component – the physical classroom environment. Keep in mind, when I say “classroom environment,” that I am not referring to decor or a classroom theme, but instead how the space is used to support learning. The classroom’s walls are actually “the other teacher in the room,” and they should be evaluated too for their effectiveness in supporting student learning.
Normally, the classroom environment receives the most time and attention in August, or maybe during the summer (after a much-appreciated break!). But as a classroom teacher, I adopted the practice of sitting in the middle of my room on my last day of school and reflecting. I wanted to really “see” what I displayed for students and challenge myself to justify its purpose, position, and impact. I needed to consider what worked for student learning and what didn’t.
Criteria for Reflection
Here are the criteria that I found to be most useful in evaluating visual learning supports, along with my most frequently suggested coaching tip:
- Condition: If a display was untouched or unused, it prompted me to consider if it was ever used (or seen) by myself or the students.
- Tip: Avoid wallpapering! Wall spaces that are not frequently going up or coming down run the risk of “disappearing,” as students may become blind to them if they are not used to support learning.
- Clarity: If a display was small or obscured, or not specific to a behavior or learning task (i.e., a word wall or classroom routine), it prompted me to rethink its size, location, or purpose.
- Tip: Take a seat! Sitting in my students’ seats allowed me to see from their perspective and make visual tweaks as needed.
- Connection: If a display was not used frequently by students to support their learning across lessons or units, it prompted me to consider how long it should be given its prime spot.
- Tip: Scaffolds are temporary! Visual displays help foster independence in students and raise their self-efficacy. Displays that support skills like writing or vocabulary knowledge may be left up longer than a lesson specific Anchor Chart, but they should still be removed as early as possible.
While the condition of a display can be a sure-tell sign of its learning benefit, I found I valued the clarity and connection criteria most, as these more directly pertained to how displays supported and scaffolded the learning of grade level content. When displays lacked these criteria, students were unsure how they related to their learning or how they helped them with learning activities and assignments.
Making Learning Visible to Accelerating Learning
This is why one of the most important tenants of an effective physical classroom environment is that it focuses on visual learning supports! A highly “visual” learning environment accelerates learning for students by showcasing Advance Organizers, Graphic Organizers, and Vocabulary Word Walls and uses them to guide and organize learning throughout a lesson or unit. But a highly “effective” visual learning environment showcases not only the strategies but the connections among them to support new learning.
For example, a Vocabulary Word Wall may be organized graphically as a Concept Map. Research is abundant regarding the impact of using a Concept Map to help students visualize the connections among vocabulary words, including categorizing them to support sentence and paragraph writing. But by introducing the Concept Map at the start of a lesson or unit, it can also be used as an Advance Organizer to activate students’ thinking and provide clarity for students regarding the lesson’s Learning Goals.
Example of a Science Concept Map
from Dave McGinley, Harns Marsh Middle School, Ft. Myers, FL
It’s time to say goodbye to visual learning supports that fail to support learning!
Download our Classroom Environment Reflection Chart to reflect on your classroom’s “other teacher.”