I remember going to my grandparents house often as a child. I loved being there. There was a pool with a slide and a jacuzzi; A pool house with a billiards table. A TV room with an awesome reclining chair (which was my grandpa’s chair, but I could sit in it when he wasn’t at home); and a driveway with an amazing two part hill that was perfect for coasting down while sitting on a skateboard.
But it also had one room that was off-limits to children: the living room. You may recall a similar room in your grandparents (or parents?) house. Perhaps the couch had a plastic cover on it. There were knick knacks everywhere that were not to be touched, moved, or even breathed on. I’m serious…sometimes, just to test her, we’d move an object. Maybe an inch. Maybe just rotate it a few degrees. And before the day was over, it’d be back in its proper placement. On special occasions, we’d take family pictures in that room, near the fireplace. But beyond that, it was definitely off limits.
I’ve been thinking about that room a lot lately. It was part of my grandparents house, and yet it wasn’t part of my experience at their house. It was a museum of sorts. Like a giant curio closet housing my grandma’s vision of the perfect house. I think it embodied what she thought her home should be like, as though she was June Cleaver without the pearls, waiting for the Beaver to come home from school.
The reason I’ve been thinking about that room a lot lately is because I’ve also been thinking a lot about the environment in which students spend most of their awake hours. There’s this movement, it seems, to create classrooms that are Pinterest-worthy: full of bright colors, amazing graphics, beautiful fonts, and coordinated themes. I have to say, I am often in awe when I see these classrooms on my Instagram feed because I can only imagine the hours and dollars invested in created them. They’re just, so, perfect-looking.
And that’s the problem. Much like the plastic covered couch, many of these rooms seem to echo the desire of adults more than the students. For example, there are displays of student work perfectly-spaced apart on a wall, often with a background border that echoes the topic of the writing displayed. At first glance, it’s impressive to see every child’s writing or art or science essay showcased. But then it hit me… who are these products displayed for? Not for the students in the class. Often times, the displays are high on the wall, out of reach of students, both of their eyes and their hands.
Environment is one of the eight components in developing a culture of thinking. Environment is where learners discuss their thinking, share ideas, debate viewpoints, and engage with other learners (Ritchhart, Church, Morrison 244). In a student-centered classroom environment, the emphasis should be on process, not product, to reflect the iterative nature of learning, and the growth mindset deeper learning requires. There should be evidence of thinking, of learning, of struggling with concepts and new ideas and making meaningful connections. This process is often messy and non-linear, and reflective of student choice and agency and the individualized pace of learning. Ron Ritchhart’s The Development of a Culture of Thinking in My Classroom: Self-Assessment provides a starting place for teachers assessing how they are developing a culture of thinking in their classroom. For the physical environment, Ritchhart includes:
- Displays in the room inspire learning in the subject area and connect students to the larger world of ideas by displaying positive messages about learning and thinking.
- I arrange the space of my classroom to facilitate thoughtful interactions, collaborations, and discussion.
- My wall displays have an ongoing, inchoate, and/or dialogic nature to them versus only static display of finished work.
- I use a variety of ways to document and capture thinking, including technology.
- A visitor would be able to discern what I care about and value when it comes to learning.
Erin Klein, an award-winning teacher and blogger, believes that teachers should “observe students in their natural habitat and work to accommodate their needs” (webinar). This approach, which values student voice and agency, should also consider brain research around visual environment and attention spans. “Young children with immature regulation of focused attention are often placed in elementary-school classrooms containing many displays that are not relevant to ongoing instruction.” The research showed that “children were more distracted by the visual environment, spent more time off task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains when the walls were highly decorated than when the decorations were removed.”
So if a classroom were designed with a focus on student needs, how might student work be displayed? Would they be placed lower so that students could check out the pieces of their peers? Perhaps there would be Post-Its nearby so that students could leave feedback on pieces they enjoyed, or provide suggestions for the next revision. How about opportunities for students to self-select the piece posted, with a note asking for the type of feedback the student is seeking?
I don’t often see these types of experiential opportunities in photos of the Pinterest-worthy classrooms. Just like I don’t see photos of any of us sitting on grandma’s couch.
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