What does your classroom say about you? Is it a place that says learn or leave? I was teaching a lesson a few weeks ago about religious buildings, and why they were designed the way they were - seats for the sinners, light and space to create a sense of the numinous.
To make this exciting topic come alive for my Year 7s I asked them to describe the features of the room they sat in, and why it had been made that way. Some of the comments were the desired response: "Er ... there's tables for us all to sit at" and "We have a whiteboard". But then a few of the more visually literate gave me slightly more off-menu answers.
"It's a bit messy," said one, looking at the piles of jumble everywhere. "It's meant to make us all look at nothing but you," said another anarchist, warming to the task. "We can look at the door and think about lunch," said the last one.
That got me thinking. How many of us have a classroom that encourages teaching (and maybe some learning), and how many of us work in a space that tends to stifle it?
At first, the question seems trivial; of course, what the teacher does, and what the pupils do themselves, are the central issues. But we would be deluding ourselves if we thought that the architecture and decor of a room didn't have an influence on the wellbeing, enjoyment and engagement of the pupils.
I'm not talking anything esoteric or ambiguous here, like feng shui (God help us). I'm talking about things that the commercial sector has been pouring research grants into because it has realised something that most of us ignore: the space you're in affects the way you think and feel.
Psychitecture, the psychology of architecture, is big business for big businesses, which are fascinated by the way that supermarkets, football stadia and casinos can subliminally influence our buying behaviour. Music, smells, lights, shapes, all feed into our subconscious in a dialogue that we aren't normally aware of.
But for teachers, the question should be: does this room help pupils to learn or not? Of course for many teachers, the room layout is an act of God visited on them by Victorian philanthropists, or modernist sadists.
And decor only becomes a hot button when the parents are invading, or (whisper it) inspectors, as a sort of sop to the idea that we celebrate achievement. But do we? What are we saying to the pupils with our rooms? Let's look at some do's and don'ts.
- Forget what you thought about the room when you first walked into it. That's how visitors will see it, too.
- Look at it from your point of view. Pupils don't see the room looking towards the back from six feet up. That's just your perspective.
- Leave old posters up. It speaks volumes about how much you care, or don't.
- Assume that you can't do anything about it because a repaint costs a bundle and there's no budget for blinds. Look at what you can do.
- Make a list of the things you need to improve the classroom. Some you won't be able to do by yourself. Who could help you?
- Get yourself to the back of the class, where the pirates sit, and take a seat. Look at the class now. What do you see? Looks different, doesn't it?
- Put up best examples of pupils' work. Make them as recent as possible. Show the pupils that you appreciate it when they try their best or make something outstanding. They will hug themselves with pride privately, however much they scorn in public.
- Commission gifted pupils to make signs and room information posters.
- Try your hand at a bit of decorating if you're feeling keen. Paint and light can transform a space quicker than a complete rebuild (I learnt this working in nightclubs, funnily enough). I'm not saying that it's your responsibility, but do you want things to get better or not?
- Get rubbish out. As my granny would say, if you don't love it, or haven't touched it in years, get it out. Poor grandad.
Nothing here is quantum physics. But it's amazing the number of classrooms that seem custom built to induce mania or depression in pupils, forcing them to stare at grungy, unkempt walls that say nothing to them except leave.
Think how long the pupils have to look at that view. All day, albeit in different classrooms. We have the luxury of moving around, of changing our perspective. And they have to look at us for years. It's only fair that we give them something worth looking at, or being in.
Tom Bennett is head of religious studies and philosophy, gifted and talented lead teacher at Raine's Foundation School in east London.
TES FORUM USERS' VIEWS
What would improve your classroom? We canvassed opinion on The TES website (www.tes.co.uk).
"I recently surveyed my pupils about what they would like. They said a space to store their books on non-homework evenings, a carpet, comfortable chairs to aid concentration, some colour to aid thinking, different sizedshaped tables so they could choose to work with others or individually, more power points, a comfy area for creative planning, more natural light, better heaters for winter and air conditioning for summer. I think I'd probably agree with everything on the list."
Sinbad the Sailor
"More space would help. I have 32 seats and several groups of 32. I have some pupils who I know would work much better if I could isolate them sometimes, but that is not an option."
"I have two groups of four and a row at the back, with a naughty table on its own at the front. This allows me to walk about the room easily and encourages group work. However, the walls are a little bare because I find things get damaged easily; I am trying to get the head of department to order some plastic to cover the work on the wall to protect it."
"I have covered the walls in posters and interesting things to look at and I have a lot of things that I bring in (pencil pots, artificial flowers) that I choose on the rule that I can't get upset if they're broken or stolen. But so far they have all remained untouched and appreciated by the pupils."