Setting the scene

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Mike Fielding explores howthe classroom environment can have a big effecton learning

So, you've got your own classroom. It's a bit like when you first had your own room at home, except that you probably didn't have large numbers of people tramping through it every day.

The sense of possession and responsibility are much the same. It's a room that is likely to reveal something about your personality, and a lot about how you teach and view the process of children's learning. For the children, your room should be a place of work, challenge, inspiration and information as well as offering security and support.

But this room has to compete for their respect with the other spaces children inhabit - their homes, cafes, shops, cinemas, clubs, even interactive museums - and, if it is too low-tech or boring you'll be fighting their reluctance from the start.

What can make a classroom lively and productive? Although this may vary with the subject or the phase there are some general principles.

The first is obvious but often disregarded. Whatever is displayed - on walls or other surfaces - must have a purpose beyond covering the available space. Some people feel that if they put up posters to do with their subject then their classroom is improved simply because the walls are no longer blank.

But unless this informs children in a way that connects with the work they're doing, it's just wallpaper.

And even if it does inform, that's not likely to be enough. The second principle is that children should be challenged as much by what they can see, hear or touch in the classroom as by the work they're given by the teacher.

A room full of intriguing words, images or objects will stimulate children not only from the moment they enter but in the inevitable pauses which are part of the rhythm of lessons.

The third principle is that nothing should be there very long. Children live in a fast-moving world and are used to change. Their interest in things that they are surrounded with week after week soon palls.

Children's work should always form a significant proportion of any display. But this generates a number of dilemmas including how to enhance an individual's self esteem by displaying their work while ensuring that what is shown helps others learn.

It's not just what is displayed, though, that's important: it's the way it's organised - positioning of desks; provision of special corners etc - and the atmosphere the students meet when they come in. A room which feels both businesslike and as though it encourages experiment and reflection will produce those qualities in most pupils.

An important part of this is the teacher's expectations of behaviour and attitudes in the room, but it is also about the range and accessibility of resources: the quality of materials and equipment, and the normal working state of the room.

Children who know a teacher is untidy don't make excuses for how busy she is, they just copy her and then get understandably upset when she criticises them for being messy in their exercise books, the way she is in her classroom.

Unlike secondary level, where young people are more likely to have lessons away from a home-base room, in primary schools pupils spend most of their time in one classroom.

Gaining their involvement - making it "their" room as well as hers - is an important step for the teacher who wants to take the creation of a genuine learning environment seriously.

At one time, the state of a classroom seemed less important than, say, the enthusiasm of the teacher. Forced to make a choice, that may still be true but it's no longer really a question of eitheror.

An enthusiastic teacher can only operate well in a room that reflects high standards and expectations and provides pupils with the means of meeting them.

Take a look around your room. Can anyone walking into it know immediately that you are a lively teacher who is doing everything you can to ensure your pupils achieve? If not, it's time for a change.

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