This article was first published in The Linguist(53,4), the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. See thelinguist.uberflip.com.

 Classrooms around the world look very similar, and they have changed very little over time. There are generally two features that allow an observer to know they are in a classroom: desks and chairs, and the possibility for all to see one side of the classroom (where there is normally situated a teacher and a black/whiteboard). It is the most efficient way of seating a relatively large group of children in a relatively small room, and allows a teacher to show and explain information to the whole class.

classroom pics

My own classroom does not differ from this model, and although I have experimented with table layout, the possibilities for change would appear to be limited. The first change I made upon being given my room was to add some of my own decoration, to personalise it as much as I could. There are prayer flags, posters from Art Galleries, and various balloons and toys lying around. I bought a few plants and one of the window sills is my garden.  I tried sitting in the chair I had been given for a few hours, and decided that my back would not put up with it. I managed to persuade the deputy head that paying £200 for an office chair was cheaper than me having to take a few days out because of back problems (I have a slipped disk, which may have helped my argument). As I settled into my room (and my lovely chair), I inevitably compared it to those of my colleagues. Some had less student lockers; others had a better view, or a more practical position for the projector. Ultimately I decided that I had not got a bad deal. My room is neither too hot nor too cold, it has afternoon sunlight, there are rarely distractions from students walking past, inside or out, being towards the end of the corridor means I can leave my door open, and I have pleasant neighbours.

 balloons

My desk complete with prayer flags, balloons and cuddly toys

I aim to move around the classroom as much as possible, for various reasons: it is better for my back than sitting (even in my comfortable chair!); it offers variety to the students to see me or hear me in different areas of the room; I can visit every student, see their work, talk to them regularly. Originally I used a group configuration for the seating plan, and for most groups this worked very well. For speaking activities especially, this plan works very well: students can talk in their groups without the impression of having to speak in front of the teacher or the whole class. I changed to the plan below when some of the students in the larger groups told me that they felt cramped and that it was difficult to see the board. I am aware that many teachers stay in a relatively confined area of the classroom and I try to avoid staying in one place, attempting to avoid ignoring groups of students at the back or sides of the room. I try to be aware of my body language as I stand before my students, and especially as I stand near them. There is an inherent power relationship between someone standing and another sitting, which I try to avoid through sitting or squatting down next to students. I try to be aware of how my students are feeling when they come into my classroom, and keep the room warm and yet breathable in winter, cool and aired in summer. The plan below shows how I try to move around the classroom, in order to speak to all students, but also for my own comfort. A colleague commented that I should map students’ movements around the room. Unfortunately, there would be very little, and I can see how frustrating that must be for many.

Seating plan

 An example of a seating plan for my year 10 French class, showing my journey around the classroom.

Although the physical classroom environment is largely imposed upon us, there are changes and variations we can make, in the lighting, heating, layout, and in the visual and auditory stimuli around the room. Depending on the task, I lower the lights or shut the blinds; for writing and reading a brighter room is necessary, for speaking or listening lower lighting may be appropriate. The desks are not fixed to the floor, and it only takes a minute at the beginning or end of a lesson to move them around, or completely out of the way. I rarely do this, however, and having seen the movement plan above, realise that I should aim to allow students more movement around the room. Walls are often covered with posters to cover their poor state of repair, but it takes a few hours at the end of the year to repaint them. Displays can be interactive (physically or technologically) and students can contribute to their design and content. The classroom can be as quiet or as loud as we decide with our students. There are, however, certain limits we should put on levels of noise and light, in order to avoid long term damage to eyes and ears.

As a language teacher, I like a relatively noisy classroom, where students are interacting (preferably as much as possible in the target language), but set my limit at 70db. I use an app on a tablet to measure noise levels and to show students when the noise has hit an unacceptable level. I find that this works very well and students respond quickly to the visual prompt of the needle going into the red! I occasionally allow students to listen to music when they are working – I find this is more effective than playing music in the background. The condition is that they do not constantly change track or play on their phones. A year ago I would not have allowed this for various reasons, including use of phones in class, scientific studies on multi-tasking etc. I have found, however, that I have started working to music at home when I need to concentrate, as I have three children and can usually hear what one of them is doing. I can understand the desire to isolate oneself in order to be able to concentrate better. The proof has been in how much work is produced during these periods of quiet writing. I believe, however,  that we should provide our students with occasional experiences of silence, if only to get them used to what happens in exams. There does appear to be a mentality, however, that students should endure the physical conditions of the school and the classroom and that this will somehow teach them something in itself. I do not subscribe to this way of thinking.

toonoisyapp

 An example of an App which measures noise levels and gives handy visual display.

The physical environment of my students is important to me, and I try to use my own experience to inform what I would want for them. If I find it uncomfortable to be seated in a hard chair for an hour, then they surely will too. If I find the neon lighting hurts my eyes after a couple of hours, it will for them too. If I must remain seated for an hour and cannot stretch my legs, I start fidgeting and understand that some students will too. I understand that for many of my students, learning a foreign language is difficult and intimidating; many are shy about speaking aloud or volunteering an answer. It is vital to put learners at their ease in a language classroom, to remove the fear of making mistakes, to make learning both comfortable and fun. The more I reflect on this question of the physical environment of my classroom, I realise that there is a disconnect between what happens and what I would like to happen. Much of what happens is dictated by the physical space, the resources available and by school policies, but there must be a great deal which I can change as well.

my classroom

My classroom  – Japanese club doing calligraphy.

The Stoics were reputed for putting up with a lot, but even they acknowledged that whilst some things are outside our control and must be endured, others are within our control and so we can and should try to change them. Here are some of the things I plan to do before the end of this year:

  • Repaint my classroom, using a warm colour behind the board to highlight it. My room is very busy with flags and displays, mostly to hide the state of the walls. I think that the walls could be a little less busy, and painted in a bright neutral tone. Perhaps I could paint a frieze around the top of the walls.
  • Redesign my displays, in consultation with my students. These could be changed more often. Find out what they find useful and beautiful.
  • Put up more of my students’ work on the displays. A lot of their work merits being exhibited and can be very useful to demonstrate good work to other students. This work could also be interactive and useful for learning in other lessons.
  • Move the desks around more often, to allow students to walk around the classroom (vital for speaking exercises and other activities where interaction is needed).
  • Film myself from different points in the classroom to see what the students’ perspective is. This will help me look at seating plans and questions of visibility and audibility, as well as letting me see my body language whilst I teach.
  • See if it is possible to introduce another light source in the room, or to change the neon bulbs for a softer, more natural light.
  • Use an adjustable desk to provide a workplace for a group of students to work standing up.
  • Keep my workspace tidy and uncluttered as an example for how I want their workspaces to be.
  • Put myself more often in the students’ places in order to remind myself of their physical environment.
  • Reflect continuously on how I can improve the whole learning process for my students.

Classroom-of-the-future-1

Classroom of the future?