For decades, education experts have wrestled with best practices for classrooms. Different ages have various needs, especially with regards to visual and kinesthetic learning. Creating a classroom space which facilitates this learning is difficult, but there are many well-researched innovations which could be life-changing for students.
Of course, school district funding has set strict limits on how many of these ideas can be implemented. Struggling school districts strive to have enough desks in each classroom, let alone focus on technology for students.
Teachers can endeavor to overcome these limitations. Building a modern classroom isn’t just about technology and furniture—it’s about creating a space where students can interact and learn. By focusing on academics and on socio-behavioral needs, teachers can ensure better outcomes for their students as they advance through high school.
Technology for the Teacher
Although whiteboards and projectors can be very useful, digital whiteboards are ideal for high-quality, interactive learning. These screens allow teachers to draw and alter computer-based visuals easily, making it easier for students to understand lessons. Students can benefit from this throughout grade school, especially once they start studying more abstract concepts.
Having to share a computer cart or digital whiteboard can be a hassle, so teachers should receive dedicated devices when possible. While most teachers have access to a printer in the main office or computer lab, a printer inside the classroom can be much more convenient for last-minute changes to lessons.
Teachers with some engineering skills may also want to consider a 3D printer. Although 3D printers can be a little challenging to use, they are an excellent investment in any classroom. 3D printers can create small models to help students visualize key concepts, especially ones related to math and science. There are many free model files available online, so teachers don’t even need any direct experience in 3D modeling.
Technology for the Students
Building students’ computer skills is critical for career and academic success. While technology doesn’t have to be used every day at school, it should at least be introduced at a young age. Plus, some students enjoy the challenge of programming which is a useful life skill that can build critical thinking and creativity.
Ideally, classrooms should also have kid-friendly printers students can use for group project work and other tasks. Teachers should have guidelines for printer use but should ultimately allow students to print what they need to for posters and homework. The cost of printer ink is no longer as prohibitive as in years past, especially when bought in bulk.
All of this technology becomes even more important when considering statistics related to poverty and limited access to technology outside of the classroom. Low-income students don’t always have printers, the internet or even reliable computers at home. Smartphone data plans are becoming more common, but students cannot easily complete assignments on these.
Individual Tablets and Computers
While technology can be helpful for some students, research regarding tablets and laptops for elementary school students is showing mixed results. Plus, some parents and educators are concerned that having tablets for individual students decreases students’ teamwork and social skills. E-readers with limited internet access may be good for digital textbook use, but other devices can be more of a distraction than they are worth.
Educators should limit the use of tablets to situations where they are necessary for independent learning. For group activities, one or two tablets per group should be sufficient for research and typing. Teachers must also make an effort to monitor students’ tablet use, as school filters won’t always prevent students from accessing inappropriate or off-topic content.
Interactive, high-quality lessons don’t have to use tablets at all. Try having the class watch a video together, and then discuss what they learned. Have the class work together to design or complete graphic organizers, and then lend them books to find additional facts about the topic.
Furniture and Layout
Though teachers have experimented with putting students in a semicircle, the large class sizes inherent to underfunded schools have forced many teachers to stick to straight rows. Even with space constraints, teachers can make small tweaks to improve the classroom. Some under-utilized spaces include window sills and the space behind the teacher’s desk.
Teachers should place their desks in the corner of the room since placing it in the center front can increase the focus on themselves. When possible, students’ desks should face each other during group activities. While elementary school students may struggle to stay focused during group activities, this layout can allow them to stay focused for 15-20 minutes at a time.
Small reading nooks let students move around the classroom while staying focused on their work. Elementary school teachers can use large carpets as a meeting space, but older students typically don’t need or want this kind of space.
Projects and Group Work
Traditional teaching methods focus on having a teacher lecturing students. Student activities are typically limited to in-class worksheets, homework and tests. In middle school and high school, students do larger projects, but most classroom learning still focuses on the teacher.
To help students remain invested in their learning, teachers should facilitate peer group work as much as possible. While some students are happy to learn from a teacher, middle school and high school students, in particular, want independence. Plus, elementary school students need projects and group work to help them develop teamwork and communication skills.
Again, furniture and layout choices can help facilitate this group work environment. Chairs with attached desks tend to be a nuisance during group work, as they can be challenging to get into a circle. Consider long tables with chairs that can be easily moved, especially if you have a larger classroom.
Decorations and Graphics for Classrooms
Printing technology has influenced the classroom in a number of ways, especially in how classrooms are decorated. Teachers can now create signs detailing classroom rules and reminders in addition to academic materials. Since most blackboards and whiteboards are magnetized, teachers can also print materials that can be posted on and moved around a blackboard as needed to illustrate a lesson.
Bulletin boards can be customized with materials relevant to the current unit. Consider posting simple charts and graphics with key terms from the unit, especially if there are many new vocabulary words. These displays may need to be covered up during tests, but they can be very helpful as students are getting used to new concepts.
Although teachers can print large-format posters to suit their classroom and lessons, some prefer to hand-write their visuals on poster paper. Anchor charts are intended to be stored and reused, but finding appropriate storage space can be difficult. Some teachers hang their charts on racks, where they can be quickly accessed as needed. If classroom space is limited, consider storing some at home.
Ideally, teachers will also make smaller versions of anchor charts that students can use as a study guide. Depending on the students’ age, they could also create graphic organizers of their own or work in groups to design one. High school students should be expected to fully copy down anchor charts for their own reference.
Though anchor charts can often be reused from year to year, teachers should update them periodically. Professional development sessions often contain good advice for crafting compelling visuals. As teachers learn these new tips, they should go through their older visuals and update them to make their classroom as effective as possible.
ESL and Special Education Support
English as a Second Language and Special Education students should be included in general education classrooms if at all possible. Including these students can help them catch up with their peers while building the social bonds they need to succeed in the long term.
However, these students need careful support to succeed. Paraprofessionals, who are assigned to a special education student, should provide as much supervision as necessary while they are working in small groups but should avoid hovering over them. The same goes for specialists who are assigned to help ESL students. It may be best for co-teachers to sit or stand near the students who need help but walk around other groups frequently as well.
An English learners’ dictionary can be helpful for ESL students while a tablet or another assistive device may be necessary for special education students. Both groups of students may also benefit from having additional graphic organizers or other specialized worksheets, providing extra visual support. To avoid confusion, these should be designed to use the same layout and color-coding as other visuals used in the classroom for that lesson.
Many Montessori schools around the world have been well ahead of the curve in learner-centered teaching methods. Montessori schools create spacious classrooms with tables or floor space instead of individual desks. At the elementary school level, students use many tactile and visual learning tools to explore math and science, with ample reading and writing as well. Higher grade levels allow long interrupted work periods for students to focus on projects.
Montessori-style learning is hard to use in a standard public school classroom, as it typically requires smaller class sizes and more hands-on resources than most school districts can afford. The pedagogical considerations become even more complicated when accounting for public school students’ vastly different socioeconomic needs and achievement levels.
However, teachers can adapt Montessori practices and tools for use in their own classrooms. The idea of students learning independently, for example, is at the core of the Montessori philosophy. Teachers can observe Montessori classrooms and learn more about how to keep students on-track while allowing them to grow.
Connections to the Outside World
Teachers should strive to include articles and infographics from reliable news organizations in the classroom. While many will be too difficult for elementary school, some will be accessible with appropriate discussion and support.
Middle school and high school classes can benefit from assignments where students must read and summarize news articles relevant to the current unit. If class time is too limited for much discussion, consider posting relevant articles on bulletin boards and other spaces.
Also, look for up-to-date educational videos. Some public broadcasters and nonprofits have begun putting more content on YouTube and other free websites. When tied back in with textbooks and other key resources, these videos can dramatically improve knowledge retention. Plus, it could motivate students to begin using technology and internet access for more educational purposes.
Color and Light
Color and light can have a significant impact on the mood of students. Although windows may occasionally need to be covered to reduce distractions, they usually should be left uncovered to allow sunlight in. Dim lighting and low ceilings can make a classroom feel cramped and unpleasant.
Colors like red and orange can boost student mood but may not be beneficial for focus. White, yellow, green and blue are believed to be better classroom colors.
Also, remember that classroom visuals must be high contrast in order to be seen from far away. Students in the back rows may struggle to read an anchor chart that is color-coded in similar hues of blue and green, for example.
Listening to Students
Students’ wishes don’t always line up with reality, and particularly clever students may try to negotiate with their teacher to make class more fun. For example, students may try to convince their teacher they need more tablet time for research, even though they really don’t.
Occasionally, though, students will have useful feedback. Teachers should maintain open communication with parents and students, especially after major changes are made in the classroom. What works for one student won’t work for everyone, so teachers will have to get creative and compromise.
There will never be a perfect classroom template that works for every school. Every teacher and every class has different needs, especially in historically underperforming schools. The issue of school funding also makes classroom design a careful balancing act of needs and wants. With experience and some research, teachers can figure out how to serve their students with the technology they have.