How to Create Learning Environments That Meet the Needs of All Students

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The classroom environment is a significant determinant of student learning: studies show that improvements to classroom layout can result in a 45% increase in academic engagement. Not to mention that on average, students in the United States spend more than 12,000 hours of their lives inside school buildings. These significant findings have led researchers, teachers, and school administrators to rethink how we design both school facilities and classroom layouts — a call to action to start differentiating more than classroom instruction.

In recent years, more and more studies have shown that adapting the physical environment of the classroom — seating arrangements, wall space, use of color and light — can (and should) also be adapted to meet the needs of students’ individual learning styles.

“Classroom design is deeply connected to a teacher’s values, beliefs, skills, knowledge, and pedagogy,” states John Pascarella, the Associate Professor of Clinical Education at USC Rossier. “A teacher who uses design-based thinking for her/his learning space deliberately arranges the layout, resources, and other learning heuristics available to cultivate heightened student engagement, greater learner-to-learner-to-teacher interactions, and more inclusive, safer environments in which learners and teachers rely on one another as resources for knowledge and learning.”

The call for classroom design differentiation is stronger than ever, especially with the recent launch of platforms such as room2learn, an online space for teachers and designers to share and collaborate on innovative classroom design techniques.

Platforms and pictures aside, here are actionable ways that teachers can infuse learning theories into the classroom decor to maximize student learning, behavior, and overall wellness.

Optimize Classroom Space

Classroom arrangement is dependent on a lot of factors, including student age, grade and previous experience, and school budget. However, studies show that defining learning zones in the classroom not only improves academic engagement but also reduces students’ disruptive behavior and promotes active learning.

Aside from the physical organization of the classroom, it’s important to create a space where small groups can work independently but still be connected to the rest of the classroom. This is especially important for students with sensory processing disorders; creating an inclusive space allows students with attention difficulties to stay on task while maintaining a strong classroom community.

Create Welcoming Walls

In a recent study on classroom design in kindergarten, studies showed students in a busy, highly decorated and visual environment were more distracted, spent more time off-task and had decreased positive learning outcomes than those in calmer environments.

Teachers’ wall space is one of the most important parts of a classroom — it’s a place to display student work, community rules or language/behavior cues. However, it’s also important to maintain a balance between welcoming walls and visual clutter in order to strengthen students encoding and task performance.

Creating welcoming walls is also a great way to integrate color theory into the classroom. The strategic use of color has been shown to decrease eye fatigue and increase students’ productivity. In his book Drunk Tank Pink, author Adam Alter explains just how much the color of a room can influence an individual’s thoughts and behavior. Referred to as Baker-Miller Pink, this color is used in correctional facilities, psychiatric hospitals and youth clinics due to its ability to induce calm, positive feelings and decrease disruptive behavior.

However, while the use of color does have significant effects on behavior and engagement, studies also suggest that neutral background colors allow students to focus on the task at hand rather than the walls.

Curate Digital Experiences

The science behind classroom design doesn’t stop at teachers’ four walls. Teachers and learners in online education must also pay special attention to the design of their learning environments. This purposeful use of design in online experiences is often referred to as instructional design, emotional design or multimedia learning, focusing on how the design of digital products and experiences has a significant impact on students’ emotions, behavior, and motivation.

Create Inclusive Spaces

While budget restraints may inhibit teachers from enacting all of these best practices, it’s important for schools and teachers to focus the bottom line: creating inclusive spaces that focus on holistic learning for all students.

The main takeaways of these classroom design theories are that we have to create learning environments that help meet the needs of all students; we need to differentiate not only our instruction but also our design.

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