Extending The Conversation On Transforming Environments

Maybe it’s just the people that I follow on social media — particularly Twitter — but there seems to be a huge number of people transforming learning environments this year. “Flexible seating” has become the new popular term. I’ve seen lots of posts with photographs of …

  • standing desks.
  • pillows on the carpet.
  • stools at tables and desks.
  • tables instead of desks (or combinations of the two).
  • living room furniture, including sofas and coffee tables.
  • wiggle seats.
  • exercise equipment, especially exercise bikes.

I think it’s fantastic that classrooms at all grade levels are starting to look more like Kindergarten learning environments, and even more so, that they’re meeting the diverse needs of the students that are in them.

Some conversations though with Enzo Ciardelli made me realize that photographs (and even videos) are sometimes not enough. While we may be able to capture the look and feel of the room, it’s the deeper questions that are difficult to capture in a picture and a short tweet. Here are some questions that have me wondering.

  • How are you supporting students with the classroom changes (i.e., an environment that may be very different than what they’ve experienced in the past and/or expect to experience this year)?
  • How will these environmental changes impact on your classroom practices? I see the environment itself as a start of the change. It’s how this different environment transforms our teaching practices and student learning that I think are important topics to discuss.
  • How will you know that these changes are beneficial for students (i.e., how will you measure success)? This makes me think back to the two essential questions on a recent blog post by Sue Dunlop. I never really asked myself these questions before, but I think that they’re worth considering now.

It’s with these three big points/questions in mind that I created this Padlet wall.

I’m hoping that we can use it to start sharing our thoughts, questions, and concerns. Just like with pedagogical documentation, the photographs themselves are great, but it’s the thinking behind the photographs that make them powerful. I would love to hear more of this thinking. What about you?


6 thoughts on “Extending The Conversation On Transforming Environments

  1. Hi Aviva, we definitely discussed this one quite a bit. You know I am cautious, but it is important. Like you, I have seen many pictures of classroom arrangements. And yes, pictures are not enough. In fact, without reflection the pictures mean very little. I have questions regarding how success is monitored and how these changes are implemented. I await the day when kids are used to couches, benches, pillows and standing tables. Unfortunately, we are not there yet making implementation very important. I question whether flexible seating really exists. For me, the varying learning experiences have to be embedded into our lessons. Some kids prefer to work on their own. Others need to develop group skills. I can think of classes in the past that would respond very well to couches. As teachers, we have to respond to the needs and the wants of the group we have. In this way, the classroom arrangement should be a reflection of our thinking and have student input. The learning environment is built as the year progresses. We have to be flexible in our minds and reflective. So as I look at these pictures, I do have many questions. Do students understand the arrangement? Is it something that they agree to? Is it goal driven? Do I want a certain arrangement or is it based on what my students tell me. Right now, I do not have a seating arrangement. They are in rows and one of our goals from day one is to decide the group areas and who they want to work with. It works for me. And I realize what works for me does not work for others. But for me, it goes back to being flexible in our thinking.

    • Thanks for your comment, Enzo! We’ve definitely talked about this topic quite a bit, and I’m not sure that there are any easy answers to the questions. While I think that there’s a shift in teaching practices, and more flexible seating is becoming the norm, there’s likely always going to be some variations. Students do need to get used to different options, and this may take longer, if these choices are not the norm for them. I think that as educators, we need to support them in these different choices, and ask good questions to get them to realize what options work (and what options do not work) for them, and why. (I do think that these options can vary depending on a variety of needs. This whole conversation makes me think a lot about self-regulation.) Even as an adult, it can be difficult for me to admit that sometimes I need to sit/work away from my friends (even if I like interacting with them more) because I’m usually less productive when sitting and working with them.

      While I understand why some people wait (and maybe have row and partner arrangements before group ones), I also think that whenever the change happens, there will be a learning curve. The environment is different, and students need time to get used to this. I also wonder if sometimes, as teachers, we intervene too quickly. We see kids talking — possibly off-task — and we go over to separate them or talk to them, and with just a few more minutes, they manage to get down to work on their own. It’s just like a staff meeting or inservice for teachers. When we have a job to do in a group, we may start with some off-topic discussions (but sometimes it’s these conversations that help us build relationships and get to know each other), and then we get down to work. If adults need this time, is this also true for students?

      I think a lot about the Reggio approach and this idea of “the environment as the third teacher.” The environment does help us learn, and whether students are three-years-old or 18 years old, they need a chance to make this environment their own. My teaching partner and I set up some tables in the classroom, and we had many discussions about why we placed them where we did, and why we included other items near them or on them. We also spoke about watching students and seeing what they do. Do they move the items? Do they move or add chairs around the table? Do they try to push a table over to another area in the room? Do they articulate a need to have a table in the room where there isn’t one? Based on conversations with students and observations of what they do, our plan is to work with the students to change the environment to best suit their needs. We’ll likely do this many times during the year.

      While I see so much value in creating this environment with students, I have some reservations about not setting anything up to start. I know some educators that have done this, and with a lot of success. Maybe it’s because of the age of the students, the size of the class, or other factors of which I’m not aware. I just know that when I walked into our classroom on Monday morning and saw the stack of materials and furniture, I started to feel stressed. I can’t imagine being a student and walking in to view what I did. The first day of school can be stressful for many kids, and I wonder if this just creates more stress. Maybe this is just me though …

      I can’t help but think back to when I started teaching 16 years ago. I went in during the summer, did my bulletin boards, arranged some desks, and never worried about the seating arrangements and the impact that they could have on learning. Now I view the importance of the environment so differently. Even just having the conversations that we’re having now shows the importance in transforming these learning environments. I’d love to know too what others think about this important topic.


      • Thanks for the reply Aviva! Many great points and we are asking the right questions. I’ll try to be short on this one by referring to two aspects. First, I keep going back to student voice / choice. Students need to decide which environment works for them, and I see the classroom requiring their input. If they understand how we arrived at a certain decision . . . the chances of success are far more likely. Next . . . In looking at pictures, I also wonder how static these arrangements are. I highly doubt any classroom would look the same by June (or October for that matter). If we make final decisions without meeting the kids, or thinking that it will work for 10 months . . . I completely support and suggest revisiting the classroom learning environment regularly.

        I think part of our struggle is the fact that we will be teaching students that learn differently. We often try to systemize and come up with an easy solution. In terms of classroom arrangement, there is no easy solution. I think there are areas to consider: flexibility in approach, differentiated instruction, student need, student voice, reflection . . . I can go on and on.

        • Thanks for the reply, Enzo! I think that considering the varied needs of our students is so important. I keep thinking about the words that run through the finalized Kindergarten document: the belief that students are “competent and capable of complex thinking.” If we believe in students and support them in the decisions that they have to make, will we regularly be pleasantly surprised by what they choose to do? I think we will. Up to Grade 6, I had flexible seating arrangements, and I started them on the first day of school. I was very up front with students about the possible choices and about my expectations. We had a lot of great discussions on that first day, and many days past then. Students made mistakes, and they learned from them. We made changes, but we made many of them together. If we want students to be independent and make choices, we need to give them lots of opportunities to do so. I think that no matter how much front loading we do, and no matter when we begin, these changes in classroom design will come with a learning curve (for teachers and students), but discussing problems and working through them together, will benefit everyone.

          As for the photographs and videos, I think we need to consider “why” we take and share them. For me, it’s two-fold. When I share this initial learning environment, people provide me with feedback that often leads to beneficial changes before the children even walk in the room. Also, some students are anxious about starting school, and seeing the learning environment (on Twitter or on the class blog) before school begins, makes them feel more relaxed. I think it makes parents also feel better. I know that our room will not continue to look as it does right now, but it’s a start, and it can evolve from there with the necessary, and important, input from students.

          Thanks for pushing my thinking with these great questions and this great discussion!

          • One last one . . .
            My thinking is getting slightly more narrow . . .
            1. Teachers need to think about classroom setup. This blog is more important than a picture or video of the classroom.
            2. Students should have a say and understand what is happening.
            3. Teachers must be ready to change it.
            4. The classroom needs to cater to various learning styles.
            How a teacher arrives at a goal depends on their comfort level and their reflection. Someone may do it differently than you and I. So long as the teacher is thinking and adjusting their practice to reach learners . . . we should be satisfied.

          • I like this thinking a lot, Enzo! There is not necessarily a right or wrong way to approach these four points either. Student needs and teacher comfort will all come into play. Your comment made me think about something that I learned through Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg courses: how we react as adults can really impact on students. If we decide to start off with this kind of flexible seating, but we’re not comfortable with the decision, chances are high, it’s not going to be effective. Students can sense our discomfort. But if we start slowly, scaffold, and feel more comfortable when we move to these other seating options, I bet that overall, we’ll meet with greater success. I’m very curious to hear what others think, what they’ve tried, and how it’s went. Thanks for getting me to think even more about this important topic!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *