‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.’ Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird.
How often do we really consider what it’s like for our pupils to sit in our classrooms? Think about your last staff training session in your school or room. Which chair do you go to first? Which chair do you hate? Why?
As one of the last into these sessions, I’m nearly always treated to the seats no-one else wants. Normally, they’re backwards-facing and always next to a window that’s so draughty, it’s probably not fair to call it a window anymore. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: get there earlier and get a good seat. But if we adults know where to sit to minimise and maximise our engagement, we should bear this in mind when designing our classrooms for our pupils.
In an English study involving 153 classrooms in 27 schools, researchers found that physical environment impacts a pupil’s learning by up to 50%. They pinpointed ‘light, temperature, air quality, ownership, flexibility, complexity and colour’ as the biggest influencers which accounted for ‘16% of the variation in pupils’ academic progress’. (Barrett et al; 2015).
Put yourself in your students’ shoes (or at least their seats)
It’s easy to speculate how these may affect your pupils in your class, but there’s no substitute for actually experiencing it for yourself. Judgements are far more accurate when people put themselves in ‘another person’s shoes’ rather than through empathising alone (Zhou et al, 2017). In the context of your learning environment, it means sitting in every seat and considering which factors could hinder or enhance learning. The following steps should help.
- Draw a quick plan of your class on the checklist here (although, to be honest, a piece of scrap paper will probably mean you’re more likely to do it).
- If you’ve got an interactive whiteboard or projector, put on a YouTube video at the volume you normally talk at. (This video of yours truly may or may not help).
- Do it when the school is active. If you have planning time, do it then so you can experience what your pupils experience.
- Consider these senses:
- Sight. Can you see the teacher at the front? Who are you facing on your table? Is the light ok? What displays can you see? Are the complexity and colour distracting to your attention?
- Hearing. Can I hear the teacher at the front? Can I hear noise from outside the class such as talking or traffic? What about dripping taps or pipes? Whose surreptitious chatter would I be able to eavesdrop?
- Smell. Yes, really. If you’re next to the toilet or a rotting lunchbox, foul air will grind your learning to a halt.
- Touch. What’s the temperature like? Is it always like this?
You can’t always make changes to the issues you identify, but tweaking what you will make a huge difference. Perhaps more important though, is the enhanced understanding of your students and their learning. If they’re not performing or behaving as expected, briefly experiencing what they experience will help you to make decisions to match your pupils’ needs. This way, you can truly consider things from your pupils’ points of view.
Lee H. (2006). To kill a mockingbird. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Zhou H, Majka EA, Epley N. (2017). Inferring Perspective Versus Getting Perspective: Underestimating the Value of Being in Another Person’s Shoes. Psychological Science. 28(4) p482–493
Barrett P, Davies F, Zhang Y, Barrett L. (2015). The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis. Building and Environment. 89. p118-133