13 ways your classroom sabotages learning

CC - 13 Ways your classroom sabotages learningYou work hard on your classroom environment. You spend hours making displays, arranging desks, making and distributing resources and tidying – failure to do so leaves you at the mercy of senior leaders, policymakers and parents who insist it’s vital for learning.

The same people also judge you on the progress your pupils make and targets they meet. If any shortcomings are found, you’re hung out to dry through performance management.

What if the hard hours you spend following senior leaders’ directions actually limits learning? That would leave you in an impossibly difficult situation. Worryingly, it’s more than a rhetorical question: this post outlines 13 ways your learning environment could be working against you. Try them and give this post to your senior leaders when performance management meetings come around.

Problem 1: Displays steal your pupils’ attention.

In the UK, we spend up to 5 hours a week on physically administering our learning environments (for primary teachers – secondary teachers spend on average 2.7 hours) (Richards and Choudhoury, 2017). However, in a number of studies, classroom displays have been linked to distracted pupil attention and poorer learning outcomes (Barrett, 2015; Fisher et al, 2014; Plebanek and Sloutsky, 2017). That’s a lot of time teachers spend sabotaging their lessons.

Solution: reduce the number and complexity of your displays and use natural materials.

Problem 2: Grouped layouts = chattiness and disruption.

Grouped layouts are far more likely to result in off-task behaviour than traditional rows. In one study, Wheldall et al (1981) found that using rows increased on-task behaviour by 16% and in another that grouped layouts’ ‘rate of disruption was three times higher’ than rows (Wheldall and Lam, 1987).

It stands to reason: schools encourage grouped layouts because they’re good for collaboration (under the right circumstances). A major part of collaboration is communication. Therefore, grouped layouts will encourage chat and social distractions – great if you want it, awful if you don’t.

Solution: use rows for focused, independent work.


Classroom Layout and Behaviour
Groups are great for chatting, but much less so for focused, independent work.


Problem 3: Grouped layouts ≠ collaboration

After the previous point, this would seem counterintuitive. Just as leading a horse to water doesn’t guarantee any drinking, grouped tables don’t guarantee collaboration. This is for a number of reasons. First, when in groups, pupils often ‘socially loaf’ – that is they let others do the work for them (Karau and Williams, 1993). Secondly, as discussed earlier, grouped tables mean that the pupils are more likely to talk but it’s hard to confirm whether they’re talking about the task or the latest gossip (Gillies, 2016; Slavin, 1989). In my experience of being seated in groups on training days, it’s a mix of social gossip and what’s happened on the TV.

For collaborative learning to succeed, you need to ensure a few things.

  1. Decide whether collaboration is the best way to learn the concept you’re teaching.
  2. Plan and communicate a goal to each group (Slavin, 1989).
  3. Plan the structure of the group and how they’ll be held individually accountable – consider allocating roles and how they’ll be held accountable (Gillies, 2016; Slavin, 1989).
  4. Consider getting groups to compete against each other (Gillies, 2016).

Solution: set a group goal, make individuals accountable and make groups compete against each other.

Problem 4: Where you usually sit/stand, you can’t see disruption or children who need help.

How much of the class do you really see from where you usually sit or stand? The chances are, not as much as you’d like. Consider this horrifying quote:

‘After trying to give eye contact to students in each quadrant of the classroom, she realized that she always avoided looking at the left back section of the room. […] Through her fifteen years of teaching […] she felt sorry for the hundreds of students who had sat in that part of the room.’ (Marzano; 1992, 21)

What can you do to see more? One answer is to consider where you perch in class. Doug Lemov (2015) recommends standing in the corner or the room so the angle is much better – with only a small movement of the head, you can see much more. It’s important you can make eye contact with all of your pupils. Think: ‘if I can’t see them, they can’t see me.’

Solution: try perching in the corner of the room and make sure you can make eye contact with all pupils.

Classroom Perch

Problem 5: Outside noise is killing attention.

Outside noise can be an attention killer. If you’re by the playground and there’s a noisy PE lesson on or there’s a constant murmur of chat from the corridor, it’s going to disrupt learning (Barrett et al, 2015). More specifically, noise can impair cognitive functioning (Stansfeld and Matheson, 2003; Woolner, 2007) and disrupt reading (Evans & Maxwell, 1997; Woolner, 2007).

Doing something about this can be difficult. Closing the doors and windows may help, but it’s not always feasible (especially in the summer – see problem 8). Discuss these issues with your school community so others know the effect of their noise around the school and collective solutions can be found.

Solution: close doors and windows where appropriate and discuss the effect of the noise with the school community.

Problem 6: Messy tables and poor resources.

We’ve all experienced the frustration of the pupil who can never find a pencil or ruler or glue stick or book or piece of paper. It’s probably work avoidance, but pupils that can’t find things can’t get on with their work.

Often, it’s a result of messiness or poor organisation, which is understandable considering we’re in the middle of a workload crisis. However, messiness has been linked to distracted attention and poorer learning (Barrett et al, 2013; Barrett et al, 2015; Plebanek and Sloutsky, 2017; Lemov, 2015).

As keeping your room tidy takes a long time, get the pupils to tidy and use photos of what you want the end product to look like to speed up the process.

Solution: Get the pupils to tidy, using photographs to model expectations.

Tidy, organised classrooms make classroom management easier.

Problem 7: It’s hard to move around your classroom.

Classrooms aren’t all made equal. Most classrooms (especially in the UK) were built for a different age and possibly for hobbits. However, a squashed up classroom is a recipe for disrupted learning. If a child needs to get out of their seat for some equipment or to help someone else and the chairs are squeezed together, communication and shuffling of chairs are bound to occur. This will disrupt the pupils being asked to move but also provide a spectacle for other children to look at. Therefore, use layouts that make the most of the room. Where possible, push tables to the walls so there’s no dead space. It’ll mean pupils are much less likely to disturb others.

Solution: push tables against the wall where possible and use layouts that maximize space.

Classroom Layout - Table against wall to reduce dead space

Problem 8: Extremes of temperature sabotage learning.

Schools are both the hottest and coldest places I’ve ever worked. In the winter, classrooms could double up as like walk-in freezers and in the summer, they’re stiflingly hot. Either way, temperature affects the quality of learning. In one study, a reduction of temperature from 25 to 20 was found to significantly improve task performance (Wargocki and Wyon, 2006) and another found that each 1℃ rise in temperature lowered pupils’ maths test scores (Haverinen-Shaughnessy and Shaughnessy, 2015).

Although classrooms aren’t often amenable to controlling temperature, there are a few things you can do. Try cooling the classes by creating shade, close blinds, allowing a breeze through open windows or fans, turning off PCs and other electrical equipment and avoiding strenuous exercise.

Solution: Cool the class with shade, allowing a breeze, turning off electrical equipment and reducing vigorous exercise.

Problem 9: Poor air quality and ventilation

Air quality and ventilation significantly affect learning. In one study, ventilating and cooling a classroom during a lecture improved memory recall test scores by between 5.4% and 8.7% (Murakami et al, 2006). Perhaps more concerning is the damaging effect of poor air quality on our pupil’s health. Classrooms with raised levels of bacteria, dust and allergens are prevalent and aggravate asthma, increase allergies and transmit illnesses (Daisey et al, 2003). This plays havoc with your attendance figures and when a pupil’s not at school, they’re not learning.

There are simple solutions. Allow ventilation by opening doors and windows and using fans so air can circulate. Removing pollutants such as mouldy fruit in a lunch bag or by keeping dust to a minimum will help. You probably won’t eliminate all air quality issues, but it will help.

Solution: Allow ventilation by opening doors and windows and using fans. Remove sources of pollutants.

Problem 10: Lack of naturalness in your class.

‘Links to nature’ are associated with positive pupil outcomes. Even though their findings were only weakly suggested by their data, Barrett et al (2015) explain that environments with an abundance of plants and window that offer green, natural views could help to enhance well-being and boost grades.

Therefore, placing pot plants around the classroom and using natural colours and materials such as Hessian backing on your displays (which could also make them less distracting) are quick, cheap fixes.

Solution: place pot plants around the room and use natural materials (e.g. Hessian on the board).

Problem 11: Your light is blindingly bright or depressingly dull.

When you’re driving, you have a sun visor to block bright light in the day (and maybe some stylish sunglasses) and a range of lights to use at night. You couldn’t drive effectively without them. Classroom lighting is similar. How many times have you had to open or close blinds as the day wears on or struggled to had children who can’t see the board for the glare? This can cause disruption where pupils are uncomfortable and ruin the flow of any lesson. Poor lighting has even been linked to headaches, absenteeism and mood (Woolner et al, 2007).

Changing the type of lighting could help. While natural daylight has been shown to benefit pupil achievement (Woolner et al, 2007), good quality, adjustable flicker-free lighting and blinds that effectively block light will be very beneficial.

Solution: natural daylight, high-quality blinds, and flicker-free, adjustable lighting will reduce the effects of poor lighting.

Problem 12: Your pupils are sat in awful places.

We’ve already heard how air quality, light, temperature, displays, clutter, noise and naturalness influence pupil attention and learning (Barrett et al, 2015; Murakami et al, 2006). The problem is, you probably don’t know where in your class these issues are a problem.

Try sitting down in each seat. Take a note of the:

  • noise
  • air quality
  • light
  • ability to hide (from the teacher)
  • temperature.

Then, make changes as appropriate. For example, move tables away from the radiators if they’re too hot or move pupils away from drafty windows if they’re perennially cold.

Solution: sit in every pupil’s seat to find out which ones are good and which ones are dud. Adjust your layout accordingly.

Problem 13: Your uncomfortable furniture disrupts behaviour.

Before every staff training day at school, I know I’m going to get a bad back. There’s something about spending all day on chairs designed for 7-year-olds that makes a day’s training deeply unpleasant. It’s the same for your pupils too. They’re spending hours of their day sitting on the same chairs whatever their height, size and weight. This not only puts them at risk of health problems later on in life; using the correct size and type of furniture can lead to improved sitting positions and on-task behaviour (Woolner et al, 2007; Knight and Noyes, 1999).

There’s often not a lot you can do about the furniture in your school unless your senior leaders are happy to finance better tables and chairs. Being mindful of the effects of poor furniture will help you to adapt your classroom where possible and adjust where you sit your pupils.

Solution: Buy more appropriate chairs and tables and be mindful of the effect of poor furniture on behaviour.


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, 118-133.

Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning. Building and Environment, 59, 678-689.

Daisey, J. M., Angell, W. J., & Apte, M. G. (2003). Indoor air quality, ventilation and health symptoms in schools: an analysis of existing information. Indoor air, 13(1), 53-64.

Evans, G.W., & Maxwell, L. (1997). Chronic noise exposure and reading defecits. The mediating effects of language acquisition, Environment and Behaviour, 29(5), 638-656.

Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children: When too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological science, 25(7), 1362-1370.

Gillies, R. M. (2016). Cooperative learning: Review of research and practice. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(3), 3.

Haverinen-Shaughnessy, U., & Shaughnessy, R. J. (2015). Effects of classroom ventilation rate and temperature on students’ test scores. PloS one, 10(8), e0136165.

Knight, G., and Noyes, J. (1999). Children’s behaviour and the design of school furniture, Ergonomics, 42(5), 747-760.

Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of personality and social psychology, 65(4), 681.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0: 62 techniques that put students on the path to college. John Wiley & Sons.

Marzano, R. (1992). A different type of classroom: Teaching with dimensions of learning. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 21.

Murakami, S., Kaneko, T., Ito, K., & Fukao, H. (2006). Study on the productivity in classroom (Part 1) field survey on effects of air quality/thermal environment on learning performance.

Plebanek, D. J., & Sloutsky, V. M. (2017). Costs of selective attention: when children notice what adults miss. Psychological science, 28(6), 723-732.

Richards, N., Choudhoury, A. (2017). Teacher Workload Survey 2016. Department for Education.

Slavin, R. E. (1989). Cooperative learning and student achievement. The Education Digest, 54(6), 15.

Stansfeld, S.A., & Matheson, M. (2003). Noise pollution: non-auditory effects on health, British Medical Bulletin, 68, 243-257.

Wargocki, P., & Wyon, D. P. (2007). The effects of moderately raised classroom temperatures and classroom ventilation rate on the performance of schoolwork by children (RP-1257). Hvac&R Research, 13(2), 193-220.

Wheldall, K., Morris, M., Vaughan, P., & Ng, Y. Y. (1981). Rows Versus Tables: an example of the use of behavioural ecology in two classes of eleven‐year‐old children. Educational Psychology, 1(2), 171-184.

Wheldall, K., & Lam, Y. Y. (1987). Rows versus Tables. II. The Effects of Two Classroom Seating Arrangements on Classroom Disruption Rate, On‐task Behaviour and Teacher Behaviour in Three Special School Classes. Educational Psychology, 7(4), 303-312.

Woolner, P., Hall, E., Higgins, S.,McCaughey, C., & Wall, K. (2007). A sound foundation? What we know about the impact of environments on learning and the implications for Building Schools for the Future. Oxford Review of Education, 33(1), 47-70.

3 thoughts on “13 ways your classroom sabotages learning

  1. Dan you are usually one of the instigators of the chatty gossip on training days!!
    On a serious note perhaps if we as adults aren’t always as engaged in what we’re being taught it’s not surprising that children aren’t either.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There are two very good points! I can’t deny my penchant for titillating gossip on training days (much like any other day!) as many will attest. 😁
    You’re also right that if we, as educators, don’t buy into what we’re doing, the pupils probably won’t either. They’re remarkable barometers of mood and motivation and it’s very fair to say that we can’t effectively hide our emotions from them.


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