Setting Up Our Learning Environment


In Australia it’s that time of year again.  Many of us are faced with a blank canvas.  A beautiful (hopefully) empty room that will form the hub of learning for us and our students for the next year.  I can already see countless threads in the Facebook groups I follow in which questions are being asked about themes for these spaces.  Ideas about how and what you should set up in your classroom before the students step through the door on Monday February the 1st.  I a sure that there is a wealth of expertise in this community that we could share.


Here’s one of the walls in my shared classroom at Flinders Uni. There’s always room for visible learning

Just, as with most things are in education, learning environments are tricky things to plan ahead.  Many afternoons are spent ripping down displays and making space for next year’s (or indeed next term’s) learning.  Sticking up our favourite classroom posters and key terms, ideas, role models and anything that we want to share.  I guess that I was lucky that, for the first 10 years of my career, I had my own classroom.  I taught in the UK where it is normal for a secondary teacher to have their own classroom there.   When I started working in Australia and shared space with my colleagues, I still couldn’t resist taking space on the walls of my shared learning environment.  I still do it now, in the Higher Education setting I currently work in.

No matter what our cultural, socio-economic or architectural considerations might be, the research shows that getting our learning environment right is incredibly important.  So, what decisions do we need to take into consideration when we’re creating the perfect environment for learning?  What are the items, in your opinion,  that are essential to creating a rich, inspiring place to develop and hone skills, knowledge and understanding?  Let’s explore a very small smattering of research on the subject shall we?

Obviously, for the vast majority of us, we are limited by what we have in front of us.  Even if we’d love to demolish that wall, take out that worktop and add some lovely wooly carpet… the reality is that we have to work with what we have got and we are personally prepared to cover the cost of. As Alistair Smith points out in his work on Accelerated Learning we “inherit the physical circumstances in which [we] work. However, improvements, if limited, are always possible.” (Smith, 1996). There are countless simple, relatively easy ways in which we can choose to work with, or add to, that physical circumstance.  The big question is, who’s voice is most important in that decision making process whether that be furniture, visuals or more?  How much should we set up before the students even enter the classroom? Juliette Heppell talks about the importance of  “Voice and vote” and how it “is a really significant part of engagement, but also is a major part of getting the best from the spaces.”

I think we really should consider how much we influence a space before our students walk in.  It needs to reflect our passions, our teaching style, the key ideas for the learning ahead but it also needs to be owned be the other thirty or so (maybe more if you teach more than one class) people who will be working and learning with you.  We need to be ready to learn the minute that bell rings on the first day of term.  However, consider how much can you learn about your class (primary) or classes (secondary) by involving them in the creation or contribution of your shared learning environment. Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment (FFE for short) are an important consideration but so is tone, mood, comfort and the relationships that all of those things help to create between learners.  We really have to consider both don’t we?

FFE (Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment)

If you are faced with a typical set of desks, chairs and cupboards, what decisions can you make to start off this creative process? You need to learn how best your students learn and I’m guessing it won’t be in rows. Smith writes that “The worst room layout is one where desks are fixed and in rows and where movement between or around is inhibited by lack of space” That’s something really simple to address. It may seems daunting  moving desks and chairs but with a team of you (students and all) it can actually be quite easy.  I know, from experience, that moving furniture safely (even on an hourly basis, class by class) does not have to be an onerous task.  In most instances, after a few weeks of practice, my students could walk into my classroom and move the furniture, ready to learn in a couple of minutes.  They were used to that.  If you’e got smaller students you might need to consider how much and how your furniture moves.   What you don’t want to do is “limit the opportunities for small group work and for moving students around the class” (Smith 2006).


My favourite seating plan

If you don’t want to move furniture then how about looking at layouts which easily allow for students to change the way they work?  My favourite
is the horseshoe shape with a group table in the middle.  Students have the chance to simply turn their chairs to work with those behind instead of in front.  You can image how easy it is to create simple groups with two tables in (just with a little shove of some furniture) and there is always plenty of space around the edge to get to the working walls and the corners of the room.   Leave gaps between the rows (even where they connect at the back) so students can move around easily.

Some classrooms, who have had the benefit of re-design have made some impressive learning “Zones”  (Heppell, J, 2015) These include areas with Family Learning Tables, Tiered Seating, Attention Squares, Reading Zones, Three sided spaces and more (which you can read about in this PDF). Some of this is actually relatively easy to achieve in any classroom (even on a small budget) and I have seen colleagues bring in old couches, remodel furniture from IKEA and more.  In fact there are entire Pinterest groups dedicated to sharing these ideas.  I’ve seen many of our co-creators being creative with KMART and IKEA furniture and resources.  The Future Classroom Project from Woodend Primary School and lead by @jottewell and @jlambshed is a great example of how to involve your students in those little details.

I am a big fan of using visual reinforcement in my classrooms.  That’s what has resulted in my love of a good working wall. However, I agree with Smith that these shouldn’t necessarily be too static. Some of the content on my walls was placed there a long time ago.  Most of it changes regulatory, it grows, it evolves along with the learning that is occurring in the classroom.  When you don’t have your own classroom with walls on which you can pin these visuals then perhaps using learning mats is a good, flexible idea?  Or, you could head into a virtual wall space like or popplet.

Black Board door!

Kitchen door. Black board hack! If I can do it… anyone can!

There has been some movement over to the idea of writable surfaces. Chalk Pens on windows, whiteboard pen tables and bookshelves. All easily created with something sticky or a tin of paint.  I have to admit that I’ve even used blackboard paint on the back of my kitchen door at home!  A lower square for Mr T to draw and write on and an upper one for mum and dad.  It really is that simple and, in the classroom, it creates instant collaboration.  Avoiding that “fixed desks in a row” thing very easily.

What is most important, and is echoed throughout most of the research I’ve looked at in preparation for this post, is that we are all comfortable and open to learning.  The environment we are in obviously plays a big part in that.  We need to feel supported, safe and brave enough to take risks.  That’s the real key and it comes from far more than just FFE.  A learning environment’s key resource are the people within it.

Mood, Tone, Relationships

Many of us have experienced windowless, airless places (the book cupboard was my favourite place to hide and mark at one point!).  We know that environments without good lighting and great air flow don’t help us to concentrate let alone be inspired to be creative and exercise that brain muscle!  Experiments with the lighting. Open the windows (or get the air-con to pump in some cooler fresh air).  At a recent talk I attended where Professor Stephen Heppell was talking he spoke about his part in the design of our local architecturally designed Margaret Ames Center (Immanuel College) and how it has a built in system for flushing all of the air out of the building and replacing it with fresh every day.  His research in to the importance of air quality in learning is fascinating.  Check out the Learnometer if you’re interested in finding out more.  Either way, let that cool change in!  Bring in a plant or two to connect with outside (oh and remember to get someone to water it), take off your shoes… everyone take off their shoes!  Yes, ‘shoeless learning’ is a thing.  A thing that is well researched and shown to make a big difference.  It’s all about freedom to move, to learn and to be comfortable.

Let’s also not forget the importance of routine and ritual.  Those things make us feel safe, secure and give us something to be brave about.  Smith has many strategies in his work “Accelerated Learning in the Classroom” which fit well with this idea.  These include being welcoming, setting out expectations, previewing learning and allowing students to work out what they might know, show or do by the end of the lesson, giving breaks for brain gym, drum rolls and other break states, celebrating success and closing lessons with review, relaxation and visualisation (Smith, 2006)  He also a promotes a great list of music that you can use to promote a certain mood in your classroom and enhance the learning environment.

Metateacher Challenge #3

Screenshot of the meta teacher challenge for Term 1 2016I meant it when I said this was complicated stuff.  A whistle stop tour of only a small selection of ideas and look how much we’re thinking about already!  What considerations will you be making as you go about setting up your classroom this year?  What if you don’t have a classroom of your own? What then?  Let’s use this community to develop our understanding of all of this theory in the real world.
We’ve got a great Metateacher challenge set up on this very subject.  Why not share the images of your classroom as you develop your wonderful learning environments.  Let’s see what works.

Challenge Accepted!
Further Reading

cover225x225Heppell, Juliette. Designing A Learning Space When Students Dream Of Learning, Just How Good Might That Learning Become?. 1st ed. 2013. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.


julietteHeppell, S, M and J. Agile Learning Spaces A User Manual For Teachers And Students. 1st ed. 2015. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.


Smith, Alistair. Accelerated Learning In The Classroom. Stafford: Network Educational Press, 1996. Print.


Twenty Things Educators Need to Know about Learning Spaces


Creating the Conditions for Learning - David Price by Aaron Davis shared under CC License Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Creating the Conditions for Learning – David Price by Aaron Davis shared under CC License Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic


All other images used in this post, unless otherwise stated,  have been provided by Selena Woodward and are shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International


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