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Hechinger Commentary

Physical Environment

A classroom is not just a room. It is an environment. Just as the conditions of natural environments determine which species thrive or fade, the classroom environment influences what learning occurs there. As Judy Johnson, Executive Director of the Cotsen Family Foundation, says in her commentary on this video, the environment can be a teaching tool. Like any environment, the classroom conditions can be altered—for good or ill. Teachers usually control aspects of the physical environment—how the desks are arranged, what goes up on the walls. What teachers do and what classrooms look like is affected by many other factors, among them: school, district, state and federal policies; the financial resources available; the neighborhood of the school; and the children themselves.

Thinking about classrooms as environments will sharpen reporters’ observations and help them frame questions. What do you notice about these classrooms?

The timing of your classroom visits matters. These videos were taken in May. These rooms would have looked quite different at the start of the school year. The walls of a classroom are like an advertisement for what goes on there. They’re also a record of students’ progress.

The physical environment also is important in secondary schools. But older students take up more space and so there are fewer options for creating different work spaces. That doesn’t mean all the desks need to be in rows, particularly in classes where discussion and small group work is essential. It’s unlikely you’ll see student work on display—year-round schedules, classrooms used by more than one teacher, multiple levels of the same classes all make putting work on the walls difficult or impossible. When you’re in a classroom, though, look for physical cues as to the focus of the lesson for that day and what students are expected to learn or accomplish.