democratizing physical classrooms

democratizing the physical classroom.jpg

The physical classroom is often seen in purely functional terms, with the desks organized to keep students from talking, and the walls, if used, mainly to post rules and notices, or to reinforce the main content taught. Democracy requires deliberative processes, and education for democracy requires discussion in classrooms. Classroom discussion should not always be led by the teacher, because students need to develop the capacity to converse and disagree and resolve differences on their own, and with support. This process can be facilitated by configuring desks in a way which encourages face-to-face interaction between students. Teachers can try different configurations of desks depending on the types of activities which they are involving students in. The use of floor space should not be taken for granted, and can be adapted to a variety of purposes. 

Teachers should also view the walls of their classrooms as an opportunity to involve students more actively. Apart from reinforcing democratic content with wall displays, teachers should also consider allocating space on the walls for students to display their work or share other ideas. These types of adjustments to the physical classroom help to give students a sense of ownership and responsibility, and help them to view the physical world as something that they participate in. 

Getting there from here

Get away from: My classroom

Work towards: Our classroom

Get away from: Making all the decisions about the physical use of space yourself 

Work towards: Involving students in decisions about how classroom space is used, when, and for what purpose 

Get away from: Assuming desks should always be in the same positions

Work towards: Arranging the classroom in different ways according to the needs of different lessons and activities

Get away from: Keeping desks in rows to reduce the temptation for students to talk to one another

Work towards: Having desks in arrangements like small groups or horseshoe or round table, which are conducive to discussion, debate, or other activities

Get away from: Maintaining ultimate control over all aspects of the environment

Work towards: Giving students a sense of ownership for certain spaces in the classroom, such as a space to display their work, or a display board that students could cooperatively manage

Get away from: Doing all cleaning and organizing yourself, or leaving cleaning up to custodial staff

Work towards: Involve students in caring for their classroom and taking pride in it, through helping to keep it clean and tidy

First steps: 

Refer to the classroom as belonging to the students, and encouraging them to pride and ownership for it. 

Think of the desk arrangement as something flexible and negotiable. For each learning activity, consider what configuration will most support your learning goals: rows, small groups, large groups, horseshoe shape, large circle etc. 

Designate a portion of wall space for student work. If there is not enough space for each child to have their own space, then have groups, in turn, come up with display ideas, and support them in developing their displays. 

Matthew Hiebert 2013-09-21