The Classroom I want to Visit (and someday have)

You walk in and are immediately taken by the number of students either focused and working independently (often with ear buds in) or quietly collaborating. The teacher is difficult to find at first but then you find her, huddled around a whiteboard working out a few different ways to approach a problem involving polynomial equations. The furniture is easy to move and comfortable. Small tables for small groups, single desks scattered around the room, with oversized chairs scattered around as well. The walls are neutral colors, not the standard white that bounces fluorescent light almost as well as a mirror. As you look around a brief, friendly, argument erupts in the corner over why long division of polynomials is more pure than synthetic division. The teacher then stands up, walks around the room checking on students, snapping pictures of student work with her iPad. She then projects some mistakes she found students had done and the class discusses the thinking that led to them. There are rugs, art on the walls, a laptop cart in the corner, and a projector screen towards the front (or what you assume is the front) of the room.


I read an article recently called “Why the 21st Century Classroom May Remind You of Starbucks”. This got me thinking, again, about learning environments. This topic sparks a few questions in my mind:

  • What are environments that I prefer to learn in?
  • What makes an environment conducive to learning?
  • How do you develop an environment that can be easily transitioned from independent work to collaborative work to whole class work and everything in between?
  • How much is my classroom layout getting in the way of learning?

To at least partially answer these questions I don’t think Starbucks is a bad model, in some respects, for what a great learning environment looks like. Obviously Starbucks is more conducive to independent learning, but I like some of the big ideas.

Learning environments should be comfortable

I can see that if you wanted kids to avoid falling asleep you would make the seating uncomfortable. I’d rather make the classwork engaging enough that students don’t fall asleep. I’m not saying we should all work in bean bag chairs. I’d hate doing real work in a bean bag chair. But I’m not everybody and I don’t hate the idea of having options like that for students that do prefer to work in the type of seating.

And comfortable learning environments go beyond just the furniture. Rugs, art, music, lighting, and the teacher’s attitude all contribute significantly to the environment.

Learning environments should be flexible

As technology changes the way content is delivered and the way that students interact with content, the classroom should change. The amount of time a teacher spends lecturing to the entire class should probably be decreasing. This means that the work done by students in class will be more fractured. Some students may need to watch instructional videos. Some may be writing blog posts. Some may be working on a group project. Some may be using computer graphing technology. The teacher may need to work with some students that have been absent. The teacher may need to give a lecture to the entire class.

This is the future of learning. The class setup needs to support this.

Learning environments should be safe

I don’t mean that students shouldn’t feel like someone is going to physically hurt them, although that is obviously true. I’m saying that students shouldn’t walk in and feel like they’re in a place where mistakes are not valued, their opinion is not wanted or their thoughts are better kept to themselves. This doesn’t have much to do with a “Starbucks classroom”, but I thought it worth noting.


In all seriousness, I want to visit a classroom that has these characteristics, so if you teach in Michigan and have a classroom environment similar to the one I described, then I’d love to observe a lesson!

Any other thoughts on classroom environment? Anything I missed? Drop a comment below!

8 Comments

  • Dan Reply

    When I need ideas on learning spaces I always go to Brad Wilson (@dreambition) and Ben Gilpin (@benjamingilpin). Their expertise is in elementary classrooms but there are always ideas that carry over into the high school setting.

    Recently I’ve also been reading a book called Make Space (Doorley and Witthoft). It’s aimed at collaborative businesses but it screams “use this in a classroom!”.

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      Those two are definitely great people for advice! I will have to check out that book. I have noticed some books on business have overlaps with education.

      Thanks for reading Dan, and I hope your school year is going well!

  • Heather Sugrue Reply

    I love this post! You have captured much of what I try to accomplish in class but most days, I don’t think I get anywhere close to this ideal. However, the newest classroom at my school, being built as a prototype, has lots of furniture that works towards this goal. We have two huge comfortable bean bags, 16 desks that can be pushed together in a variety of ways, or stand alone and have ample workspace for a student’s notebook as well as their computer. We have one wall of windows and the other three walls are whiteboards (which I love) but I do still want more art. Your post has managed to capture a lot of ideas which are on my mind a lot this year. Thanks for sharing!

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      I think it would be a blast to prototype a classroom like that! Keep us posted on how that room works out.

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      I’d love to prototype a classroom like that! Keep us posted on how that works out, good or bad.

  • Carolina Vila Reply

    Nice post! I turn my lights off sometimes because I think the kids need a break from the school’s harsh lighting. Sometimes the little things matter as much as those big things.

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