Designing a new classroom

Upon arriving for the first day of a new job, I sat by myself, for the first time in my new classroom, Grade 4B, in my new school, K International School Tokyo.

In anticipation of that moment, I applied attention to classroom environment as a crucial element of Learning Experience Design. Several interesting articles have been published recently on this topic, including Classroom design can boost primary pupils’ progress by 16% and The Perfect Classroom, According to Science.

While following CISC 2015 – the most inspiring symposium I didn’t attend, I was inspired by a classroom layout concept shared by Brian Curwick.

It closely resembled my own thinking about the importance of collaborative teams in learning. I augmented this idea with the need for a balance between private, collaborative, and presentation spaces.

Empowering pedagogy

Last April, I was pleasantly surprised by this tweet announcing a twitter chat on the topic of environment in empowering pedagogy:

// document shared in the tweet, ‘The Environment’ (Chapter 8 of Empowering Pedagogy For Early Childhood Education), and Making Your Environment ‘The Third Teacher’, another article shared within it, have both been enlightening as during my deliberations.

The graphic below from ‘The Environment’ is an ideal reference in this process.

Also included was a quote which resonated strongly with me:

‘The path of learning and development is more like a butterfly than that of a bullet.’ Jim Greenman

Learning shouldn’t have a trajectory, but rather a heading.

Although these Reggio Emilia inspired resources focus on early childhood learning and I will be teaching Grade 4, I think the concepts and strategies are absolutely applicable, particularly in promoting engagement.

What are the ‘hidden treasures’ for nine year olds? They still literally need things to climb, sand to dig, and water to pour. But they should also play with increasingly sophisticated concepts. And they should do it together, so perhaps many of their treasures are the ideas and feedback from each other, as Constructivist pedagogy suggests.

Design perspective

// rethinking schools and classrooms provide inspiration. The DesignShare website contains many interesting illustrations to consider. Of particular interest to me were their pages about the Learning Studio and Home Base and Individual Storage.

Jim Greenman’s publication for Beyond the Journal, Places for Childhood in the 21st Century, inspires an ethical and moral dimension to create learning spaces which ‘encourage competence, provide comfort, and accept individuality.’

In the article, How UDL can get you to personalized learning, David Gordon describes considerations for goals, methods, materials, and assessment can promote the Universal Design for Learning recommendations of:

– Multiple means of engagement (affective)
– Multiple representations of content (recognition)
– Multiple means of action and expression (strategic)

‘When applying the UDL framework, goals should be decoupled from the means to achieve them so that teachers can effectively plan to provide multiple pathways to success.’

Physical reality

Even with all of this to consider, the actual cuboid room and traditional furniture and materials within dictate the design of the learning space.
Fortunately, the room has significant natural light. Unfortunately, it illuminated years of dust and grime that demanded my attention before any theory could be considered.

While dusting and washing, I excavated all of the ‘stuff’, such as binders, plastic drawer units, rolls of butcher paper, etc, to directly in front of the projector screen. This helped to guarantee that once it was all sorted and relocated, a large open space would remain which would serve as a whole group presentation and interaction space.

My immediate goal was to design a space with three zones:

Small group collaborative
Whole class presentation/interactive

Our private space is the smallest, consisting of a classroom library under the bright windows and soon, colorful foam mats for floor seating.

The small group spaces are my priority. I arranged individual student desks into groups of four (one group of five) around the perimeter of the learning space, each with its own bookshelf to store resources including encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesaurus, student work in progress trays, and some their other materials.


Through proximity, I believe that students may enjoy a greater sense of connection to and responsibility for their learning assets. They will also have a voice in deciding exactly how their spaces are used, empowering them to act as designers themselves.

While promoting cooperation, this arrangement also prevents distraction, as the space between the groups is maximized.

The center of the room contains an open space for whole class interaction. When the desk groups are pushed closer to the walls, there is enough room for the entire class to form a Community Circle with their chairs, or to create a sort of amphitheater environment for viewing presentations and media.

Digital environment

Our fourth teacher is online. Using Moodle and other online tools, I expect to enhance our cooperative and collaborative learning.
However, that is a topic for another post.


Have I designed a space to achieve my goal to include private, collaborative, and presentation spaces?
We have a private reading area under the windows, albeit tiny and exposed. Yet there is warm natural light and colorful foam mats on order to further brighten it. There may be a solution to creating more of a ‘nook’ feeling that I will try to revisit as I see how the students utilize the space as it is.
The priority of this layout is to facilitate collaboration. Placing bookshelves adjacent to groups of desks occupies valuable floor space, but it can also mean increased access to resources. Observation of the students will determine the success of this theory.

With some easy rearrangement, the open space in the center can become large enough to serve as a work area for larger projects, whole group meeting area, and audience seating for presentations.

I’m quite happy with how the room turned out, although I can see how custom made furniture would make it look stylish. Everyone wants a bit bigger room, but I haven’t felt cramped at any time. Often while pursuing inquiries, students ask to move into the corridor anyway, which makes me consider that perhaps it’s a mistake to think of the classroom walls as boundaries at all!

Published by

Bart Miller

Father, Teacher, Composer, Philosopher

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