Throughout my language teaching career - and you’ve no doubt encountered the same issue - deciding how to plan activities has been at times amazingly easy, on other occasions unpleasantly difficult.

Having a good idea of how we want our classes to unfurl over the course of a series of lessons is great, but, assuming you’re like me, we perhaps don’t always give enough consideration to the physical size and shape of the classroom as we should.
While we might instinctively understand that the physical shape and size of our classrooms dictates how the class infrastructure is arranged, we also need to understand that these factors should influence our choice of activities; both now and with some thought towards the future of teaching and learning. Before we get down to the business of moving desks and chairs around, we need to have a clear vision of what the room will look like and whether this will facilitate the activities we want to use.

The flow of the language classroom

Every teaching space has a particular energy and feel to it. These little differences can make or break an activity if you haven’t factored the room into your planning. Here are a few preliminary questions that we might like to ask about any given room we are given to teach in. I see these issues as ‘universals’, affecting everyone. As you read through, consider how these issues influence your teaching spaces:

  • Do you have enough seats for everyone?

That sounds too simple to even bother considering, doesn’t it? You’d be surprised.

  • How movable is the furniture?

If you want to rearrange the tables or get students to move their chairs, to what extent is this possible? Sometimes these are in a fixed position: when this happens it definitely affects what you can do.

  • How mobile are you?

I run around like a madman during some lessons and hate it when I don’t have room to do so. For some activities you need a central position for demonstrating what you want to do, or just for delivering instructions effectively. Where is that space in the classroom?

  • Where is the board?

While this may become less of a focal point as history moves forward, but for now the board, be it chalk, white or electronic in nature, is still of paramount importance. So, how often are you going to use it? If you have several points of focus in the room, students need to be able to see all of them without straining their necks constantly.

  • How would you distribute materials?

How can you get paper/other materials to all of the people in class at approximately the same time? Of course, it’s nice to give students the responsibility of helping in distribution, but sometimes you’ll want to get this over and done with quickly. Where are the channels of distribution that will enable you to do this?

  • Are there windows in the room?

A lack of natural light can put your students into a very strange mood sometimes and has a remarkable effect on whether certain activities work or not. A general rule of thumb is this: nothing works quite as well in a room without windows. Conversely, a room with blinding sun is terrible should you have any need to use a projector.

  • To what extent can/will the students engage with one another?

There are times when you want students working in groups and there are times when you want the students to either listen to you speaking or to give their attention to some other interlocutor. Naturally, if eye contact is needed, such as in a class debate or in practically every type of group activity, then eye contact you should allow. Can they move around enough to communicate with the person in question?

The room vs. the activity: who comes out on top?

If you’ve answered these questions, you’re off to a good start. Depending on the answers, you can now approach how you are going to use your room to facilitate learning. You are now faced with a classic ‘either / or’ situation. Here are my golden rules:

  1. Making the room work for the activity. Bearing in mind what you want to do in class, you need to think about what adaptations you need to make to the room to best facilitate the outcomes you’re looking for.
  2. Making the activity work for the room. If the room can’t be adapted, you need to think about what activities you can do within the constraints that the physical environment has placed on you. As far as I can imagine, such a philosophy will stand you in good stead both now and in the future.

The future?

What does the future hold for us? While we have seen much advancement in our understanding of teaching and learning - in the use of technology in particular - I’m inclined to imagine that formal teaching and learning will continue in some kind of classroom setting for the foreseeable future. In other words, we will continue to meet as teachers and learners in a setting specifically designed for dissemination and sharing of knowledge. With that in mind, I’d like to refer to a really good report that I found from the University of Oregon, which attempted to define the perfect classroom of the future, based on instructor and learner use. Their findings are comprehensive (and available as a PDF download here you can embed the hyperlink if you want http://uplan.uoregon.edu/Research/WhatMakesAGoodClassroom2011.pdf). Here are a few highlights:

  • Provide a shaped ceiling to create a sense of enclosure, maximize sight lines to screen, and improve acoustics.
  • Provide wall mounted light switches and a motorized screen and shade controls for easy access from podium.
  • Provide an integrated, quality sound system with even distribution to maximize student comprehension.
  • Provide ample space for instructor movement at the front of the classroom and throughout student seating areas.
  • Use sled base chairs and movable tables to allow for flexible use of space.
  • Provide lightweight, stable tables but assume table configuration will not change regularly.
  • Provide a white board wall. Avoid covering with a screen or use a full wall white board.
  • Provide evenly spaced electric wall outlets near student seating areas.
  • Provide a robust wireless connection.
  • Provide a clock, located for easy visibility from students’ and instructors’ perspective.
  • Provide color and interest on walls.
  • Provide visibility into the classroom from the hallway.

So, how do your contemporary classrooms shape up to this idyllic image? What changes are necessary to change where you teach now into this future ideal? Do you agree that teaching and learning will continue in specifically designed places, or is the notion of the classroom to become obsolete? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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