Learning Environments

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This video was shared by Tom Whitford in response to a post by David Culberhouse aka @DCulberhouse. The post asks us to think deeply about how environment impacts learning.

As we question whether our instructional methods are fitting to our changing times we also have to determine if our physical environments are conducive to supporting learning in the 21st century. ¬†Environment is not about whether we are using rows or group seating in our classrooms it is about taking a deep and reflective look at the environment of our entire organization. ¬†And being able to decipher what message our organization’s physical environment is sending

Absolutely! The way we design our physical environments says something. We need to pay more attention to the physical environment that we ask people (kids are people too) to be in, while they learn.

What does your space say?

A few years ago I worked for a fairly well known non-profit. They did some amazing work in advocating and directly helping women and children. They also had this policy and practice around the counters in their office spaces. The counters were all over 4 feet high and had additional glass barriers on top of that. The message was very clear. It said we are afraid of you and we sure as heck don’t trust you. I did some digging and sure enough the counters were in response to one incident when an angry and mentally ill client jumped the counter. They didn’t understand that by sending the message through their environment that “you scare us” they were most likely increasing the likelihood of having people act out. They were also making it hard for their staff to be the respectful and caring people that they were.

The emotional environment

I recently had to pick up one of my grandkids at her middle school. It was awful. I felt like I was doing something wrong just by being there. There is a massive empty space at the entrance that looks like it might be used during lunch and other breaks, but as this was class time there we no kids. The main office was just off to the side of this space and like most school offices, it was built like a fortess. I have been in correctional institutions that were more and inviting than this school. (Corrections folks know about the impact of environment on behaviour.)

The real challenge with this particular grandkid pickup event was the emotional environment set by the office staff. I went to the window and there were two staff chatting at he back of the room and one sitting at a desk near the window. They did the office staff stare when I approached. You know the one. The look that says, “we see you and will get over to you when we it’s convenient for us”. No smile, not even a neutral expression. A definite  message though. The visit went downhill from there. I understand the need for vigilance and child safety but is alienating the majority the best way to go?

Signs that say welcome

The other story I have about environment and messages relates to parking spaces. I had a meeting at a school district office recently and there was literally one space for visitor parking and it was really hard to find.  The sign for the one space said something like “Visitor Parking. Do not park in stall marked for staff. You will be towed.” How about something like “So sorry we only have one stall for you. Please use it so the tow truck stays away”. Both say the same thing but the message is very different.


The video at the top of this post describes an environment that is aligned with recent research on empathy and children.

Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez shows there is a relationship between child rearing practices common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies (how we humans have spent about 99 percent of our history) and better mental health, greater empathy and conscience development, and higher intelligence in children. (Science Daily 2010)

Narvaez identified several practices that may increase empathy, intelligence and overall well being in children.

  • Lots of positive touch: As in no spanking — but nearly constant carrying, cuddling and holding.
  • Prompt response to baby’s fusses and cries: You can’t “spoil” a baby. This means meeting a child’s needs before they get upset and the brain is flooded with toxic chemicals. “Warm, responsive caregiving like this keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years it is forming its personality and response to the world,” Narvaez says.
  • Breastfeeding: Ideally 2 to 5 years. A child’s immune system isn’t fully formed until age 6 and breast milk provides its building blocks.
  • Multiple adult caregivers: People beyond mom and dad who also love the child.
  • Free play with multi-age playmates. Studies show that kids who don’t play enough are more likely to have ADHD and other mental health issues.

Schools can’t provide most of these; parents and caregivers can.

Schools can create environments that promote interactions between children of differing ages and increase the number of adult caregivers that that children form attachments with.

The other BIG thing that stood out for me in the video, also related to the idea of grouping kids with multi-age playmates impacts how we learn. In the video they call this flex grouping and one of the teachers in the video talks about kids teaching other kids and how that helps them learn.

In a brain scan of a child doing four distinct learning activities – reading, watching, listening and telling – the brain activity is most active when the child is telling someone about that he had read or heard. Telling, explaining, showing, describing, teaching activates the brain and learning becomes deeper, richer and more connected, literally. Providing opportunities for kids to learn by teaching other kids should be front and centre in considering learning spaces and practices.

Horses and carts

One final word. In Tom’s response to Dave’s original blog, he offers us a glimpse into his wife’s mind more than her classroom. A new environment alone will not change learning. Teachers all over the world create warm and inviting spaces because their environment is a reflection of who they are. Great teachers with access to great environments are going to do great work. Great teachers in awful environments will still find a way to connect with their learners. But the best environment in the world will not make an uninformed or disconnected teacher great.