Good trainers "own" the room by using focused classroom design

When was the last time you took a hard look at your classroom design from the students' point of view? Bruce Maples discusses how important it is to make sure your classroom promotes learning instead of distractions.

In this series of articles, Bruce Maples discusses classroom management. In Part 1 he provided several tips for establishing yourself as the “head of the class.” In this column, he tries to open your eyes to how the classroom environment affects your students and your success.
Cluttered room, cluttered mind
“Cluttered room, cluttered mind” sounds like an aphorism your grandmother might have used, but it’s really true. If your classroom looks junky, students will unconsciously expect your teaching to be unorganized and cluttered. If the room design is outdated, you are setting up your students to expect that the equipment and teaching will be similarly out-of-date.

A subtler problem is that of focus. Remember that some of your students will be primarily visual learners. Those students will be more affected not only by your slides, but also by any visual stimuli in the room. If you are not a visual learner, then you may be simply insensitive to or unaware of the competing visual stimuli in your classroom.

Are there posters and pictures on the walls that have nothing to do with your class? Are there any notes on a marker board from a previous class? Are there magazines in a rack to one side?

Depending on your seating arrangement, you should consider having a “focal wall,” usually at the front of the room, which you intentionally keep clear of anything not related to your class. You may be able to have two focal walls: one at the front where the whiteboard and the projection screen are located, and another on one side with posters, butcher paper notes, and other visual learning tools and cues.

Ultimately, your goal is to manage the room in such a way that no matter where the learners look, their attention is drawn back to the task at hand.

Put your seat in the chair
Turn your attention to the seating arrangement. Obviously, the first consideration is to be sure that all students have unhindered sight lines to any place you expect them to look.

Don’t stop there, though. Are the students too close or too far apart? Close seating encourages side conversations, and may make some students feel cramped. Distant seating discourages collaboration.

Can you, the instructor, move freely about the room? You need to be able to walk behind and beside every student easily and unobtrusively. If there is a place in the room that you cannot reach, be assured that your most needy and/or disruptive student will sit there.

Are the seats in rows, a circle, or a U-shape? There are advantages and disadvantages to each. It’s a fact that the farther students are from the instructor, the less attention they are likely to pay in class. If you have a room of, say, five rows, you must be able to move to the back of the room while teaching to neutralize this problem. A U-shape can be ideal, in that all students are on the front row, but this seating arrangement takes the most space.

Are you going to be doing any teamwork or any collaboration? Will you have students form teams where they are, or will you have them move to another part of the room? Will your ability to rearrange a room be constrained by network connections or the amount of equipment involved? Think through these issues, and remember that an extended time of movement can be disruptive.

Don’t forget to put the room back for the next instructor, unless you have checked with him or her to see if it is okay to leave it rearranged.

Open your eyes
Finally, look at the room from the eyes of the student. Consider the following questions:

  • What is your impression as you come through the door?
  • What quality of teaching do you expect from the teacher in this room?
  • What style of teaching do you expect?
  • Does the room look “pleasantly business-like and excited about learning,” or like “just another boring computer class”?

Sit in one or more student chairs and ask yourself the following:
  • What strikes you right away?
  • Where do your eyes wander?
  • Do you naturally look at the focal wall?
  • Can objects or events outside the room easily distract you?
  • Do you feel distant from or close to the teacher?

The good teacher is constantly striving to see the room, the materials, and his or her own teaching through the eyes of the student. Take the time to see the room as a student, then be assertive about doing what it takes to make your classroom the best you can make it. Own the room.

Bruce Maples is a trainer, writer, and consultant living in Louisville, Kentucky. His latest project is a manual on classroom management for crowds at football games, for which he is carrying out research at various facilities this fall.

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