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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Creative Learning Environment

By Peter DeWitt — November 28, 2011 4 min read
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If educators are not promoting a respectful climate in a creative learning space, then they’re just moving furniture.

Today, I saw two first graders working together to open a thermos. Although this is a situation that happens every day in schools across North America, it was nice to watch them figure the situation out together. I was standing next to them but they did not ask me to open it for them. First graders think I’m pretty strong! Instead, one held the thermos while the other one turned the top. A great thing happened...it opened and they did not need adult intervention to accomplish the task.

As I looked around the cafeteria, I watched students talking to one another. Some students were helping each other out with a problem. Perhaps it was tearing off one of those pesky seals on cheese and crackers, or handing a friend a napkin. I realized that I was witnessing an environment of learning, which did not involve teachers. Students were learning from one another and working collaboratively.

Classroom Environment
Every summer before the school year begins, teachers work hard to make sure that their classrooms look perfect for when their students arrive. They hang up posters, arrange the desks or tables in a way that will inspire cooperative learning, and create bulletin boards that will motivate students to think.

It is important to create spaces that make our students wonder. Day dreaming every once in awhile isn’t a bad thing if good ideas come from it. A great classroom environment is so important to the educational process. With an increase in testing and performance, a creative classroom environment is one of the only areas left where teachers and students have freedom.

As much as the summer may be the first opportunity to get the classroom prepared, it is certainly not the last. The quest to make sure a classroom is student-centered is never ending. When spending a year with students, classrooms should be rearranged on a monthly basis. Physically moving furniture sends a symbolic message to students and colleagues that classrooms are a place that should never remain stagnant.

Collaboration should be a part of every day instruction. 21st century skills ask students to be able to work with others and educators need to understand that collaboration is a skill that all students need, regardless of the path they choose for their future. With so many connections happening for us on the internet and in person, working with others is a necessary skill.

Many teachers organize the classroom to allow for both whole group instruction, as well as small instructional spaces, where students can work alone or in small groups. However, one thing teachers should do is make sure they get student input into where the physical classroom space is concerned. This collaboration between students and teachers helps students understand the important part they play in the classroom experience. Where do students think the tables or desks should be placed? Where would they like to see those small creative spaces where they can work alone or with a partner?

A creative classroom environment begins with making sure the class is inviting to students. It should be a place that will inspire imagination. Whether it’s incorporating a rocking chair for students to sit in while they are reading or using ball chairs to create a creative place to sit as well as a place that will promote good posture, the classroom environment is one of the most important aspects to any classroom.

In addition, the classroom environment is about so much more than just the physical space. If teachers are not promoting a student-centered learning environment where thinking and respect are some of the key ingredients, it doesn’t matter what the space looks like. If educators are not promoting a respectful climate in a creative learning space, then they’re just moving furniture.

Classroom Climate Starts from the Top Down
Students should feel engaged when they walk into their classroom. It’s a challenge that every teacher should be prepared to meet. It should be a challenge for principals as well because the building environment is what inspires each teacher to want to create that space within their classrooms.

Principals, in addition to teachers, should want to create a space where every student, teacher and parent feels that they can enter. Although there will always be parents who do not want to enter the school, part of the quest to create an inviting school environment is to try to get those parents to change their minds about schools.

Creating a creative learning experience takes a great deal of work but it also takes a team to complete the task. Students are an important part of that team. If teachers are not inspired when they walk into their classroom, their students probably are not inspired either. We are fortunate in education because we have the opportunity every day to make an impact on students. Being an educator offers us a reciprocal benefit because our students definitely make an impact on us and that is easily done when we create a respectful and creative learning environment.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.