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Your Ideal Classroom, by Peter W. Cookson, Jr.

Designing your "perfect" classroom with your students can be a creative and community-building opportunity

By now, you have been teaching for nearly half a year. You have learned how to manage your classroom, you have confronted the realities of the school, you have come to understand firsthand that learners have different learning styles and, of course, there is the reality of testing. You have become a professional educator through trial by fire.

You have probably observed that truly successful teachers are well grounded in their subject matter, dedicated to their students' learning and willing to experiment with different teaching strategies. They are respectful in their relationships with parents and are supportive of colleagues. One of the elements that tie these qualities together is the concept of classroom design.

The guide on the side
In this ideal learning community, work flows throughout the classroom, materials are ready and abundant, students feel safe and there is a logic to the classroom organization that enhances learning. In previous eras the logic of classroom design was built around "chalk and talk." Students sat in rows; often their chairs and desks were bolted to the floor. Students were required to focus on the teacher whose major pedagogic aide at the front of the classroom was the chalkboard. The implication of such a classroom design was that knowledge sprang solely from the teacher.

In recent decades this rather rigid view of learning has been altered dramatically. If we think of the teacher more as the "guide on the side" and as a coach, then classroom design changes dramatically. In the well-designed classroom there is an unspoken curriculum. Not the hidden curriculum that separates and divides students but the shared curriculum that draws students into community, celebrates learning and recognizes excellence.

Much more than posters
When you design, there is a lot more to it than rearranging the chairs or purchasing some colorful posters. Your classroom is a cognitive, emotional and ethical template. What is the first thing students and their families encounter when they enter your classroom? How about an exhibit of the students' recent work? Are there sufficient books so that a student in a spare moment can engage in casual reading? When I was teaching I always kept books on my desk so that the students would understand the value of language. I would make sure that they saw me reading for my own pleasure from time to time.

Is there a place in your ideal classroom where students can meet and feel secure? Because students do learn from each other, they need a consistent environment where they can have face-to-face interactions.

In the ideal classroom computers are much like finger-paint. They're easy to access, there is no right or wrong answer and they're a lot of fun. Computers are extensions of the mind and children understand this intuitively. I truly feel that computers ought to be integrated into the learning community in an organic manner so that children can log on and log off using the computer individually or in groups. Computers can also help students to individualize to their learning.

Don't forget the desk
Another element of the ideal classroom design is the teacher's desk. Traditional teachers often like to place their desks front and center. The not-so hidden message here is "I'm in charge." I am not the least bit naïve for the need for leadership and discipline in the classroom. In the ideal classroom, however, I believe that there is shared leadership and an emphasis on community. When we speak of a community of learners, we need to think carefully about how to create community and what we mean by learning.

If we engineer our classroom design backwards, from the point of view of maximizing student learning, we can begin to think in terms of communication, reflection and reinforcement rather than miscommunication, rote learning and punishment. I would say that many of the discipline problems we encounter in our classrooms stem, in part, from poorly designed classrooms where students can sometimes feel like an alienated audience rather than an engaged community.

A living laboratory
As you think about your career and the nature of your professional commitment, consider treating your classroom as a creative opportunity for mapping the learning process for both you and your students. Visit classrooms in your school and other schools. Identify schools that are thinking "out of the box" about design. Have your students draw pictures of how they would like their classroom organized. Talk to your principal about the resources you need in order to maximize your students learning opportunities. Make sure that your students can participate in the creation of their own learning environment. Invite parents to offer their suggestions and make contributions that will enrich their learning experience.

In other words, be active, assertive and enthusiastic. Treat your classroom as a creative and community-building opportunity and turn those boring four walls that look so much like a box into a living laboratory of learning.

Peter W. Cookson, Jr. is the founder of TCinnovations and the Dean of the Graduate School of Education of Lewis & Clark College. He is also founder of the Center for Educational Outreach & Innovation at Teachers College.

Professional Development