COVID-19 Website Notice. In order to comply with emergency communications regulations, we are required to provide a link to the following website before proceeding:

Your 21st century learning environment: design, don’t decorate

| April 10, 2017 | 0 Comments


What should the ideal learning environment look like for the 21st century child?

When we reflect on how much the world has changed in the last few decades,1 we are faced with the challenge of ensuring that the instruction we offer responds effectively to the ever-changing demands of the 21st century. Contemporary learning spaces have evolved from just the physical space to include social spaces. The ideal learning environment should enhance the child’s ability to respond optimally to the challenges at hand, as well as to those that may be faced in the future.2 In this age of globalisation and swift technological development, it is the joint responsibility of parents and educators to nurture communication skills, critical thinking, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. A learning environment needs to be designed as opposed to decorated as, ultimately, the environment needs to address the child’s natural curiosity and instinctive yearning for exploration.

To cultivate a culture of collaboration, reflection, discovery and meaningful dialogue, the comprehensive physical learning environment should take into account:

• space for whole group as well as breakaway group discussions • reconfigurable space for collaborative work

• seating areas arranged in such a way that they allow for eye contact with peers and the teacher

• areas for active inquiry, investigation and wonder, as well as quiet spaces for reflection

• instructional materials that are easy to access.


Mathematically literate students demonstrate the capacity to “formulate, employ and interpret mathematics”.3 Ultimately, children should understand that maths can be used to solve real-life problems and to understand important issues. The physical environment for mathematics learning should therefore include:

• instructional materials organised in a way that allows for easy access

• a storage area for maths manipulatives4

• a maths working wall.5


Literate learners need strategies for interpreting the constant flow and receipt of images and information. In addition to this, they need to be able to understand the concepts of bias and perspective in the written and spoken word.

The physical environment for literacy should therefore include:

• a literacy working wall6

• a class library with a wide selection of texts and genres

• spaces for the children to read, write, talk and listen

• resources, such as thesauruses and dictionaries, that are easily accessible.

When designing the social environment…

Effective learning comprises the assimilation of new information, coupled with the social processes of collaboration and negotiation. Education researchers concur that we need to integrate both the aforementioned concepts into the learning to optimise learning.7

I have identified five key components of a rich learning environment below:

Encouraging real-world problem-solving

The significance of the real world in a child’s schooling is made visible and relevant when they are given opportunities to solve real-world problems. Posing questions and entering into dialogue to make sense of information aids children in staying on task. It also helps children to persevere in their efforts to understand and solve problems.

Strategies to support the creation of learning environments conducive to real-world problem-solving could include:

1. creating intellectual spaces for students to engage in rich talk about their thinking and learning

2. posing visible thought-provoking problems that connect to students’ experience and life outside of school

3. displaying personal and curricular targets, as this will provide opportunities for powerful discourse and amplify the suitable use of non-fiction texts and learning materials.

Build self-sufficiency

Self-sufficiency is based on the belief that one possesses the capacity to learn. This is based on a positive view of the content and skills at hand, as well as on the belief that one can master these. Some ideas for a learning environment that promotes self-sufficiency might include a teacher who actively seeks to:

1. pose and display questions that excite children

2. encourage, prompt and support all children to participate in class activities, by using verbal as well as wall-mounted encouragement

3. ensure that all children have a talk partner and space to discuss and, where necessary, defend their thinking/strategies with each other

4. validate children’s thinking with a range of cues

5. show children that mistakes are a chance to develop and to deepen understanding.

Child-led solutions and explanations

When engaging in dialogue, the child shifts attention from the product to the process. Posing questions helps to clarify thought processes when children are uncertain of concepts. By the same token, posing questions helps to consolidate what the child already knows, and using the correct types of questions could lead to a deeper understanding of the existing knowledge. When dialogue is centred on what the child needs to discover, then it reinforces the fact that all the work is related and forms part of a bigger picture, as opposed to learning mere content in isolated boxes.

Furthermore, meaningful dialogue aids children in seeing that there is a range of ways of viewing, interpreting and evaluating content. Working walls or the classroom walls in general could be populated with examples of questions that children could use a reference, either independently or when collaborating in groups.

Student voices

Every classroom and learning space needs to be conducive to meaningful dialogue. Dialogue is so much more than just engaging in some form of conversation with the teacher. Students interrogate each other’s ideas and elucidate their own, thereby deepening the conceptual understanding of the group.

Dialogue contributes to robust learning through:

• discussion – information-sharing, exchanging of ideas, collaborative problem-solving, accountable talk, where the objective is to lead students toward an acceptable answer or solution

• dialogue – students listen to each other and reflect on each other’s ideas, thereby working towards a common understanding

• instruction – how to perform a procedure, use a strategy or solve a problem is modelled by the teacher

• rote – constant repetition through the drilling of facts, routines and ideas

• recitation – recalling of information.

Learning through collaboration A collaboratively established learning fosters feelings of safety and belonging. The children compile their own set of ‘golden rules’ for how they will interact with each other in the shared space.

These could include:

• We always listen carefully and try and understand what the speaker is saying.

• We always show respect, even when we disagree with each other.

• We always take turns, and we make sure that everyone has a turn.

• We always share our ideas and help our friends to understand.

• We always respect each other’s property.

Therefore: Planning a learning environment should be a deliberate, intentional effort that takes into account the contributions of all those who will work in it – children, teachers, teaching assistants and parents.

Your point of departure as a teacher is always to examine your beliefs and philosophy about students’ social/physical/ cognitive development and their learning needs. Ask yourself:

• Does the learning environment reflect the values identified by the school as important?

• Does the physical space encourage students to push their learning and deepen their understanding?

• Does the environment mirror an image of the student that conveys potential and the capacity to learn?

Reflect on what happens when students enter into the environment and interact with it. Ask:

• Does the learning environment emit a sense of wonder and encourage inquiry?

• Does the learning environment allow for students to have big ideas, share those ideas and then act on those ideas?

• Does the learning environment encourage students able to take responsibility for their learning?

• How might students communicate their ideas about their learning environment, including what changes they would like to see made?

Co-plan the environment with students prior to learning happening.

Ask them:

• Does the learning environment make students feel that they are engaged, included and respected?

• Can students see themselves reflected in the learning environment?

• Does the learning environment encourage students to interact freely in a safe and personally meaningful way?

Facilitate the adaptation of the environment based on student input and teacher observations. Ask:

• How do you provide materials, documentation and time to enable students to delve into their thinking?

• Does the learning environment promote layered thinking in mathematics and literacy across time and space?

• Does the learning environment allow for the flexible use of space, materials and learning opportunities?

Ensure that the learning environment celebrates and respects students, families and communities.


• Does the learning environment reflect the diversity of the students, families and communities represented in the school?

• Is the learning environment warm and welcoming, inclusive and safe?

Observe and reflect on the learning environment you have created. Ask:

• Does the learning environment contribute to a multisensorial learning experience?

• Does the learning environment allow for choice, and the free sharing of ideas? 

René Fahrenfort is a Year 5 teacher at the International School of Cape Town.

References: 1. See, for example: 5684f68c0cf21caddb9c4971 and a25d-11e5-8d70-42b68cfae6e4 and literacynumeracy/inspire/research/CBS_ThirdTeacher.pdf. 2. See, for example: military-child-initiative/resources/Best_Practices_monograph.pdf. 3. See, for example: 4. See, for example: 5. See, for example: 6. See, for example: of-creating-learning-environments-the-third-teacher-book/.


Category: Autumn 2017

About the Author ()

News posts added for Independent Education by Global Latitude DMA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *