Open Thinkering


Effective learning and the physicality of the classroom.

Royal Marine Recruits Rope Climbing at CTCRM

Like many teenagers not-yet-able to drive my main mode of transport before the age of 17 was my trusty mountain bike. As soon as I had the use of my mother’s car, however, the bike stayed in the garage and the tyres stopped being topped-up with air. McDonald’s Drive-Thru’s was in! Cycling to a friend’s house to play Playstation was definitely out.

Upon returning to my parents’ house after my first year at university, however, I decided to ride up the Northumbrian coast, a trip of around 25 miles. When I got back to my parents’ I had to drag myself up the stairs to go in the shower. I can remember being half-way up the stairs on the phone to my then-girlfriend (now my wife) moaning that I’d used muscles that had evidently atrophied through lack of use. The moral of the story? Different activities use different muscles. Physicality is context-dependent.

This week I’ve been in a classroom environment whilst learning about PRINCE2 and have found the experience physically draining. It’s a magnified and time-compressed version of the situation I found myself when I started at JISC infoNet last year: sitting down for long periods of time requires a different stamina than other occupations. Teaching involves, or at least can involve, a range of physical movement that I took for granted.

It can be a different story for students, however. Traditional classrooms, with their constraints on movement and sometimes-random demands on attention, magnify issues around stamina and physicality. One thing extremely noticeable to me this week has been the amount of glare caused from hour after hour spent looking at Powerpoint slides featuring a white background. Granted, I suffer from migraines so the combination of fluorescent lighting and bright projectors isn’t great for me, but by the end of the week I was drinking strong coffee and popping ibuprofen and aspirin in preparation. No wonder many pupils arriving for lessons at the Academy I used to work would be downing energy drinks on their way in!

Counter-intuitively, then, it seems that to stay still for long periods of time can be more physically taxing than moving about often. Coupled with randomly-timed demands for attention (“What was the question?”) and artificial environments (bright lights, desks in rows, little movement) it’s no wonder that many young people decide to vote with their feet and do something more fun.

I’m still in formal education as an Ed.D. student at Durham University but it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a classroom environment where content is the focus and will be tested in an examination situation. Although this week’s course hasn’t been too bad, it’s reminded me of just how disempowering it was at school to be faced with random interruptions to learning. Whether because of poor behaviour, a pedant’s endless questioning or unspecified amounts of time for activities (and between breaks), traditional classroom learning is frustrating. I’m used to more ADHD-friendly environments.

What I’ve taken for granted in my adult life is being surrounded by good design as a consequence of deliberate choice. I spend money on the things I deem important. If I were (heaven forbid!) Head of a school the two things I’d be focusing on would be the physical environment and the diet of young people – two things that Michael Gove (UK Education Secretary) has no clue about. As Levitt and Dubner explain very well in Freakonomics, ‘people respond to incentives’. Modifying the physical environment is one of the easiest ways to Nudge people towards more effective learning.

Finally, and at the risk of pimping the (albeit free) resources of the organization for which I work, JISC infoNet has a number of infoKits, including one on Planning and Designing Technology-Rich Learning Spaces. This is in addition to Futurelab‘s excellent resources (such as the Thinking Spaces workshop resource). Definitely worth checking out.

Image CC BY-NC UK Defence Images

6 thoughts on “Effective learning and the physicality of the classroom.

  1. I’m with you all the way! I never fail to be amazed by schools who say one thing but then go on to give a completely contradictory message through the environment they create. “Every child matters” – but only some are celebrated on displays/assemblies. “We put the needs of the child first” but the toilets are disgusting and there are no drinking water fountains.

    I think Headteachers should put themselves in the position of some of the students in their schools and really try to experience a whole school day from their perspective! The dead time waiting for admin tasks, the ineffectual nagging/moaning, lack of control, assemblies etc etc!

    1. I read something recently that indicated the CEO of a mobile phone company had no idea how poor his company’s network was because engineers knew where he lived, his route to work, etc. They simply ensures his signal was 100% wherever he went and he became cocooned from reality.

      In the same way, even Heads who *do* get out there and track students never see the reality due to the sheet force of their presence.

    1. If only! We know that youngsters experience sensory and information overload at times – why not allow them to ‘dip out’ for a while at such times? It beats disrupting others.

  2. Here here Doug, you wouldn’t believe how frustrated we are as architects to hear Gove say that the school environment doesn’t matter. We know it’s not true, he knows it’s not true, teachers and children know it’s not true.

    I never cease to be amazed at how sophisticated and insightful very young children (6+) are when asked about their built environment.

    Gove seems to think that because he doesn’t have much budget to spend on school environments, (and because NuLabour focused on buildings), the solution is to keep repeating that they don’t matter.

    So, thank you for providing this great example of your own learning experience.

    Cheers, Pascale

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