The 7 E’s of Classroom Design

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Choosing a bulletin board theme, arranging desks in rows, and creating a seating chart used to be the primary concerns of teachers as they prepared their classrooms for the beginning of each year.

As more and more educators are learning, however, the traditional classroom environment no longer supports the 21st century needs of their students. A purposeful classroom design takes the entire space and the multiple requirements of its occupants into account, which involves much more than selecting a colour scheme and posters for the wall.

Moving away from rows of desks (or even eliminating desks completely!) can seem overwhelming, but there are plenty of resources available to help teachers make the transition. It’s important to keep several things in mind while making your mental or physical blueprint so that you don’t lose sight of the important mission, which is to prepare students for the 21st century. As long as you keep these “Seven E’s” in mind, you will be able to stay focused as you re-design a learning space that is: efficient, engaging, educational, economical, expressive, equable, and empathetic.

01. Efficient Classroom Design

Classrooms never seem to be large enough, so wasted space should be at a minimum.  There are lots of clever ideas from teachers on ways to arrange furniture and find multiple uses for fixtures that can help maximise learning areas.

classroom design - 1 - desk towers

(Image source: The bits of Brit )

Desk towers, for example, can keep supplies close at hand for students so they don’t have to get up to retrieve them (greatly minimizing classroom disruption).  The above teacher found a way to include the plastic drawers inside each table group so they can access them quickly and also use them to store their cell phones when not in use.

This teacher pushed two mis-matched filing cabinets back to back and created a cute magnet board for her class.  Look around at the furniture available to you in your classroom, and think about what could serve dual purposes, or even be used in a different way.  You can add learning spaces to your room without increasing your furniture count.

If you have a closet in your classroom, take advantage of the door for extra storage using something like this shoe holder. (Also a wonderful way to keep markers sorted since the boxes always end up with the wrong colours anyway!)

And, don’t forget that you’ve got an extra large space above that can be utilised, too!

02. Engaging Classroom Design

What can you add to your classroom to “wow” your students?  How can you make them feel comfortable and inspired to learn at the same time?

When students get the opportunity to add their mark to the classroom environment, they are more likely to develop a sense of “ownership” that will transfer to their behavior and work.  Brittney Briggs offers some pointers for using your whiteboard to encourage interest and create a community in your classroom here.

Inspirational wall messages are eye-catching and convey what’s important in your classroom.  It doesn’t hurt to use bright colours, either!

Anything that invites interactivity will surely draw interest and give learning a sense of fun, like playing a vocabulary game with a basketball and hoop.

For those students who can’t resist looking at the clock, you can include a subtle reminder to pay attention.

03. Educational Classroom Design

Students can learn even from the room itself.  What can you include throughout the room so that, even when you aren’t directly addressing them they can still learn?

Here’s a creative way to display the alphabet!  

Sure, there are endless numbers of poster you can purchase to cover your walls, but static images lose their power over time.  Bulletin boards that teach with input from students will retain interest.  It also helps to capitalise on a social networking game that students enjoy while simultaneously practicing their vocabulary words.

Educational decor doesn’t have to be on the wall!  Using vinyl removable stickers is another way to teach.  You can write your own messages/reminders on them, or have students use them as personal dry-erase boards.

04. Economical Classroom Design

Let’s face it.  Teachers don’t have a lot of money to spend on new furniture and gadgets.  Here are some ways to repurpose dollar store items, or get funding for the purchases you are convinced will make a difference.

There are little things that you can do, like the straw pencil holders above, that can make a huge difference!  (Ever had bored students do pencil rolling races on their desks? More than a little distracting!)

Crates can be used for all sorts of things – from seating to storage. (Here are some excellent tips for spray painting plastic crates.)

If you have some frames “hanging” around, take out the photos and put in colourful paper to make instant dry erase boards to place around your classroom.

Many teachers recommend going to garage sales or thrift shops to find old furniture or other items that can be repurposed for classroom designing.  If you have a vision, though, that won’t be satisfied by using “found” objects, you can always use crowdfunding sites such as Donors Choose, Adopt a Classroom, or Class Wish.

05. Expressive Classroom Design

Students will connect with you if they know more about you.  Personalizing the room in small ways can communicate what’s important to you in a powerful way.

A few family photos and a carefully selected quote can convey to students how you spend your life outside of school and your own personal mantra. Literacy Loves Company offers “10 Steps to Creating a Zen Teacher Space,” here, with more ideas for setting up an attractive and organised work station.

Using memes in the classroom can help you to deliver expectations, while also telling your students that you have a sense of humour.  In addition, they can deduce some of your favourite pop culture icons.  Would a teacher who isn’t a Star Trek fan use this meme on his or her wall?

You can even use your classroom door to express your passions and welcome your students.

What you don’t do in your classroom can be just as expressive to students.  If you leave a few faded posters up year after year, add nothing to make a room seem less generic, or make little or no attempt to keep the room organised, students perceive that you do not care about your job or about them.  

06 & 07. Equable and Empathetic Classroom Design

One message that 21st century classroom design definitely sends is that educators have recognised that students don’t all learn the same way.  With versatile seating options and mobile furniture, classroom environments can be differentiated for diverse needs.  More and more teachers are experimenting with offering their students non-traditional choices for seating or options to change the actual blueprint of the room with mobile furniture that allows for independent, partner, group, and whole-class learning.  

In the above classroom, the teacher allows students to sit at desks, on the floor, at tables, or even stand in the back where she has set up bookcases that can also be used as standing desks.

Furniture with wheels and even dry-erase topped tables give students flexibility to collaborate in groups or work independently.

For classes in secondary school, like Yearbook, collaboration spaces like the one above give students plenty of options for working together as they sort through photos and articles to include in their project.  Yearbook teams planning writing, photography, design, and fundraising can take advantage of distinct groupings within the classroom as they work.

The Essence of the 7 E’s

More important than incorporating an amazing theme or painting baskets to match your colour scheme, 21st century classroom design is about making a space that addresses the needs of teachers and their diverse groups of students.  Few teachers have the luxury of building a classroom from the ground up, so they must work with what they are given or can acquire without breaking the bank – requiring a design that is efficient and economical.  With good planning, the design can be educational, but will do little to serve that purpose if it is not engaging.  With creativity and a strong sense of self, a teacher can make the room expressive of his or her own personality as well as priorities.  The biggest difference between today’s classrooms and those of the past, however, is the intention to make them more student-centered.  Even though rows of desks might have seemed equable in the past, they didn’t take into account the individual needs of students.  New designs give everyone the chance to learn the way they learn best, and reflect teachers who are empathetic to their students.

Think about spaces that inspire and motivate you to do your best work.  Use tools like Classroom Architect to plan your blueprint.  Search Pinterest for Classroom Design ideas or read a book such as Redesigning Learning Spaces.  For an incredible list of even more resources, take a look at Vicki Davis’ blog post on “epic” classroom design tools.  But, as you come up with a plan, keep the 7 E’s in mind so that you don’t spend more time on fonts and bulletin board paper than you do on making your room an awesome place to learn.


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Terri Eichholz teaches gifted students in Kinder through 5th grades in San Antonio, TX. She's been an educator for 24 years, and is a proponent of guiding students to create, problem-solve, and personalize their own learning. You can read more on her blog, "Engage Their Minds," or follow her on Twitter (@terrieichholz).

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