The Subtle Ways Classroom Layout Affects Learning

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Elementary school student busy doing assignment in classroom.
Photo: Odilon Dimier/PhotoAlto/Corbis

Try to think back to your, say, fourth-grade classroom. Was there a lot of light? Could you easily hear what your teacher was saying? If you were that sort of kid, was it easy to hide in the corner and not participate? If you’re like me, you probably don’t remember a lot of the specifics (I’m drawing almost a complete blank here), but a new study in Policy Insights From the Behavioral and Brain Sciences lays out the many ways the physical layout of classrooms can help or hinder learning — some of them rather surprising.

To be sure, some of them aren’t surprising. The researchers sum up a bunch of previous work that suggests things like insufficient lighting, poor air quality, and loud ambient noise are all associated with less efficient learning. And, of course, these issues all have a race and class element — it is not wealthy suburban schools that have broken air conditioners and dungeonlike classrooms.

Things get a bit more subtle and surprising when it comes to the physical layout of an individual classroom:

• You know those posters with various facts and motivational mottos that adorn many classroom walls? In at least one study, kindergartners performed worse in a room with lots of posters, probably because they’re rather distracting (it may be that as kids mature, this is less of an issue).

• Subtle indications that teachers and authority figures values girls’ contributions and abilities, such as the equality award displayed in one experiment, can help girls concerned about gender-based prejudice perform better. In another study that took place in a virtual-reality classroom, “When the room featured either a photograph of former President Clinton or no picture, men gave speeches that were significantly longer and rated as better than women’s,” but “when a photograph of Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel was displayed … the gender differences in speech length and quality were eliminated.”

• As for minority students, displaying the right sorts of materials is tricky. If it’s done in a token-seeming way, it will backfire and make the minority students feel worse, and on the other hand, if the classroom only highlights minority students and their contributions, majority students then feel left out. So indications of diversity function best when they’re “framed as all-inclusive (e.g., including both displays of majority and minority groups).”

This line of research is clearly a work in progress for education researchers. A lot of it comes down to really subtle decisions that can be bungled by even well-intentioned educators.