Why we let our students create their own classrooms
To give children a lesson in how to learn, one school invited its primary students to redesign their own classrooms on the first day of term. Despite some chaotic scenes, students gained ownership of their learning space and developed valuable collaborative skills, explains Carole Parker, IB Primary Years Programme Coordinator at St. Andrews International School, Sukhumvit 107 in Thailand.
Children arriving at school on the first day of term do not usually expect to find bare walls and unorganised classrooms. But that is exactly what greeted them at our school, an international school in Thailand – not because their teachers had neglected to prepare but because the school wanted to give them a practical lesson in metacognition.
Metacognition is increasingly recognised by educators as one of the most effective pedagogies in a teacher’s arsenal. According to Bransford, Brown and Cocking, “Metacognitive practices increase students’ abilities to transfer or adapt their learning to new contexts and tasks.” (Bransford, Brown and Cocking, p.12 Palinscar and Brown, 1984, Scardamalia et al. 1984, Schoenfeld, 1983, 1985, 1991).
Metacognition also helps students to understand their strengths and weaknesses and to know when they need to research an area more or find assistance to acquire new skills. An Education Endowment Foundation guidance report published this year detailed why it is so important for schools to focus on this (see bit.ly/MetacogLearn).
Yet getting children to reflect on and take charge of their learning – especially young children – isn’t always easy. Hence our school’s challenge to our students: how would you organise your classroom to encourage you and your peers to be better learners?
This was not a fake challenge: the students were allowed to reorganise the rooms how they saw fit and, if they could justify their decisions, then the changes would stay. So how did they do?
The first thing we noticed was how differently the students in different age groups approached the task.
The Year 6 students settled down to design their learning space on paper. They researched elements of classrooms, discussed it all in a variety of groups and then decided collaboratively upon the drawn design they wanted to try, which actually ended up being an amalgamation of several designs. They moved not a thing before this final decision.
The Year 1s and 2s, however, wanted to physically move everything at once, and on day one that is exactly what they did. The classrooms ended up with doors to adjoining classes being blocked, one teacher could not move her chair because she was so hemmed in with furniture, while the other half of their classroom was empty except for “the stage area” (“that is where we are going to act out our stories”).
On day two, after reflecting why they had to go around by the main door instead of going through the linking door, the students adapted their design and the blocked door became usable again and the teacher had room to breathe. But the stage stayed…
Some students, much to the surprise of their teachers, decided that they would learn better if their tables were in rows: their classroom resembled one from the Victorian era by the time they were done.
However, again, after reflection – especially about the ease of moving from one activity to another and having to push past their classmates – the classroom was adapted away from a row structure. All classes decided that a book area was a must, as were a variety of sitting areas, different sized tables, and the availability to sit comfortably on the floor to learn, or to stand, depending on the activity.
Students also learned that it was important to make decisions with your friends and your teacher, as the space was to be shared.
What were the teachers thinking while all this was going on?
Some teachers were more open to the idea than others. Two teachers put up large “under construction” signs on their doors so that even before the students had entered the room they were brimming with questions, whereas others were less enthusiastic. After all, they were giving up control of how their classrooms were set up and, for some, that was a big thing to hand over.
However, the teachers’ comments were all positive concerning the learning they witnessed happening. They stated that, apart from the cognitive aspects involving the children discussing what they felt would enhance their own learning, the students also learned that their contributions were being valued and how to reflect on their mistakes.
Teachers said that it “gave the students a sense of ownership over their learning space”, and that “it was interesting to discuss what some children valued as displays and how relevant/irrelevant they were to their learning”.
Essentially, by trusting our students we gave them the gift of learning how to learn, and they are now invested in the spaces in which they work.
And they all stuck with it. These classrooms are still student-designed. It is, however, an ongoing process, with students reflecting on their designs daily. Some of the children are now investigating lighting in the classrooms and have already looked into having music and a different smell in the library. What will be next – timetables?